30 Abril 2013

Rear Window


How it was with men, Ding thought, depended on what they didn’t say, didn’t ask, didn’t do. The windows of his room he had flung wide open but the men sat in a small circle in a corner behind the house, beside the cement fence and much as he squirmed closer to the wall, much as he trained both sight and hearing, Ding had been locked out and the conversation that followed, the boy imagined as much as heard. 

About the short--

Rear Window is the finished first draft furtively titled Only Son. I wanted to write a story about a boy who learns:

  1. The difference between looking and staring and seeing
  2. The inherent intimacy of living in close quarters with strangers
 I ultimately wanted to craft a short that explores a young person's discovery of their own capacity to affect the world and the horrifying moment of finding themselves changed and altered in the process. My reader, Ace, said that although the premise and the characters had been essentially formed, neither the gut nor terrifying violence surfaced. As always, my problem isn't in the set-up but in moving the pieces.

Rear Window

Ding’s mother often joked how his large brown eyes popped out of their sockets from all his spying, looking, staring. He had acquired, after years of hiding and long moments of tireless appraisal, the singular gift of an unblinking stare and his entire moon face was lit up by mirror eyes. His mother complained how he bore a hole in her skull, pilfered her dreams, and watched how her fantasies were grown or made. She complained, most of all, about how the weight of his eyes pressed down upon her until her bones ached from being watched. Be careful, she said, you might see something unpleasant. At the time, the warning was trite and useless and Ding explained away his curiosity as the inheritance of an only child, an unica hijo.  

As usual, Ding woke up early to spy on the shack that had, one day, built itself on the empty, rocky lot behind his house. Ding had been wrong about the workmen's temporary lodging—two slits for windows and a green aluminum door stamped with their construction company's wiry logo of a half-built house and the letters E over C—it wasn't empty. Far from it.

The ten year-old rubbed the sleep out of his eyes, willing himself into wakefulness. He hadn’t dreamt the monster voices from the nearly-finished house—three storeys, heavy doors still swathed in blue plastic, and grill-less windows tinted tantalizing amber—temporarily occupied by the construction workers’ wives, four heavy-set women with mouths wide as their hips. His own room afforded the perfect view—with a gap only a meter short—of an empty room piled with boxes and dust. 

The only girl was seventeen year-old Siona, Kupal’s daughter, who like the older women, brought a different noise. Women cooed; they couldn’t help it. Siona was the first of her kind Ding had ever seen and, though she moved unsteadily, slipped on the smooth tiles, and though she cut her feet on the rocky, unpaved earth, she held herself straight and her body was narrow and cut in a way he had never imagined. Siona resembled his mother stripped of her largeness and the power she possessed in the world. 

Splintered sound sputtered from a handheld radio approximately twelve inches long, six wide, and four inches thick, almost the exact dimensions of the hand that held it steady and suspended in empty space, a stationary planet dead center among four brown bodies, the orbiting satellites captured and stilled into indolence by cracked commentary.  

Kupal crouched on the ground, an arm stiff against the wall for support. His hoots of appreciation were small eruptions; flat vowels ricocheted off the stunted cement wall against which the four men leaned. Ding followed the same game on the tiny muted television in his room, a gift he received earlier that year from his burly sea-faring father; the clumsy black box, his father had said, had been carried unopened all the way from Malaysia, from a mall stall selling second-hand Japanese equipment.  Seven months at sea and it still blasted perfect sound. When the onscreen image fizzled into violent streaks of color, Ding crossed his room and briefly jiggled the electric cords coiled into neat bows until the images jumped back, startlingly clear. The faulty wiring Ding blamed equally on his tiny strength and on his reliance on electrical tape. Don’t you want your father to help you set it up, his mother had asked when she came upon him crouched on the floor and watching static. But all Ding learned from his absentee father was how to shove the box into a room without preamble or ceremony. The ten year-old had spent the better half of the night noisily repositioning the small television all around his room, trying to find the spot that offered the best reception and listening to the  
It ended up beside his bed, propped up on school books and a rug.

From the handheld outside: Another Barako ball. Tunglao makes a beeline for the basket, side-steps Reyes, plows into Fanton for a foul! 

Ding heard Kupal’s howl of approval. Squatting out of sight beneath the ledge of his bedroom window, Ding with inflated cheeks tested the strength of his thighs and his skinny ten year-old ankles to sneak another peek. The sight of men gathered together brought an irrepressible tingle of anticipation that accompanied his active waiting to be discovered or acknowledged and included in some way.  As long as they stood, uninterrupted, in their little cluster, a galaxy of their own, they momentarily became the center of Ding’s universe and he gravitated toward them, moth to a flame, the weight of their presence tipped the world forward until Ding felt himself lurch inexplicably in their direction.

Ding had given them all nicknames in the same spirit he had earned his own moniker (‘ding’ as in dingding or wall, for all the times he slunk out of his mother’s sight to skulk, she said, or hide like one of the crepuscular house lizards whose ridged shadow stained their walls).  

Utong, darkest skinned of the quartet, chose to, shirtless, lay down cement blocks and shirtless sleep in the shade of the half-constructed house and shirtless and stinking slurp marrow from bone and drain the pot of bulalo. He stood by Bukol, arms crossed and wearing an expression of pain and misery. His team was losing. Yet, although Utong grunted, pouted, and hardly spoke, he was not as fearsome as Bukol, the gangly giant whose body was grotesque with unnatural growths as though his skin had been stuffed with durian instead of bones. But his arms, Ding noted, were corded with muscle and his hands were large and flat like oars. Bukol spoke most of all. But it was Tigang, absent on that balmy Friday morning, Ding watched most often; youngest of the four, his face was like a stormy afternoon. He was the only one among them, according to Bukol, who had not yet managed to claim a wife. And how often, how relentlessly, they teased him. ‘Tigang,’ after all, described parched land and cracked earth, a name Ding had often heard the others use. 

Bukol slapped the wall in frustration, grumbled, “why can’t they end this game properly, eh?” He sniffed, drew a sharp breath and made the noise of a drowning man while he hooked a finger between his legs to scratch an itch. He stood with his weight on one leg and he looked like a half-sunk ship. Utong grunted, a finger in one ear and an arm draped across Kupal’s shoulders, squinting at the radio that had lapsed into silence. They all faintly glowed and they all stood miraculously still, exorcised of the sexual energy that had thrummed in their bones or else burrowed like an acid into the flesh of their guts. For the first time in weeks, they were calm.
Kupal moved to the other side of the field to piss on a low wall. He chewed on a long nail, sucked the metal, asked “Is the boy awake yet? He’s missing out.” With a slur, he added, “have you seen him this morning?” which meant, of course, they hadn’t. “Came home shirtless and cold then asked if he could buy us breakfast, seemed eager to be out again.”

“Breakfast coffee to warm our bellies while we wait for Tigang,” Bukol announced, loud enough to carry where Kupal had begun hammering a nail into one of the wooden legs of a rickety stool. He seemed to unwind his body against the wall. “Maybe laing for lunch later, what would you like, eh?” Built like a tree stump, Tigang was Ding’s favorite. The boy felt a sense of camaraderie with the teenager, whose sinewy arms Ding coveted and admired, cemented when Kupal revealed his age. Tigang was only fifteen. That was almost ten. Ding narrowed his eyes against the windowpane and Kupal spat yellow phlegm. 

Kupal Ding christened for the unwelcome, tuneless laughter he used to interrupted conversation. It was garrulous Kupal’s laughter last night—a knife in the dark where Ding pretended to sleep, window open to tempt stray summer breeze and gossip—that had worried and frayed the rope of Tigang’s excitement wound tight around his gut into anxiety and apprehension for the arrival of Utong and Bukol’s wives. It was because Kupal also expected his youngest daughter, the teenager Siona ready to blossom. Kupal, the kind of man who understood only men, loudly promised his daughter would bring no crucifix to nail to the door. Like father like daughter, Kupal said loud enough to drown all other conversation until the pronouncement was the only thing to hear, to listen to, and it was the only thing Ding did not understand. Though none of the others acknowledged Kupal’s harmless teasing, Ding’s moon-bright eyes picked out the sly glance that passed among Bukol, Utong, and Tigang.    

Tigang emerged from the empty street, head bowed and shirtless and clutching a brown bag of pandesal in one hand, two cans of sardines in the other. Kupal began to sing and Ding heard Utong growl, “Clean your gullet of that noise, but be quiet, my wife is asleep up there,” he gestured to the house, somber gray lined with pale blue. Bukol snickered behind his hand. The radio crackled and instantly, as Kupal shifted his weight from one foot to the other, Utong’s glance hardened and cracked and he became, transformed in an instant, a violent man. That Utong disliked Kupal was a fact something both men neither acknowledged nor denied. Kupal belted out one last bar and shut his mouth. Kupal, rubbing his shoulders and twisting his arms to work sore muscles, walked away and out of sight to the farthest corner of the high wall to make water. 

Bukol huddled with Kupal who hummed against his closed lips, glancing now and again at the unreadable Utong. “Not today,” Bukol said. On Ding’s television, the game had ended. As though to punctuate the end of an argument, static gurgled from the workers’ dying radio. It was too early to work—the hammering would wake the neighborhood—and their wives were still all blessedly asleep, children tucked into the crooks of their arms.  

“Here he is, here he is,” Tigang walked out of the hut and, sitting back on his haunches, arranged a pan over their makeshift stove—gas burner flanked by hollow blocks, the pan sat on the edge, bottom licked by a blue flame—for sinangag, sautéed day-old rice flavored with salt and garlic. Bukol improvised an informal breakfast with left over tomato and itlog na pula but Kupal moved away and into the hut, waving away the meal. Utong dumped the portion onto his own plate. Tigang couldn’t help but hum, on his face a vacuous expression full of lazy curiosity. 

How it was with men, Ding thought, depended on what they didn’t say, didn’t ask, didn’t do. The windows of his room he had flung wide open but the men sat in a small circle in a corner behind the house, beside the cement fence and much as he squirmed closer to the wall, much as he trained both sight and hearing, Ding had been locked out and the conversation that followed, the boy imagined as much as heard. 

“Who won, then? Kamusta?” Tigang asked no one with a mouthful of egg yolk. They cleaned their plates.
“Looks like you did,” Kupal leaned against the wall, alone and apart. But even Bukol, tactless as the worst of them, said nothing. Kupal hummed again and Utong disappeared in his infinite silence. Tigang licked his fingers. Ding burned to look at him, to see his face crumple when he was teased. The boy found some form of irreverent joy in watching the young man’s discomfort and he wasn’t used to the show being hidden from him. Ding was only ten and as yet unfamiliar with the creeping joy of deception and secrets. When Tigang didn’t answer, Ding imagined Kupal continued eating, already bored. 

Ding heard the crunch of gravel, someone yawn and heave so that, from where he sat half-crouching and still hidden, he allowed himself to slowly stand. He ached for a better view.  He saw Tigang—shirtless, still, as Utong—stretching himself fully awake in a shaded corner of the narrow back yard. In the same instant that Ding, with one cheek pressed against the merciless bars of his window, first noticed the thin strip of sodden plastic on his wide window ledge and the strange pus-yellow stain on his curtain, Siona opened the second-floor windows in a suspiciously familiar shirt, and Kupal’s humming stopped. 

“Are you hungry, my child, have you eaten?” Kupal slurred. Ding saw Tigang step back without retreating, allowed Kupal a better view of Siona in his shirt. “Have you?” Far away, Utong guffawed and Bukol hissed. From where he stood, still unacknowledged and unseen, Ding felt the hot acidic boiling in his chest and the world shifted, caught him unbalanced, and tipped him forward. Somehow he had stepped from obscurity, from passive watchfulness, into action. Standing ramrod straight on tiptoe, Ding plucked the condom from his ledge. He had first encountered them a few months ago, on his father’s last visit, wadded up and discarded in the bathroom wastebasket. With an expert flick of his wrist, he sent it sailing over the wall; it landed on Kupal’s shoulder and, for a terrible minute, everyone’s collective gaze swiveled to him, to Ding and his large moon eyes. 

He wasn’t used to being stared at but in that moment, he enjoyed it, relished the accusation he recognized briefly in Kupal’s stare, the amusement and—did he imagine it?—admiration in Tigang’s. But Siona, he could not see and could not bear to look at. Not her in soft white linen, curve of her breasts firm and insistent against fabric. 

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