Tim’s father was putting on an old pair of rubber shoes he hadn’t worn for years. He put a shoe on, removed it, pulled the tongue out, took a peep inside. His father’s stomach and chest were pressed together as he reached down again for his foot. He was sitting on a plastic bench salvaged from last year’s flood that swept the province.
“What’s the matter with your shoes?”
“Nothing.” He tried to put the shoes on again.
He was reminded of a similar scene in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, in the first act where the beggarly Estragon was struggling with his boots. Tim had purchased a worn out copy of the play from a secondhand bookstore for fifteen pesos and read it under the florescent bulb for the whole night. The next day he wrote a piece about it for the college paper. Waiting for Godot, he wrote, echoes the uncertainty of the individual living in a big world jointly built and operated by state and corporate powers (That’s why nobody reads your work, Sonny Boy told him, because it’s full of pretentious shit).
“There’s a flashlight in the kitchen drawer, some extra batteries. You use it for night roving. In case you get a little bit of curious of nightly apparitions.”
“I don’t believe in ghosts.”
“Well, if you don’t believe in ghosts, at least believe in bad men.”
Seven steps to the kitchen. A creak of wooden lids, squeak of knobs, clang of metal utensils. Seven steps back to the bedroom. Three Christmas decors from last year’s Christmas—tiny red Santa Clauses de-glittered by the overdue stay in a tropical country—were taped outside the window, now coated with thick dust. An amputated Sto. Nino statue, the little Jesus with brown curls and seductive eyelashes, stood slightly skewed on a table, thick folds of old sweepstakes tickets accumulating under its base. The icon lost its two limbs many years ago. There was a faded green blanket, washed seven months ago, hanging from the clothesline outside. Seven months ago, Tim’s mother died.
“Sorry, boy. I feel bad in putting you in this job. It’s just a few days off your school vacation. I already said yes to Sir Mark when my agency called me to serve as a reliever at the warehouse. I can’t split myself into two to take both jobs.”
His father once mentioned that this Sir Mark had a daughter of Tim’s age, a college sophomore studying in an exclusive all-girls school in Quezon City. Imagine the hiring man telling his daughter: ‘I employed my worker’s son to supervise our house for a few days while we’re on vacation. The child had to earn money to continue schooling’. And the daughter—sensitive, pretty, fragrant: ‘Oh, how poor!’ Hate Sir Mark. Or Mark, as Tim called him privately. Remove the servile “sir” and hate him like an equal.
At last, his father, by some miraculous procedure, finally fitted the pair of shoes in his feet. From a little plastic box, a box where Tim kept his toiletries, he brought out a jar of scented hair styling gel and tossed it to his father. His father frowned and tossed it back to him. Then he disappeared into the front door. When he reemerged he’s holding two bottles of beer, each on his hand.
“This day only, son.”
Tim ignored the pleading tone of his father’s voice, got up and went straight to the bathroom. It was a scorching morning. His hair and shirt were matted into tameness by sweat and body heat. He heard three deep gulps; so his father’s eyes were still on him, burning holes on the door, still holding the bottles, waiting for him to stick his arms out for the alcoholic offering. When he finished bathing himself, his father had already left. The beer that was meant for Tim was left untouched on the table.
Wriggling loose from a big towel pink and fresh, he began ticking the mental checklist of the things that he should bring with him: a pair of jeans, three T-shirts, a towel, four briefs, a pair of socks, toothbrush, toothpaste, bath soap, cellphone, battery charger, packets of coffee, pen, notebook. And most importantly, books—Dostoyevky’s Notes From the Underground, Erich Fromm’s Escape From Freedom.
Sonny Boy—imagine him spraying his pee all over the flower garden of the house, or making indistinguishable tiny vandalism on the wallpapered walls after sharing Tim’s hate for Sir Mark. And they shall find the daughter’s room, discover her name, search her up on Facebook.
The jeepney terminal was inside the public market. The woman looked up, stretching his fifty-peso paper bill on her table. Her shiny forehead caught some silvery light emitted by the parked public vehicles nearby. She had been the collector of jeepney fare since the terminal was built, and like an office girl, she had her own table and a big black calculator. The sides of her nose were caked with wet face powder. Her eyeliner was spotty, unclean. She handed Tim his change without looking at him, her aquamarine fingernails flashing for a second.
Few steps from her table were stalls of nuts, barbeque, and fruit juice. The vendors were watching in a tiny television seated on a three feet stack of wooden crates. Stray cats were sniffing around.
Inside the jeepney, he sat beside two old ladies in matching jogging pants. He rested his right hand on his knee. He saw the dark patch of his skin again: an elevated dark oblong the size of a candy. Sonny Boy was the only one who knew the real story behind the scar. He told him everything about his life.
Scars reveal people who lacked character, those people who were inclined to ask him where he got the perfect oblong scar on his hand despite his obvious attempts to hide it from view. I got it when I was a kid, he’d lie. I scraped it with a knife. I was trying to peel a mango. My hands were tiny then. Oh, you should have let your parents peel it, they’d say. All that nonsense. He divided his classmates into two groups: those who were nosy about body marks, and those who were quiet about them. Sonny Boy belonged to the second group; he was more concerned with his gaming statistics than he was with personal history. He wasn’t a gossip, that’s why he liked him.
Tim got his scar from his father eight years ago. He was twelve years old then. He was very shy and scared of people, especially his father. One night his father came home drunk. He pinched his son’s hand, his sharp nails scraped a bit of flesh off his skin, leaving a crimson hole. Tim stifled his cry and retreated to the room. The wound got infected after a few days and became fatter and fatter with rich pus as the days went by. His mother, shrunken in the eyes, white in the lips, poured vinegar unto the infection. Why bother your mother about it? His father was slumped on a plastic chair, a cold beer sweating profusely on the bare floor. It was just a small wound. When I was your age, I almost broke my arm in carpentry work. Humm, humm—his mother, who was suffering from a respiratory illness, would croon like a nocturnal insect. She wanted silence.
His father’s cruelty was new to him. He used to be a jolly man. His father had a fat stomach on which he would draw a face using a black marker; he would make it talk and dance, and it would make little Tim laugh. Now his father was an angry man. His eyes had become fury red. He would lie awake the whole night doing nothing. He would leave home without any explanation. He started selling their appliances. He had no permanent job. His relatives had refused to loan him money. He had hurt his only son.
One morning, Tim buttoned up his school uniform in dumb slowness. In his raw eyes there was no sparkle of excitement. Tim’s hair was unwashed and sticky and his being was full of disappointed bowels. When he left it, the house was shaking with his father’s directionless fury. Last night the patriarch smashed the Sto. Nino against the wall.
On his way home Tim met Mang Dinio. He was riding his bike, multi-colored bundles of folded papers spilling from his pockets, a ballpen clipped in the side of his head. The old man warned him that his father was very angry because he wasn’t home yet.
“What took you so long?” Mang Dinio asked him.
“It was recognition day”. Tim said, knees shaking.
“Did you tell your father or mother about it?”
Tim shook his head. And then the man noticed the medals around the boy’s neck.
“I am Best in Math, Best in Science, Best in English, Best in HEKASI…”
At the distance there was a thumping sound. It was his father kicking their door from the outside.
“Ernie! Stop that! Here’s your son!” Mang Dinio shouted.
Ernie stopped his outburst but he did not look at their way. Of course, he already heard that his son had been given honors. But he didn’t know what it really meant. What Ernie thought was that his son just answered the teacher’s questions correctly and it meant nothing. Faces showed up from half-opened doors. In the barangay the houses were huddled so closely together that people could make confident guesses who among them sings every bath time.
“Ernie, look at your boy!”
From where he was standing Tim could feel the presence of his mother, a silent listener in her dark bed, her emotions taking the form of a mist, so heavy and warm, slipping sluggishly out of the window to greet him. Tim thought he saw the curtains in her room moved. She was proud of him.
“What’s your birth date, young boy?” Mang Ernie steadied a pen on a sheaf of paper on his palm.
Some of their neighbors started to gather around the scene. They fished coins from their pockets.
“Pataya, Mang Dinio!”
“I dreamed last week Ernie’s boy was stroking a golden rooster. This boy is your way out of this shithole.”
The boy’s knees and feet and hands were cold. The golden honors were jingling around his neck. He mustered all the remaining courage in his little heart and dared to look at his father’s face. His father was crying.
“Wait for me here. I’ll borrow some money…” His father spoke, at last.
It was around six o’clock in the evening when Tim’s father returned home. Two of his friends just arrived after him carrying a case of beer. A delicious smell flooded the house. It came from a bag of roasted chicken.
“This is my future lawyer.” His father shoved him to the merriment. It was a night of gaiety and he was at its center; it was something Tim had never experienced before.
The next day his father got a tattoo on his right arm: Tim.
It was five in the afternoon, and he was now walking over the Marilao Bridge. The afternoon sun was harsh at him, permitting no shade on his face except the ones offered by his bushy eyebrows and by the peak of his nose. REYMOND LOVE DIANA—he walked over the imprint on the cement. Hieroglyphics of the street life, government paint peeling off.
He paused to look over the brown river. Brown, brown, brown.
He refreshed his vision by dipping his eyes on the creamy soup of clouds above.
Past the bridge, under the road, down the steel railed stairs, was the wet market.
“Hello? Sonny? Can you hear me? It’s noisy over here. I’ll text you.”
He swam in the crowd. When Tim stopped over red peppers and tomatoes, a young girl appeared from the strings of seasonings. The public market is a good place to define one’s self; market people are highly sensitive to your presence, down to the movements of your eyeballs, the turns of your neck. They are also happy to see you. If you feel alienated and unimportant, feign interest to the vegetables, he scribbled inside his mind. He will transfer it later to his notebook.
“Hi, kuya,” she sang.
The girl had a long cooper brown hair that seemed to match her clear brown eyes. She gathered some tomatoes, little plump greenish-red, put them inside a plastic bag in graceful haste; and to validate her picks, she put the bag unto the weighing scale.
He didn’t really know what to do with the purchase; perhaps he could decorate his dinner with those neat pulpy red slices.
The line of the tricycles was lazy and unmoving. The sight of him approaching stirred some resting drivers. There was a jesting throng around a TV showing a replay of Pacquiao-Vargas fight in Las Vegas.
“Duchess Homes.” Tim said to the driver in front of the line, a woman in sunglasses and long-sleeves. She nodded and kicked the motor into life.
The security personnel at the post nodded at the tricycle as it entered the residential area. The houses were fantasies straight from real estate brochures; founded on perfect asphalt, and packaged according to a propertied citizen’s trinity of values: family, security, leisure. Tim bid the tricycle to stop when he spotted a pink house bearing the numbers of the address given to him by his father.
There was a dog inside. It started to bark as the gate creaked open. At the farthest corner of the property, the metal kennel. Inside it, a Doberman with a demonic dark coat and haughty chest. The unbearable smell of the waste told Tim that there were no people around to attend to the animal. The whole two-story house was painted soft pink. The windows were thickly curtained. In the porch, all the potted plants were plastic and there was an impeccably smooth wooden bench. He ventured inside for more cold newness.
The owners have been busy putting expensive lacquer on their hollow lives, he thought, full of bitterness. He thought about the daughter. As a child, the daughter must have experienced being scolded by her parents for touching display figurines sitting at one of the shelves downstairs. What if she was so beautiful and delicate? It didn’t matter. Tim will not meet her anyway. He was ashamed of himself, ashamed for being there, for being in their house. Just the thought of their eyes meeting upon her arrival made his lungs feel tight.
Upstairs, he refused the offer of handshakes from insincere doorknobs. A white curtain was flowing from ceiling to floor, and behind the shroud, a balcony overlooking the streets. The dimming sky and the shadows around the place reminded him that there was no available power source in that house. He brought his bag down and fished for the flashlight.
Ah, ten days to go before the enrollment for the second semester. Ah, school…when will he be safe from its terrorism? Poverty is incongruous to scholarship, said one of his professors. He had three lamentations: 1. Filipinos are not readers; 2. Filipinos don’t visit museums; 3. Philippines is not an intellectual country. His conclusion: Filipinos are all ignoramuses singing and dancing to Willie Revillame’s noontime jingle. He raised his two hands in the air and started to tap his foot on the floor rhythmically. Boom tarat tarat, boom tarat tarat, boom boom boom—a rare sing and dance number from the most learned of them all. The students went wild with laughter.
The professor started to tell the class about his older brother who had met the Pope in person in the Vatican. There was a chorus of wow. What was he like, sir? Kind-looking old man, waves his hand away when people try to kiss it. Then he reminded the students of their payments for the textbook he co-authored. Tim had already skimmed it—double-spaced, 14 font size, numerous blank pages—the MS Word layout of deception; just to achieve the scholarly thickness needed to be taken seriously by the students. Sonny Boy called the textbook a scam. Suddenly, the ceiling fan snapped during the class. The electronic was beheaded by a nameless malady that had been lurking in the campus for ages. The multi-colored wires sprung out like entrails of a castrated animal. There was no dignity.
An engine noise. Then the barking of the dog. Tim started to regret that he didn’t take a knife with him. Look, there might be scoundrels out there stalking the Sir Mark’s Facebook account, they might have gotten the idea that the cat was away. He looked down from the balcony and saw Sonny Boy on motorcycle.
Tim chuckled. He met him outside the gate. Sonny Boy handed him a 7-Eleven plastic bag.
“Nice. Red Horse.”
“I took another route to avoid those guards.”
They sat on the concrete balustrade of the balcony, their backs leaning against the pillars. They mirrored each other’s position: one leg stretched out on the ledge, the other hanging on one side of the railing. They commented on the houses and empty streets illuminated by street lamps. They exchanged jokes and stories about school.
“Thank you for coming, Sonny. Sorry, you have to spend money.”
“It’s okay, Tim. I have full-time work now. Call center.”
“What about school?”
Tim didn’t say anything. Sonny Boy seemed to be offended by the silence.
“Of course, Tim…”
“The dean is considering you for a teaching position as soon as you graduate. Your future is secured. I know you look down on—what do you call it, capitalism? Imperialism? I’ve lost track of your ism isms.” He fished a cigarette and a lighter from his pocket. “Look at our teachers, fresh out of college, almost at our age. The old ones are too lazy; I have little interest in them. They have masters and doctoral degrees. It won’t hurt them if we lose our faith in them. Years and years of teaching experience. They don’t have to strike a pose anymore. For them, teaching is endless comings and goings of idiots like us. But the younger ones, I have emotion for them. I think you’ll be a good teacher.”
The moon was now blanketed by the cigarette smoke.
“Can you imagine yourself spending three hours sounding bigger than you really are? Tiring, right? Sounding smarter than you really are? Setting your spine straight in front of the blackboard? I tell you, Tim: when you become a college instructor, you will be indistinguishable from me. You will blurt out greetings, too. Use an intonation that’s not really yours. Fall in line at ATM. But there’s a difference…” He unleashed the final smoke, a dragon. “I’m faced with the hard facts of life. Abuses by pampered, distant oppressors who have only TV channels to worry about. While you, in your safe stature, will receive forced laughter at your classroom jokes.”
Tim did not respond. Sonny Boy flicked the cigarette butt into the darkness.
“There are lots of mosquitoes here. I think it’s time for me to go now.”
When he was left alone for the night, he had a hard time falling sleep. He tried to think about random things. He sat up and groped for an ant navigating on his back. After squashing the source of irritation between his fingers, he lied on his bed again and turned on the flashlight to his notebook. He started writing.
In the beginning there was a father who loved his only begotten son…
He woke up in the morning with the pen in his hand. He smoothed out his shirt and removed a whitish accumulation from his eyes (did he cry last night?) One thing was for sure: There was now a growing chasm between Sonny Boy and him.
When he went down, he noticed the dog’s protruding ribcage. He tore open a bag of dry dog food he had found in the kitchen and filled a dish with the brown pellets. Its snout twitched due to the smell of beef, and the dog started to whimper like the puppy that it used to be.
“I will make you macho again”.
Three days passed. Tim, the sole source of nourishment and companionship, became the Father God of food, water, and sunshine. He named the dog after Jean Jacques Rousseau’s dog, Sultan. One morning he walked Sultan at the nearby park. With soldierly gait Sultan demonstrated his royal name to the world. Other people in the park looked at the man and beast tandem in admiration. Tim felt his head getting expansive, his steps getting lighter and lighter; he was ready to fly with pleasure. Did he just relish in the attention of other human beings? He led the dog to a cool shade under a tree. He was dismayed by himself. If this is an immediate way of gaining approval—that is, parading a dog—what use it is to spend immeasurable hours cultivating one’s mind? All he had to do is to find himself a work, buy a foreign breed of dog, take pride in its ownership. Man is free, but everywhere he is on a leash! He takes delight in his philosophical parody. A pampered dog is the opium of the bourgeois. Imagine Sonny Boy mocking him: Hypocrite! You’ve just christened a dog with an aristocratic name. You should have named it Bantay!
When Tim returned from that day’s walk he saw a black car parked outside the house. A bald man in a white shirt was standing outside the house. The man had a pair of bulging eyes. He looks like a frog, Tim concluded. The object of his silent hostility was speaking to someone on the phone. Finally, they met each other’s gaze.
“Hey, who are you? Where’s Badong?”
“Who are you? You’re not supposed to be here.” He turned to his phone. “Sir Mark, Badong is not here. There’s another person…” He stepped away from Tim. He sneakily took photos of Tim and the dog. Tim clenched his fists. After a few seconds the man walked up to him with inquiring eyes.
“I was tasked by Sir Mark to look after the house… I’m also taking care of his dog.”
“What’s your name?”
“Tim. I’m Ernie’son.”
The man moved away from him again. Must be the son of one of the workers, he overheard him saying on the phone. In paranoiac energy, the amphibian bully combed the streets using his eyes, looking from right to left, left to right. With his chin he motioned to Tim to follow him inside the house.
Tim returned Sultan to its cage.
“Sir Mark wants you to leave now” He dug his wallet from his jeans and produced two one-hundred peso bills. “Take this. It’s from Sir Mark. Before you go, let me check the contents of your bag.”
Tim unzipped his bag and held it before the man. A brusque hand slithered inside the bag, lingered inside it for a few seconds—until it groped something that made his eyes big. His hand re-emerged with a tiny sachet of powdered coffee. He dropped it inside the bag.
“You can go now.”
As soon as he stepped outside the house, Tim boldly looked up at the blazing sun—an injured mortal looking at God’s celestial eye, demanding justification for his humiliation. The daughter was watching all of this from a distance, pitying Tim.
He tried to contact him on the phone. It was ringing idiotically into infinity. He sent a barrage of hurtful text messages.
— Why sent me here, you filthy old man! Wer r u?!!!
He rushed to the office of his employment agency (Months ago, he went there to claim his father’s salary on his behalf). He asked for the address of the warehouse his father had mentioned to him five days ago. A female staff was alarmed by the dark seriousness in his eyes. She provided him the information without any question.
The combined solar heat and metallic stench stung his skin and nostrils when he got off the jeepney, and, for a moment, he felt disoriented. He saw a guiding star: the scintillating spark of a welding work at the top of the warehouse where his father was said to be working. He had to pass by three ten-wheeler trucks parked on the side of the road before making it to a makeshift cubicle near the entrance of a loading area; a place half-obscured by a mesh of metal and hazard warning posters. Two security guards were in a midst of conversation inside the post when he appeared before them without any preamble.
“Where’s my father Ernie?”
“Ah, you’re the future lawyer he was bragging about.”
“Is my father here?”
“He was here a few months ago. He was only a reliever.”
“Where is he now?”
“We don’t know.” The older of the two was evidently irritated by the lad’s demanding behavior. “Why don’t you ask the police?”
Tim saw it. A conspiratorial glimmer in their eyes. They knew his father’s history.
Of course. Tim would never ever tell the police.
The dusk was settling in over their barangay when he arrived on foot. The sky was now an atmospheric waltz of orange and violet.
There was a mark of brown mud, imprint of shoes, on the door. It had been left ajar, a dent on its edge told a violent entry. Inside the house, disorder. One tiny Santa Claus was crushed on the floor. Clothes were sticking out from plastic drawers. The Sto. Nino was lying on its back. The floor was strewn with old sweepstakes tickets. The bottle of beer had been emptied of contents.
The father had marked the door with blood of a lamb so the Angel of Death would spare his son.
He went to the local chapel where funeral proceedings were taking place—black tent, flower wreath, white candles, crucifix, coffin, cadaver. The murmurings in the wake quieted down when he started walking down at the middle of the aisle like a groom in anticipation of his bride. When he reached the coffin, he looked down on it to see if his father was there. It was someone else. He left the place dazed and forlorn and unable to scream.
He met Mang Dinio at the middle of the street. The old man had his one foot propped on the pedal of his bicycle, his other foot on the ground. A ballpen wrapped in thick rubber band was resting above his right ear. On his left hand, a roll of papers. Mang Dinio had been a jueteng agent for years, the established custodian of people’s hope for instant wealth. It seemed that he himself, a numerologist of prosperity, worn down after all these years of dreaming, hadn’t yet discovered the secret of the universe.
“Policemen were making rounds last week with Kapitan…”
“Where is my father?”
“That’s Obet.” He pointed to the funeral with his upper lip. “Tried to fight back, they said.” He smirked.
“By the way, what’s your father’s birthday?”
The father wrapped his son with a cotton blanket, placed him inside a basket, and hid him among the reeds.
Mang Dinio removed the pen from his ear. Tim answered that he wasn’t sure about his father’s date of birth. The old man returned the pen to his ear.
“I dreamed last night that your father was rowing a white boat in a black lake.” He didn’t wait for Tim to respond.
He spat on the gravel before pedaling away from the young man.