31 Agosto 2012

Room 304


The girl in seat fifty-nine, hocked up on cheap three-in-one coffee and already tipsy from ten hours straight of phone service reciting the same dry lines, her vision blurred as another call came through. The boy she had been flirting with – number eighty-five – managed to hide the scuff marks on his high-cut Greenhills sneakers, smudges the color of fifty-nine’s peep-toe faux-leather four-inch heels. It was her preoccupation with text-messaging eighty-five that spoiled her usually flawless spiel. Her customer – track number 19878 – came through from somewhere in Rizal.

Thank you for calling our delivery service! May I have your name, address, and contact number?
                Karen F—. Room 304, Sogo, Imelda Avenue. My number is 0929 –.
May I have your order, please?
                Two large fries, extra packets of catsup. One cheeseburger, ala carte, and two apple pies, please.
Is that all, ma’m?
                Yes, thank you
Please note that the quality of the fries may not be the same as when ordered in our stores.
                That’s fine.
Anything else po?

Company policy dictated customer service relations officers gave thirty seconds maximum for indecisive customers. But at this juncture, as fifty-nine’s fluctuating attention span gave in to the startling cry of her libido and she phoned number eighty-five about the merits of the third floor disabled persons’ comfort room, track number 19878 fizzled into static. Beyond customer 19878’s near inaudible breathing, on the edge of fifty-nine’s slipping consciousness, the sound of a door opening.

It was only when the caller, track number 19878 finally hung up, and fifty-nine’s computer registered three minutes of elapsed time, recording silence and fifty-nine’s remote tapping, that fifty-nine finally killed the line and sent the caller’s track number and order to the restaurant branch nearest  Imelda Avenue.


It wasn’t how he wore his delivery boy’s overalls slouched over and inhaling; trying to fit small trees where his arms should have been that gave him away. It was not the way he stood next to the row of circa 1980s bicycles, all well-oiled and calibrated machines; it was not the way he laughed like the roar of a tricycle fighting its way uphill.

It wasn’t, even, the gaunt death’s head that sat on his shoulders. From afar, slouched and bent over, skin stretched tight over high cheekbones and sunk low beneath his eyes. He wore his head tipped always to one side, like it was too heavy to carry properly. It was a skull, not a head; his skin had been draped over acid-washed bones whose elegant curvature was detectable underneath translucent skin, its pearly sheen gave the impression he could glow like the milky, tropic moon after a typhoon.

None of these formidable physical gifts quite gave away his air of violence, the shock of possibility floating around him that made passersby and the entire staff, including his managers, tense and bulk, trying to match his girth and muscle by turning inwardly into themselves.

It was Nestor’s smile. Not that it was mirthless of insincere, but he smiled at how he ran over stray neighborhood cats during a delivery and he carried the tally on his fingers. All the ginger cats he counted with his right hand, all the black and white ones with his left. Nestor smiled at the collective panic of the restaurant during lunch time; his peers learned never to ask for his help, save once. And that was Karen, his girlfriend, who ventured to include him, with limited success. He smiled wide during the downtime he spent hanging out at the restaurant, alone in the corner booth with a small glass of water, his head tipped towards the glass windows, penning entry after entry into a thin, ruled notebook.

Parang diary yata niya yun, Karen said, when her coworkers asked if she had ever read it. Although he carried it around, like a humped-back or a goiter or a sickening growth elsewhere on his body, Nestor’s penchant for violence never emerged. It was Karen, they thought, who warded it away. Whenever Karen took her day off, Nestor steered clear of the others, preferring the nightshift, and taking delivery after delivery without pause. His smile was an omen, a promise of violence and Nestor rarely, if ever, wore his helmet.

Nestor carried this smile en route to a mid-evening delivery.


Tangina. It was the third time that night Karen missed an order; from the counter behind her, a heavily-made up woman in six-inch heels looked about ready to crawl over the counter to construct her own coke float. Two weeks into Nestor’s scheme and it was Karen’s first off-night. Tangina. She couldn’t risk swearing under her breath, in case the production line behind her heard but tangina, konti na lang. They only needed ten thousand more and then they could disappear. Karen suggested returning to her home province somewhere in Mindanao but to that Nestor returned only a brooding smile. He scribbled something into his notebook.

Miss, matagal pa ba? Despite the thick lipstick, Karen detected the smirk. The woman clicked her tongue, tapping on the metallic counter.

Hands full with the woman’s order – large fries, the coke float, and a chicken and rice value meal – Karen swiveled around and arranged it on the waiting plastic tray. She received five hundred pesos, a crisp new bill, and rang the cash register. Along with the change, she slipped three hundred pesos discreetly in the waistband of her apron.

Thank you, come again!


From the highway, the Sogo reared up to catch the light streaming from its adjacent stalls full to reeking with the sidewalk market, the dense side-streets submerged beneath ancient leaning stalls, the murky living of a hundred street-vendors cobbled together. Where motels sprung up from the highways, these shacks found themselves an earnest audience from groping teenagers and people who wanted to disappear for a few hours. Disposable DVDs, boxes of cigarettes, cheap food, sticks of meat were always in great demand. Every stall dressed its wares in the warm glow of a yellow bulb, forcing potential buyers to squint, rub the dust further into their watery eyes.


The Sogo clerk tasked to stand behind a bare, narrow counter, had been due back at his station five minutes ago but he had been out on the street for an hour, flipping through the newly released DVDs. A delivery boy slouched in the corner, head tipped to one side, a body grown bent of its own accord, his yellow-and-red hat crumpled in one hand. Unimpressed and still dispassionate about his line of work, with little thought to the consequences of his mistakes, the clerk was nonetheless kind enough to be ashamed at having kept a delivery boy waiting. In the hierarchy of the service-oriented professions, he thought himself half a step, at least, above reproach from someone employed by a fast-food chain. He found the delivery boy scribbling in a little notebook, maybe trying to find his customer’s name.

At least five inches taller than the delivery boy, the curious clerk found his eyes drawn towards the boy’s miniscule handwriting. He glimpsed crooked vowels, stretched ‘T’s, the strained way the boy wrote ‘G’s.
Boy, 304 yan, the clerk said with a suave, dismissive gesture towards the stairs. Siya lang customer namin. Dali, habang wala pa siyang kasama. The clerk fought against his urge to wink as the boy climbed the stairs. Every step creaked and before he disappeared from view, the boy turned back with a luminous smile.


Tangina. Karen insisted, on the edge of the motel bed. Her voice came out as a strangled giggle, the sound at the periphery of some vast fear. Nestor was in the shower and she shouted to be heard, her voice thin and frayed: tapos na! He shook water out of his hair and eyes, scrubbing below his waist, his narrow back towards her as he scratched himself. Random hundred-peso bills, a smattering of bright fifty-pesos hidden beneath the pillow, Karen built herself a small fort. Recounting out their small fortune took hours and, finally, they fished out the last remaining loose change and divided the fifty-thousand into two brown manila envelopes.

Nestor wanted more, wanted a secure future, a way out of his humdrum job, and a way to escape the staring he received from their peers at work whereas Karen, who had to perform the dangerous task of swiping the money piecemeal, became steadily more nervous before her shifts. She couldn’t concentrate, she made numerous mistakes, and she suffered under strict managerial pressure.

Ayoko na, she complained, twisting herself into the thin sheets, watching the timer on the knobby bedside table. They had paid for two more hours. Nestor closed the door of the bathroom behind him and sat on the bed, the towel dripping wet. He was a man of few words and to convince her, he used none. Instead he turned his twisted head towards her with a grin.


Nestor found her, he said, asleep on the bed. The door to her room wasn’t open – it was ajar, as though Karen expected him and his heavy footsteps disturbed the ringing phone on the floor within reach of her outstretched hand. She was asleep on the bed, he said, when he entered, that she wore a smile.  He smiled when he said so. He said he set the bag down – her order of fries still warm and approached her, his hands gentle with entreaty, surprised at her surprise picnic. He said he assumed it was a picnic for them – why else would she call, he asked, at his shift when she knew he would be there, why else? Nestor brandished the crumpled note that he found Karen clutching. It was a half-torn piece of paper ripped from some notebook, the complaints of a hard life written illegibly.


The clerk jumped at the shout from the third floor and, for the full minute it took to process the scream, he stood ringing the bell, calling for help. Finally, propelled by the delivery boy’s continued howling, the clerk rushed up the steps and arrived, half-blind from struggling up to the landing, in time to see the delivery boy wrestling the body into a sitting position, struggling to open her  mouth, his fingers already deep in her throat as though to fish the pills out.

There was no blood, only an empty bottle, a half-empty liter of water, and what remained of the girl bloated with blood and water. The delivery boy handed him a note pried from the dead girl’s left hand, some suicide note barely readable, explaining nothing, all strained ‘G’s.

17 Agosto 2012

Gin and Words

It began with the word womb, bright red on the page and large, the letters wide and inviting, a baby cradled in the 'O'.  Mute and coy, Gin sat looking at the word and refused to speak, choosing instead to mumble  the sounds in a disjointed fashion. All around us, towers of books, a playpen of books, all hardbound and childish, all color and loud noises. I set her down between the books featuring horses -- some real, some brown velvet, all with smiling faces and soft noses -- and books printed with small words written in squiggly handwriting.

My three-year old ward had once been a quiet, disinterested baby, fond of crawling under furniture, glass tables, or cabinets. Gin never cried, not a tear. Not once. When she was born, her mother told me she blinked and scratched, but refused to howl. At three years old, she hadn't said a single world. She gurgled and pouted and grunted but she refused to make any acceptable baby noise. She never called her mother, or father, or stuffed bears and her parents left her alone with me every Tuesday and Friday afternoon, in a room full of books, to coax out her words and to coax out place names, dirty language, anything. 

She was good at dismantling towers, pulling books from one pile. It seemed she enjoyed the demolition, the tumbling books that crashed on her legs. Gin obviously took pleasure in the way I scooped her from the wreckage, the way I yelped and moaned nako naman itong batang 'to! It must have been the noise that she enjoyed when she was, herself, so stuck in silence. Everyday with her it was the same: I read her stories -- sometimes fairy tales, sometimes crime novels, anything I felt like reading -- anything with interesting sounding words in it. And I gave her a variety of words to listen to: monosyllabic choppy words that slithered out unawares, words long as snakes, words that rhymed with each other, words that didn't, baby words and adult words alike so that she never developed a the bourgeois disgust with everyday words. Even words I didn't know how to pronounce, I said them to emphasize the way vowels and consonants rattle together. Gin didn't seem to pay attention until that word. Womb.

As usual she sat by herself on the crib and I sat beyond the bars, head tilted back, and I read the word and she sort of perked up, looked at me. For a while she just sat and stared, her chubby arms on the bars of her crib. Moments passed when I didn't know what happened or what to do, she had never before given me her full attention. Her little nose twitched, even, and the tower of books in her crib toppled over when she kicked it over in her rush to stand up and lean over, to see the word dressed in red ink. Gin pointed at the painted picture of the baby, her lips twitching, her little chin wobbling. And she said it. The word, just like that: womb. She said it with all the austerity of trying to convey an idea and she looked at me when she said it, her delicate eyebrows knotted together.

At first I thought it was some kind of miracle and I cast around for more picture books with the same sounding words. Wound, woman, warn, would, wood, whorl, whore, whole. I flipped them open to the words and pronounced them loudly, clear, until the walls echoed the sound. The bedroom had been painted powder pink, the door bright but not blinding green. For a while that was all we did and I held little Gin's attention. I saw her lips puckered, holding the air, whistling: who? what? Gin had asked her first questions and she wanted more, just more. She began mimicking the sound and the words, all the W-words I remembered. When I finished and stood blinking, she didn't blink back. Gin stared so much I thought she had fallen asleep but when I tried to pick her up, she squirmed in my arms, still asking the same questions: what? who? what? 

Her parents were thrilled and impressed and pressed an extra envelope into my hands for working my magic, for doing what I did, for discovering their daughter's affinity for a particular sound. I was quick to inform them: she doesn't speak yet. She only mimes and nods her head and she creates the same sound that she hears, like an echo, like a parrot. I told them to read more to her that night. From the dictionary, it doesn't matter. She just wants the sound of it, that's all, I said. Just the sound. Read W aloud.

When they called to tell me she wouldn't sleep but demanded why why why why woman work without who who who like an owl, demanded more words and yet more sound, I was in my bed with a little book and the storm outside. It was raining in my city, I said, and I didn't have a car to rush over. Gin's father, voice strained and his wife in the background still reading out words from nowhere, said he could come to get me in half an hour. This is important, he insisted, Gin won't go to sleep. She's barely blinked from all the staring. When I finally agreed, he told his wife who had been whistling nonstop. Tell her, Gin's mother said, tell her Gin hasn't eaten since she fed her this afternoon. Did you tell her? Gin keeps saying who who who, like an owl, did you tell her? Tell her we're running out of words, can you?

Gin's father drove fast despite the rain. I can't slow down, he said, because he might fall asleep. It was very nearly three in the morning. Gin's mother had fallen asleep on the floor of Gin's room and the pink looked grey in the dim light. Gin was silent again, alone in her crib but when I leaned over to check, her eyes were wide and fatigued, unblinking. When she saw me, Gin pursed her lips into a tiny rose and began with a weak question: who? what? On the floor beside the bed, I saw the large book, the illustrated words in large, bold, red letters. Gin took up her owlish hooting, her eyes big and red now, a trickle of salty tears had dried on her cheeks. I tried to feed her with the still-warm milk that her parents prepared on top of their flat, wide drawers but Gin pushed them away, disgusted. Why? Why? The book had been stained with warm milk and the thin pages curdled, the soaked edge stained dirty white, the edges yellow. It was this warm page that she took into her mouth. Gin managed to gnaw off a page of the dirty paper before I realized she had stopped hooting. I fed her half the book before I heard her burp and, her stomach bulging, I set her down to sleep in the arms of her mother, the small family on the floor of her room.

Now, Gin is four. She reads the newspaper everyday but prefers trade paperback, the pocketbooks she buys on sale and in bulk. She still hoots when she's angry and she refuses to blink until her father allows her to taste his reports. She has even admitted to consuming some twenty-peso bills, just to try it out, she said, just to taste it. Why?