Sunday, January 29, 2012

Vinci the Puppy Squeals His Last

[Part 2 of the "Sketches of Kitsch" series]

ESTEBAN HAD NO CHOICE but to take the detour where the road block led the traffic, forcing him to fill the gasoline tank of the passenger jeep at another petroleum station where the prices were steeper than elsewhere. The military checkpoint choked the flow of vehicles in the highway, and the soldiers at the posts hung their rifles on their shoulders, ready to engage those who raise suspicion with the slightest miscalculation in maneuvering their automobiles. Esteban eased the jeepney through the space between the two metal barriers positioned alternately on either side. But before he could pass the first block, a soldier asked him to step out. An emerging panic bolted him to his seat. His knees suddenly recognized fear and anxiety.

He did not know how it happened, or how he became sheepishly obedient all of a sudden, but the voice that commanded him was enough to coerce the muscles in his feet to move as instructed. Before he knew it, he was back at his seat, his hands on the steering wheel, his hands faintly trembling, fingers shaking involuntarily, as if the ghosts of a distant and notorious time have briefly returned from the Cordilleras to haunt him, reminding him of his mortality and those he once delivered to their graves with his bullets that strafed through their skulls.

Silence fell over him. It was only after the gasoline boy haggled him to pay did he recover his senses. With a full tank, he drove the jeepney back to the right lane. The jeepney coughed its way for almost two miles until it wheezed to a halt by a curve where an alley joined the highway. Five passengers stepped out and a small man standing by the waiting shed literally climbed aboard the jeepney and sat at the farthest seat.

The line of cars behind the jeepney honked furiously, as though five seconds of delay would burn the rest of the lives of the drivers, their seatbelt fastened, latching them to what felt like a precursor of their life in hell. Esteban struggled to hasten the vehicle’s acceleration, but the clanking of the cogs and the disgruntled chorus of the engine valves would not favor his every maneuver. With the continuous assault of horns as the private cars blazed past his jeepney, Esteban lifted his middle fingers, followed suit by hurling three coins at the traffic.

The jeepney pressed through the curtain of thick black smoke left at the wake of the cars that raced ahead, momentarily rendering the windshield and mirrors useless against the hazy view. When Esteban was about to steer left at the university gate, three military trucks full of heavily armed soldiers cut the vehicle from moving to its course. The jeepney almost hit the rear wheels of the third truck.

“Putang ina niyo!” Esteban shouted, his indignation addressed to no one in particular. Four seconds of nothing. And as if nothing happened earlier, Esteban steered left, the passengers briefly stunned at the spontaneity of his virulent outburst, their apathy turning kaput after an unguarded strike against their moral indifference.

Several meters after passing at the gate, Esteban pulled over and stepped out. “Saglit lang,” he grumbled. He eased his way through a small field of low bushes by the roadside, spread his legs and unzipped his pants. He shivered. By his feet, the grasses received gushes of yellow that somehow felt like they sprinkled away his worries, phobias of a thousand names that have turned liquid so that his body can finally empty itself of his inanities.

Esteban zipped his pants, walked back to the jeepney, his legs on a minor limbo as he positioned his steps against the loose soil before the concrete pavement, and drove through the route he has taken ever since the enforcement of the new traffic scheme in the university. The sky was clear and the arid weather cast the buildings and trees aglow, the mix of heat and light adding to the resiliency of these creatures of the earth and human ingenuity. Cuevas Hall, the edifice where all young scribes suffer the intense rigors of literature for four years and sometimes more, towered on the right side of the road, a testament to how decades of academic turmoil and successive budget cuts can guarantee the structural comatose of any architectural design and the gradual atrophy of the minds that come and go in that institution.

Ahead, Torres Hall stood lowly between the twin acacia trees stretching above and across the lawn at its fa├žade. Students poured out the front door of the building, traversing the asphalt pathway that curved toward the academic oval where a separate lane for joggers and bikers has been designated. The jeepney steadily plied its route, passing by more rows of old buildings and trees that were equally ancient, their gnarled roots poking through and out the fertile cushion of the soil, their fallen branches minced by the weight of the private cars that make-up most of the university traffic. Esteban drove and took the sharp turn at the corner near where the chapel stood. There was a sudden bump, slight in force but disturbing nonetheless, and then a short squeal, not of man but of beast, a young canine, its leash suddenly entangled with its intestines, half of its body now severed from the other half, its little jaws gnawing weakly in its final bid to hold on to life.

The jeepney continued moving on its way until it disappeared in the distance.

Part 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Star Margarine

[Part 1 of the "Sketches of Kitsch" series]

DAVID SWEAT PROFUSELY after downing a small bowl of hot fish soup, his forehead glistening, reflecting a bit of light of the high noon in that perennially humid section of the city. A swig of cold water could only dampen his feverish discomfort as far down as his throat. Sensing the urgency of his movements, one of the lady helpers who stood by the cash register approached his table, gathered the eating utensils in a plastic tray, and handed him his bill. With his lunch over only a bit sooner when he began, he reached for his purse in his pocket and paid the tab. It was not a very bad meal, he thought, though he could no longer figure the taste of the tilapia on his tongue and its scaly texture on his palate. A full belly was his only reminder that he actually survived the meal.

“Eighteen after twelve,” he mumbled, keeping his eyes fixed on the wall clock as he felt the surge of adrenaline and blood in his neck, all the while knowing how little time he has left before his class begins. He had spent the previous evening reviewing his notes, cramming everything he can into his memory even though he knew quite well that succor was never to be had in his delayed diligence. Waking-up to the horror of a long exam about to crush his prayers was enough to burn his hope of surviving until the end of the semester. Three years into college and he has become only more vulnerable to the peril of becoming reduced into another tragic number in the social statistics. Maybe Applied Physics was not his cup of tea, but it was now too late to correct his mistake. His second long exam beckons. A miserable grade loomed closer than before.

David got up from his chair and wore his backpack. He rushed to the door and, in three seconds flat, he was out of Aling Nena’s carinderia and into the alley that joined the main road twenty meters ahead. In that small stretch where people elbowed and pushed through the midday frenzy, a field of hostile strangers seemed ready to kill for a vacant spot where they can exit the collision of bodies with minimal bruises. David trudged forward as if he was incognito, never minding all the limbs and torsos moving about in every direction, keeping them at bay with his arms until he was finally out of the rowdy mob. By the junction of the alley and the main road, there was a transitory calm. Maraming salamat po Congressman, the sign on the waiting shed heralded, complementing the vandalized face of the district representative whose crooked lips appear to have been captured in eternal but shameful bliss.

Almost two minutes and fifty private vehicles after, a jeepney coughed its way through the distant clearing and wheezed to a halt in front of the shed. After five passengers stepped out, David had to literally climb aboard. At four feet and nine inches from head to toe, everyone around him could pass for a modern Goliath. Not enough Star margarine, his mother would often quip during family reunions and community gatherings. It was her trivial attempt to justify his height, the genetic misfortune that it has been, even though his four siblings, all beyond five feet and four inches, had none of that golden spread since they were born. Ten years ago, David wished he was taller, so he biked his way to the grocery, bought a small tub of margarine, and finished the whole creamy goodness with exceptional ardor. By the time he was home, his ass was screaming the language of diarrhea. From then on, he never tasted margarine the same way again.

Sitting near the end of the vehicle, David placed his backpack on his lap. A few seconds after he got inside, the jeepney throttled and struggled to accelerate as though its engine was desperately trying to goad an ancient howl deep in its valves. Behind the jeepney, a row of cars hooted, urging the driver to step on the gas pedal, which he already did, except that the machine creaked like a medieval contraption about to split asunder from the weight of its own rust. Losing his wit for a moment, the driver cursed, his middle finger waving back at the motorists, and hurled three coins onto the cars that dashed ahead. But the cars continued to squeal with their horns, relentlessly discharging thick black smoke at the more primordial machines that stood in their way. David sneezed hard and placed his hand on his nose to make sure that it is still there.

When the jeepney was about to turn left at the university gate, three military trucks full of heavily armed soldiers cut the vehicle from its way. “Putang ina niyo!” the driver cussed to no one in particular. The commuters, mostly students coming from a generation of teenagers more sheltered than a recluse, suddenly looked pale as though all the blood in their face coagulated somewhere else. And as if nothing happened, the driver steered the jeepney to the left.

Several meters after passing at the gate, the driver pulled over and stepped out of the vehicle. “Saglit lang,” he grumbled. He eased his way through a small field of low bushes by the roadside, partly spread his legs and unzipped his pants. For a while, he seemed to have watered the plants with his nectar, showering the greens as though he postured like a generous donor to the ultimate cause of postmodern horticulture. With his back against the wind, he resembled a Renaissance man of the Malays waiting to be shot by the civil guards from some forgotten century when revolutionaries would spare not one of the conquerors and their kin on this patch of earth.

David could imagine the driver issuing moans of relief from where the man stood. He knew he was almost late so he decided to abandon the ride. He thought of walking toward the spot where the driver was relieving himself, handing his fare while the man was busy handling his passport for promiscuity. But upon realizing that he forgot to get his change after paying his lunch at Aling Nena’s carinderia, David decided to walk away instead, quickly but with dignified footsteps. God knows Hudas not pay, he recalled, but he was one who cannot be intimidated and coaxed by a mere sticker. He crossed to the other side of the road and disappeared in the throng of students passing, going, pacing with haste to wherever their feet will take them on that sunny day.

Ten minutes into his brisk walk and his phone rang. It was Melissa. She could not have been more untimely but David still answered her call. He had very few choices in life, and ignoring her call was not even one of them.

“Speak, mortal,” he declared while catching his breath, his voice without endearment, “or forever keep your silence.” By the time he was already in front of the Physics building, he hung-up, turned off the phone and threw it back inside his bag.

“Yawa!” David screamed at the hallway and proceeded to take his exam with a troubled mind.

Part 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5

Sunday, January 8, 2012

To Be Alive and Powerless

[Last part of the "Flights" series]

WHEN ENRICO TAN opened his eyes and first felt the surge of pain rioting through the veins in his temples, Abel was already gone. Enrico immediately tried to move but the duct tape held him back to the chair, straining him the more he attempted to break free. He pushed his limbs forward yet his feeble strength betrayed his will. Bowing his head in his desperate bid to regain his composure, Enrico saw a note stapled to his belt:

"How does it feel to be powerless while sitting on your throne?"

Unable to release himself from his momentary detention, Enrico surrendered his eyes to the sight beyond the windows. At first, there was darkness and the tens of light bulbs that glowed in the night. Then there was the sound of an airplane closing the distance between the sky and the earth, and another far whistling that signaled the departure of another flight. But something went strange.

Enrico thought his vision was deceiving him. His skull must have been handed a mighty blow before he lost his consciousness, or his brain must have shaken, rattled perhaps by what could have been an early appointment with death, six bullets probably sculpting his cranium like chisel digging through soft wood. But Enrico knew he was still alive. He remembered how Abel pulled the trigger six times, his grin accentuating the face of vengeance as he held the magnum, and yet not a single bullet darted out of the barrel of the gun. Looking down, Enrico observed his chest heave as he breathed. He was sure he did not die, or at least maybe not yet, but the view outside defied the limits of logic. Almost thirty years of doing business in that office where the windows faced a stretch of the runway, this was the first time he was able to witness the absurdity of flight.

It was not that the planes kept coming and going. It was that they were coming and going in a strange way.

At the same time when Enrico found himself struck by the peculiar incident, Abel stood at the end of the tarmac, his wet shirt flapping with the wind left at the wake of each plane that ascended and descended ahead. Abel, too, was initially surprised, but his shock was readily replaced with sentiments that ferried his heavy heart to a state of earthly bliss. He could somehow see the airplanes float in the air until they start to disappear far into the ebony sky. With his fingers, Abel wiped away the mist and drops of rain that smothered his eyeglasses. With the lenses back in front of his eyes, he saw some of the other planes grinding to a full stop near the opposite end of the airport. He did not fully understand what was happening, and, somehow, he was delighted he did not.

I think I saw it, too, although I am wordless as to why it happened, but I will narrate a brief account nonetheless: things were in reverse. The airplanes moved differently. They raced through the runway with their tail first and the fuselage behind until they have begun their steady climb, still with their tail leading the way toward greater heights. Even those that descended behaved in the same perplexing manner; the rear section was the first to safely make contact with the concrete, followed by the screeching of the tires beneath the cockpit. Other than that, everything else was normal.

We know that Enrico is still alive. He remains ensconced on his luxurious throne even though his force is too weak to help him liberate his body, his fingers even, from a helpless predicament. Try as he might, his efforts to break free and his unrelenting grunts can only go as far as making him abruptly defecate in his corporate pants, soiling cotton and linen with pure organic fertilizer. Enrico may want to scream as he had done for the last thirty minutes, but the chambers and acoustics of the hallway could do no more than reduce his cries into whimpers, petty howls drowning in the thick noise of the turbine engines of the airplanes pushing back and forth the airport. We know those things, but we are just about to learn where Abel is to be found, for he was no longer standing at the end of the tarmac. I will tell you where he is:

Sitting alone by a table for two, Abel moistened his lips, his tongue gently wetting his dry mouth and the little cracks that line the edges of that tender but thin flesh where four summers of solitude have tempered an unspeakable drought, each a season of yearning beyond recognition. He could see the short distance ahead through his eyeglasses. Everyone seemed busy, even with doing nothing.

A woman whose face is caked with powder and rouge hurriedly passed by for the fifth time, dragging with her stubby arms and fingers a heavy luggage that looked as though she had the rest of her life in tow, her shoddy dreams rammed inside what limited space the bag could offer. It was Martha. She has finally returned — from Hong Kong or from the grave, Abel could not really tell. She did not notice him. He was sure that their eyes met several times but she continued passing by, as though he was not there at all. The moment he got on his feet and hurried to catch-up with her, she was gone, her momentary presence failing to leave any evidence to prove that she was there together with the unfamiliar people that crowded the place.

A few minutes into his solitude in the company of strangers at the lobby, Abel began to trace his steps back to where Enrico was, a king imprisoned in his own little cellar of power, a bourgeoisie who has now fallen asleep from his futile attempts to escape. Upon reaching the office door, Abel slid his hand into his pocket and searched. He found all six of them nestling inside a small purse. One by one, he picked and loaded each into his instrument of justice.

Within ten seconds, six shots were fired, their sound muffled by the noise of flights, of airplanes straining up steep slopes in the air with their tails first and nose last.

Part 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5

Saturday, January 7, 2012


[Part 4 of the "Flights" series]

AFTER ALMOST AN HOUR of heavy traffic, rain began to ease through the dust and smoke rising from below the skyline, cleansing the concrete arteries of the city with each patter while little dark pools started to lengthen one minute after another. As sunlight strained through the rolling clouds, the neon lights flickered to life, casting their faint glow against the bleak afternoon and the cars that lined the highway. The lanes seemed impenetrable, but by the time there was enough space to squeeze through the alley adjunct to where all the vehicles crept, the driver steered to the right and the taxi was suddenly free to plot its own course. The detour took Abel to unknown roads and narrow streets flanked by tenements and houses he imagined heaven has long forsaken, as though their salvation long due has been delayed time and again by some contagion hatched in the bellies of the underworld where bureaucrats thrive with wine and fellow swine. By the bank where the river has swollen, children basked under thunder and lightning, their bodies nourished by a hundred midday suns and nurtured by a thousand tasteless meals on better days. For the next thirty minutes, the cab scaled a number of corners eternally sealed from the strokes of wealth, until, at last, the control tower revealed itself in the distance.

Abel got off close enough to where the center of the terminal imposed itself upon those who lay their eyes on it, gesturing as if to marvel at a monument for people who arrive as fast as they leave. He walked along the concrete lane toward the entrance ahead, beseeching the memory of nine years ago with his hand on his scar. He began to hasten his pace, his pulse quickened by his motions and a gut instinct of things to come. When he was already before the automatic sliding doors of the entrance, he paused. The doors opened, parting to offer a view of the lobby, but he did not move. For several seconds when the interior light illuminated his skin, his shirt loosened its hold on his chest though his jeans, much like the socks on his feet, remained as wet as the rest of his body. Cold air escaped through the doors and brushed against him. Finally, the glass panels slid back to their position, shutting his way toward the crowd inside. But Abel did not care. After all, it was the wrong door for the right destination.

He walked straight along the walkway, past the parking lot where the vehicles caught the last glow of sunset, and at the metal fence where a small passage led to the backdoor of the hangar. The feeling of having been able to return after being forcibly separated from his work sunk in him a sense of triumph and treachery. This is where his career has been molded, only to be taken away on short notice after twenty years. Abel sulked in his reverie. On his first day as technician — a misnomer, for later on he would assume different roles along with others at the behest of the superiors — the company was in a promising start. At the time, the government has just relinquished its hold on the airline monopoly, and the company had the means to take the stead. The contract was worth billions, a sum enough to send the momentous sale rippling across the pages of history books, even if the real value of the stocks was in a quicksand. Abel was not the one to complain then. He had a family to support, notwithstanding a newborn to raise through the years. It was enough that his salary could lift him from the gallows of hunger. Principles, it seemed to him then, have no place in a starving belly.

But that was then.

Past the crates and cranes, the planes at bay for maintenance, the few men waiting for their next overnight task, out of the hangar, into the tarmac and up the flight of stairs that snaked to the third floor, Abel calmly walked. Around him were eyes of men and security cameras. He was fully aware of their furtive glances, but somehow not one seemed to have signaled alarm and suspicion. On the contrary, it was as if they urged him to step further, prodding him to shed his doubts and replace them with conviction, leading him to where his destiny waited for him to claim his immortality. He moved about, his footsteps certain as to where they were supposed to land, until he stopped by the door at the end of the hallway. He forced his way inside the room. The knob fell off the door and rolled on the brown floor carpet, hitting the leather shoes of the man whose sole presence was the only sign of life that graced the office at seven that night.

Abel drew the gun from his waist and closed the gap between him and the man. He cocked the magnum and pointed it at the man's forehead. Abel's heart raged against his chest, his mind suddenly jubilant at the thought of taking the life of one who has never gone beyond the crust of a sheltered life spent mostly behind desks, plotting the fate of the company and its employees with the stroke of the corporate pen and the signing of a hundred or so letters of termination every other year. The man bowed his head as if to recognize the certainty of the bullets about to punctuate his life. Abel pulled the trigger six times.

Not a single bullet was fired, for there was none.

Part 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5

Monday, January 2, 2012

Closer to Life

[Part 3 of the "Flights" series]

BY THE TIME his tears have dried, Abel's footsteps have gone slower, as though his feet were lifting half of his heart while dragging the other half along the mossy pathway, brushing against the cracked surfaces of aged tombs daubed in dirt and faded white. The afternoon sun has been rather unkind. The skyline seemed to have set the western front in an eternal glow of cinnamon, stretching his shadow way ahead of him in his solitary walk toward the cemetery gate. An outgrowth of bushes sprawled below the trellis, the green thicket blessed by the grace of light, the benediction of rain, and the flesh of those who have returned to the earth by way of decay. The last day of May offered no lullaby in its serene breeze, no comfort even, as it was for the length of summer. There was nothing, not even a dirge in the air. Martha and Madeleine shall sing no more, their voices having been lost to the muteness of an infinite rest and the whispers of god, their names now forever etched on marble.

“Hong Kong,” Abel mumbled, “Hong Kong.” He reached the end of the narrow strip of stepping stones and turned left to where the acacia stood in the distance. Beside the old tree, the gate, rusted and partly disheveled from its bolted swivel, swung open to the sea of dead. The rows of the departed extended up until the edge of the southern wall where a steep crevice on the ground marked the territory of the living — men, women and their fledglings sheltered by bunkers and huts of cardboard and lumber nailed together six feet below the base of the fence as though the neighborhood itself is its own graveyard. Abel stopped and took a deep breath, inhaling the scent around him he could almost taste the pungency of his own mourning.

Although the humidity had already begun to weaken, his forehead still had beads of sweat glistening in the afternoon light. A drop rolled down the scar on his cheek. Abel wiped his face, rubbing the palm of his hand against that hollow crease where a slice of flesh should have been. He was sure it was a knife, a blade perhaps, and not a baton that glimmered before his eyes nine years ago, striking him swiftly that day before he lost consciousness amid the paranoia. It was a riot he can barely deface off of his memory.

The acacia loomed larger and closer. Where Abel walked, the soil was a bit loose, his steps slow and steady in an effort to place himself in the safety of anything solid beneath his feet until his escape to the gate. He almost slipped, but his recollection of the past was not to be shaken by his momentary imbalance. The strike was inevitable but he could have simply went home and wallowed in the presence of Martha and Madeleine until his anger and despair have subsided. He could have walked away from the picket line instead, and he could have just taken it as part of his fate of having been born and raised under the zodiac of poverty. He could have done so, and things might have been different. His wife might not have left for Hong Kong, only to find out with scant relief that her college diploma could only land her a job as a household helper and not an engineer as she first hoped and thought. But all the same, Martha had to brace her self with the little ironies of life, especially in a land where there are more green pastures than one can begin to count with fingers that rarely held a decent wage.

But Abel knew all too well that it was too late for remorse. Not even his blood and heart can now redeem Martha and Madeleine from their eternal sleep. So upon reaching the cemetery gate, he looked behind and scanned the vista as far as his eyesight could permit. There was death everywhere — the mass of nameless graves and forgotten tombs, the huddle of houses sharing a space of the earth beyond the southern wall, and the rubble of concrete blocks left out to erode under the sun. And there was life everywhere just as well — the shrubs and grasses peering through the clay and sand, the wayward birds scuttling about, waiting for the wind to signal their flight up where the clouds are, and the creatures that feed on the departed, unwilling as they might have been.

Abel turned and briskly walked away, farther from death and closer to life. There was a smile on his face. He knew where he should go.

Part 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5