Qwertyman No. 25: Courtesy Ca. 2023

Qwertyman for Monday, January 23, 2023

THIS TOPIC wouldn’t have occurred to me to write about if I hadn’t come across—in my meanderings online as a collector of antiquarian books and papers—a copy of a slim pamphlet published by the University of the Philippines Press in 1936, titled “Courtesy Appeals by the President’s Committee on Courtesy.” But as soon as I saw that title, I knew I had to get that pamphlet and reflect on the observance (most likely in the breach) of its prescriptions today.

To be honest, I never even heard of a “committee on courtesy” in UP. Neither, as a former student and professor, did I ever instinctively attach the word “courtesy” to UP, although I will not agree to any collective condemnation of “Iskos” and “Iskas” as boorish and uncultured. Granted, UP lore is rich with tales of what we’ll call youthful insolence toward their elders, in ways that would make even millennials cringe. (Who was that young poet who, in a writers’ workshop, supposedly stole a famous lady poet’s underwear—don’t ask me how—and strung it up a flagpole or hung it on a line, prompting her friend—another professor known for her fiery temper—to curse the laughing fellows: “I wish your mothers had aborted you!”) 

Meekness may not be one of a UP student’s strongest suits, because we teach them to assert themselves. But we also teach them to criticize or comment with style and intelligence, as when a young wit responded to a customary recitation of then President Carlos P. Romulo’s kilometric list of honorary degrees by saying, “Why, Mr. President, you have more degrees than a thermometer!” (In fairness to CPR, that fellow went on to an illustrious career accompanied by much—and some say self-generated—pomp and circumstance.)

Courtesy, of course, is not about sticking out but about staying in—behaving oneself for social acceptability and harmony, living up to someone else’s expectations by observing a strict code of do’s and don’ts. At least that’s how it was appreciated in the 1930s, when President Jorge Bocobo created the committee that came out with the prescriptions in the pamphlet. Although he served as one of UP’s most hardworking and effective presidents—someone who pushed UP students to go out and serve the masses—Bocobo was also known to be a rather prudish disciplinarian. He had been on the committee that censured Jose Garcia Villa for publishing his “obscene” and “ultramodernistic” poem “Song of Ripeness,” leading to Villa’s suspension and hastening his departure for more liberal America. He also cut down on the popular student dances that Rafael Palma allowed, and enforced the rule for student uniforms. When Guillermo Tolentino presented his design for the Oblation statue, Bocobo had one important comment: protect its modesty with a fig leaf, which was done. Not surprisingly, although again a bit too simply, he was called “the gloomy dean” by the editorialists of the time.

In 1936, when the pamphlet came out, Jorge Bocobo was almost midway through his presidency (1934-39). I learned that 8,000 copies were printed to be handed out to all students, and teachers were required to discuss its contents—all 20 pages of them—in class.

Some of its prescriptions are entirely understandable for the period:

“A young lady of social position does not go to a ball without a chaperon.”

“When a gentleman is introduced to a lady, he does not extend his hand first. It is the lady’s place to show whether she wants to shake hands or not.”

“When a lady leaves a gentleman to whom she has been introduced, she never says she is ‘glad to have met him’ or that she ‘hopes to see him again.’’

Some would be perfectly applicable today:

“Annoying the ladies by staring at them or making remarks about them as they pass cannot be countenanced.”

“Avoid being a bore by talking too much. Be a sympathetic listener.”

Some would be difficult to enforce:

“It would be nicer if gentlemen should remove their hats on entering a building.”

“Do not wear a tuxedo at daytime.”

“(Do not) thrust the individual knife into a butter dish or the individual fork into a pickle dish.”

“Bananas are peeled into a plate and taken with the fork.”

I was amused, as many of you would be, but these social commandments (yes, they were far more than “appeals,” and students and faculty were disciplined for disobeying them) invited me to wonder how we look at courtesy today or even think about it, let alone practice it. Thanks to the anonymity provided by the Internet and to a toxic political environment, rudeness if not obnoxiousness seem to have become the norm. It’s almost customary to assume that the other fellow is uninformed, hostile, stupid, or just plain wrong, and I have to confess to thinking this of many people I encounter for the first time, especially online. 

I’ve been on the receiving end of these assumptions as well. An expat American—a Trumper—once tried to convince me that I knew nothing about America, as did an expat Brit who lectured me about the monarchy like I’d never read a book (I could’ve lectured him back on Elizabethan revenge tragedy, but he could have been just a regular fellow who didn’t know anything about me, and why should he, so I desisted and let it slide).

Courtesy today clearly involves more than etiquette or protocol, more than observing antiquated codes of behavior requiring you to use this fork or that spoon. It’s more a matter of attitude toward other people, of assuming them worthy of respect and an intelligent and civil response (until they prove otherwise, as many inevitably do, especially in politics). 

Unfortunately we also too easily conflate courtesy with external manners, with opening doors for ladies (which I still do, although my wife Beng sometimes has to remind me there’s a door in front of us). On a higher order of behavior, aren’t profligacy and ostentation extreme forms of discourtesy to a people struggling to make ends meet? Do arrogance and impunity invite respect, or resentment and disdain?

What could a “Courtesy Appeals” for 2023 read like? “Do not waste the people’s hard-earned money” seems like a good place to start.

(Some factoids mentioned here come from an unpublished, unofficial history of UP. You can check them out against an official history published recently by the UP Press.)

Qwertyman No. 23: The Glass Sibuyas

Qwertyman for Monday, January 9, 2023

(With apologies to some of our readers who might not catch the reference to Benoit Blanc. A little Googling will help.)

THE INTERNATIONALLY famed detective Benoit Blanc knew immediately what he was up against the minute his airport limousine stopped in Manila’s infernal traffic and he found himself staring at a Burger Queen outlet with an unusual sign: “NO ONIONS TODAY.” It seemed inconceivable that Wimpies could be sold anywhere in the world without onions, but here it was, the living proof of the mystery he had been engaged to figure out. He had initially declined the assignment, being more interested in the case of a dusky Brazilian heiress who had gone missing on a yacht off St. Tropez after imbibing vodka laced with one-carat diamonds—that sort of intrigue being more down his alley—but the anonymous party who had hired him (wiring a million euros into his Bahamian account) had been persistent. 

The sudden shortage of onions in the Philippines was proving to be nothing short of a national embarrassment that was threatening the stability of the new government, and it had to be explained. Local law enforcement could not be trusted because they had long been in the pocket of the onion lobby, explained the other party (whose voice had been digitally distorted, but whose cadence of speech—punctuated with many uhms and uhhs—sounded strangely familiar to Blanc when he looked up some YouTube videos on the Philippines). Blanc didn’t bother to verify his suspicions; detectives of his caliber could not afford to be distracted by politics, which was messier but also simpler than murder, with the perpetrator often in plain sight, and where crime was rarely followed by punishment.

On the first of his three days in Manila, Blanc put on his best disguise as a French tourist in search of the best onion soup in the city. Even in the poshest hotel, all he could find was a tepid bowl of caramel-colored water with a few token rings of the spice and the grainy evidence of flavored powder. When he queried the chef about the omission, the exasperated man urged Benoit to go to the public market and see for himself what the real situation was. 

So the detective got his driver to park a block away from Farmers Market; he could go no further, because large and noisy crowds had massed around the block, bearing placards decrying the severe shortage of onions and demanding social justice. A fat lady in a polka dot dress emerged from within the market nervously clutching a big bag that was clearly marked “RICE,” but the little round bulges in the bag gave the ruse away and before she could make it to her car, the crowd pounced on her and her bag like a pack of wolves, spilling onions that rolled onto the ground, for which grandmothers and little boys socked each other to grab. Benoit gasped as he saw one onion being thrown like a football from a quarterback to a receiver, only to vanish into the heart of chaos as the latter was tackled by a chorus of slipper-shod defensive linemen. Goodness me, said Blanc, something terrible is happening in this country. If I can’t unravel the mystery of the missing onions soon, a bloody revolution could follow.

The following day, Benoit Blanc visited with Dr. Luzvimindo Bimbo, Chief Research Scientist of the Omnibus Institute, to get a more scientific handle on the problem. Dr. Bimbo flashed a series of PowerPoint slides onscreen to orient the detective. “Among 151 countries surveyed, the Philippines ranked 135th among 151 countries in onion consumption per capita, varying from an all-time low of 0.42 kilos in 1964 to 2.47 kilos in 2018, according to Helgi Analytics. Compare that to the Americans, whose consumption rose from 5.53 kilos in in 1982 to just over 9 kilos in 2018. And even that’s nothing compared to the Libyans, who couldn’t survive without consuming 30.3 kilos per person—the highest in the world. On average, people eat 6.2 kilos of onions every year.”

“Well, I’ll be,” said Blanc. “So we can safely conclude that Filipinos actually don’t consume onions as much as most other countries in the world.” 

“Certainly not,” said Dr. Bimbo. 

“And yet there’s a shortage?”

“Apparently so, as we can see from the onion riots that have now led to five deaths and countless injuries. Part of it may be artificial demand—when people hear something’s in short supply, the more they want it—but that doesn’t explain the lack of onions at Burger Queen. Even my wife can’t get onions for my bistek Tagalog!”

“Bustique Tagawhat? Never mind…. Someone’s been hoarding the commodity, for nefarious reasons we have yet to establish. Who, why, where?”

Later that day, Benoit mulled over the possibilities as he nursed his Hennessy in his hotel suite overlooking Manila Bay. Quite likely, the solution was in plain sight—like a many-layered glass onion which you still could see straight through. The plain-sight answer was profit—someone was making a killing retailing the stuff at P1,000/kilo—but it seemed too simple, too prosaic, for him to have been brought into the picture. 

But as the sun dipped into the horizon in a spectacular display of radiance, Benoit forgot all about onions as his memories drifted to another sunset he had spent with his girlfriend in the Maldives, just before he flew off to another mystery in Copenhagen, and before the tsunami struck. His eyes welled with tears at the thought—and then he realized he had his answer.

The next morning, before packing his bags for his flight home, the detective called the number of the one who had engaged him to report on his findings. Again he was answered in a raspy digital voice, but Blanc knew exactly who it was. “You already know who has all the onions, probably stockpiled in a high-security warehouse next to a top-secret manufacturing facility. Syn-Propanethial-S-oxide. Onions release this chemical irritant to produce tears. I estimate that with the onions taken out of the market, you would have synthesized a metric ton of the substance by now. Why did you need to bring me in?” he asked with obvious annoyance.

“Because I wanted someone else to appreciate my predicament,” said the voice after a pause. “It gets very lonely when you and you alone can’t cry. Where have all my tears gone, Mr. Blanc? Answer me that, and I’ll give you another million euros.”

Benoit thought of saying something like “Where has your heart gone?” but it felt too mushy for someone of Blanc’s sangfroid, and he decided that his job here was done, and shut his suitcase for the next flight to Dakkar.

Qwertyman No. 22: The Boss

Qwertyman for Monday, January 2, 2023

(This week, our story deals with two security guards chatting between Christmas and New Year about money, power, and ambition.)

“RUDY! YOU’RE thirty minutes early. My shift doesn’t end until two.”

“Nothing much to do at home, Oca. My wife keeps nagging me about our Christmas bonus—”

“What Christmas bonus? The one we never got? Haha!”

“She thinks I’m keeping it to myself—or worse, spending it on another woman.”

“Which is what you would have done if you got it—”

“And why the hell not? What’s a bonus for but for, uhm, something special? But damn, it’s almost the New Year and I’m not only broke, I’m in the hole by five thousand, which I borrowed from Pedring for noche buena. Of course I had to put something on the table, or Marita would’ve complained even more.”

“Five thousand? That’s a lot of food.”

“Couldn’t be just food, you know how it is…. I tried to see if I could pay it off right away with a few bets at the races, but I swear those horses hate me. At least I had enough left for some small presents for the kids, for Marita, a bottle of perfume, you can get these from Daiso for a few hundred, and I got some pancit and roast chicken and pineapple juice. Everybody was happy, even Marita, and she smelled good, too, all night long, so good I couldn’t believe it was her lying next to me—until she woke up in the morning and asked me for more money, and I had to confess that I’d just borrowed some from Pedring. So she got mad because you know how Pedring is—if you don’t pay up in a week, he or his boys will come over and grab your TV or cellphone or whatever they can get their hands on, or they break your bones to teach you a lesson—”

“Didn’t you use to be one of Pedring’s boys?”

“Yes. I was. No need to remind me, Oca. It was a bad time in my life. Some days, it still is.”

“At least you now have a real job. The both of us. I don’t know what I’d be doing myself if the agency didn’t take us in.”

“Yeah, the both of us. But the big difference is, I have six mouths to feed, and you don’t. You get to keep all of your salary, and to blow it on whatever you want.”

“I’m just not there yet, but who knows, I’ll want a family, too.”

“You don’t know what you’re asking for, Oca. Me, all I ever wanted was to be a boss.”

“Like Pedring?”

“Why not? I’m smarter than Pedring. But I want to be something way bigger than Pedring. I want to be a big boss, like Cong Mando—”

“You want to be a congressman? Representing what? You told me that there are people in your province who would kill you if you ever showed your face there again!”

“Party list, man, don’t you know what a party list is? I can represent people like us—security guards. If not for us, where would people like Cong Mando be, huh, you tell me that. We keep the world safe for people—”

“Even people like Cong Mando, right?”

“Yeah! You and me, Oca, we put our lives on the line every day and every night so he can go to bed with his starlet of the month without worrying about his political enemies—”

“Or worse, his wife!”—”

“Barging through the gate, haha! Over my dead body—our boss should know that, how brave and loyal we are. You know, pards, if Cong Mando was really smart, he should have hired us directly, instead of going through the agency.”

“It’s cheaper for him to pay the agency, which his brother owns.”

“But we could be his bodyguards. We should be the ones with the Uzis, not that idiot Gardo and his gang. Why are we even carrying these silly .38s? We could show them and show the boss what security really means—whap, bak, bam! Bababadabadap!”

“I’m happy I’ve never had to shoot mine. I wonder if it still even works.”

“We deserve real guns, Oca. Like the ones the boss has in his arsenal. I heard he uses them for target practice back in the province. I even heard—don’t tell anyone you got this from me—I even heard he used them on some people he didn’t like. Tied them up to coconut trees and shot them from the hood of his Range Rover. That’s real power, pards—to do that, and to get away with it.”

“So that’s why you want to be a congressman? To show people how powerful you are?”

“That’s the problem with you, Oca—you don’t think big, you’re happy being small and meek and being ordered around. You don’t know how to command other people. That’s why you’ll never be a boss!” 

“I guess not.”

“You need to be more assertive, or people will think you’re a patsy and push you around. That’s why I want to be Cong Mando’s bodyguard and carry some real firepower, so I can get even with people like Pedring who make life difficult for people like me…. Oh God, if I don’t pay him back the five thousand by Friday, he’s going to kill me. You know he’s capable of doing that, Oca. I’ve seen him do it. I’ve helped him do it. I just wanted to get out of that but it seems I can’t, ever…. Can you help me? I’m sure you’ve saved up a bit, you hardly spend on anything—I’ll pay you back as soon as I can—”

“So that’s why you came early tonight? To ask me for some money which both you and I know I’m never going to see again?”

“Since when have I ever let you down, pards? I know I owe you a couple of hundred here and there but what’s that between friends? Come on, Oca, you’re the only decent person left that I know.”

“I’m sorry, but I’m signing the logbook and I’m going home.” 

“For God’s sake, Oca! It’s only five thousand. Come on, I know you have the money, You said you were saving up for a new phone— what kind of a friend are you? Going home to watch porn and jerk off by your lonesome while—”

“I’ll give you the money, Rudy.”

“What? Really? You’re not kidding me? Oh, you’re such a good man, Oca!”

“On one condition—“

“Sure! I know how this goes. Look, I’ll pay you six thousand in one month, I promise….”

“It’s not the money, Rudy. I just want you to do something for me.”

“Name it!”

“I want you to kneel in front of me, and say, ‘Thank you, boss’.”

Qwertyman No. 19: The Real Maria Ressa

Qwertyman for Monday, December 12, 2022

I WAS very honored to speak last Saturday at the launch of Maria Ressa’s new book, How to Stand up to a Dictator: The Fight for Our Future (Harper, 2022). I’d read an advance copy of it a couple of weeks ago, and to cut to the chase, if you’re thinking of buying a book to read for the holidays or to gift to friends, look no further. This book, for me, is among the year’s best in nonfiction.

I have to emphasize that word—nonfiction. As we all know we live in times when fiction has taken over as the most influential form of human discourse, particularly in the political arena. As a practicing fictionist, I should be happy about that, but I’m not and I can’t be, because so much of it is bad fiction, crudely written—and surprisingly, infuriatingly effective, at least with a certain kind of reader. 

Maria’s book cuts through all that. It’s undisguised, old-fashioned, in-your-face truth-telling, told in the same voice and tone we’ve become familiar with over the years of listening to her reportage over CNN. I’m sure that, like me, many of you wondered the first time you heard her: “Who was this little brown-complexioned woman speaking with an American accent?” She looked Filipino, but how come we’d never seen her before?

This was all before she rose to prominence—some would say notoriety—as the moving spirit behind Rappler, and subsequently to global fame as a Nobel Prize winner for Peace. We identified with her travails, shared her anger and sadness at the abuse she has received, and rejoiced in her victories, whether in the courts or in the larger sphere of public opinion. 

But how well do we really know Maria Ressa, and whatever drives her to be who and what she is? This book takes us to the person behind the phenomenon, and answers many questions we may have had about her and her stubborn advocacies.

The book’s title sounds like that of an instruction manual—which it is, and also is not, being part autobiography, part journalism, and part testimonial. As a manual for freedom fighters, it emphasizes the need for collaborative and collective action against seemingly insurmountable forces. Those forces now include the Internet, which, as Maria documents with both precision and profound dismay, has morphed from a medium that once held all kinds of liberative promises into a medium for mass deception and targeted assault. She draws her counsel not from some esoteric guru or academic paradigm, but from some very basic values that have informed her own life—the Honor Code she followed in school, and the Golden Rule.

“That’s what I lay out in this book,” she says, “an exploration into the values and principles not just of journalism and technology but of the collective action we need to take to win this battle for facts. This journey of discovery is intensely personal. That’s why every chapter has a micro and a macro: a personal lesson and the larger picture. You will see the simple ideas I hold on to in order to make what have—over time—become instinctive but thoughtful decisions.”

It’s this constant back-and-forth between the personal and the political—and at some point they become inextricably fused—that forms the fiber of Maria’s narrative and gives it strength. Her convictions are grounded in personal experience; they have not been paid for—as the hacks in the journalistic trade will allege, seeking to bring her down to their own level—except in the coin of personal suffering under the constant threat of imprisonment and violence.

But we learn from this book that trauma is nothing new to Maria. (We also learn that Maria Ressa wasn’t the name she was born into, but to find out her birth name, you’ll have to buy the book.) From her abrupt relocation from Manila to America at the age of ten, to her journalistic immersion in the horrors of conflict and disaster in Indonesia and Ormoc, the book chronicles Maria’s quest for truth, meaning, and purpose in her life, and that of others. She stresses the importance of remembering the past to make sense of the present, quoting TS Eliot’s phrase, “the present moment of the past.”

And so can we, she seems to suggest, even in these times of high anxiety, when we can see the vultures hovering over such once-sacrosanct treasures as our pension funds, while billions more go to feed the dogs of an increasingly untenable counter-insurgent war. The big words we have become used to tossing around—truth, freedom, reason, justice, democracy—they all come down to a personal choice to do the right thing, and the courage to do it. 

Nowhere is this matter of choice more evident than in the fact that Maria is here in the Philippines, having willfully subjected herself to our brand of justice, however imperfect it may be, instead of escaping to the safety of America or another haven, which her dual citizenship if not her celebrity can certainly afford her. She will see her own story through to the end, in the locale where it matters, among the people to whom it matters most.

I’ve often remarked, as a creative writer and professor of literature, that in this country, the writers most in danger of political persecution and retribution are really not fictionists or poets like me. Not since Rizal has a Filipino novelist been shot dead for what he wrote. For sure, we have lost many brilliant writers to the struggle for freedom and democracy—Emman Lacaba, and most recently Lorena Tariman and her husband Ericson Acosta. But they were killed by the State not for what they wrote—the State is illiterate when it comes to metaphor—but for what they allegedly did.

Rather, the most imperiled writers in the Philippines as in many other places are the journalists who speak the language of the people and of their plaints in terms too clear to ignore. They could be radio announcers like Percy Lapid, or the victims of wholesale murder in Maguindanao, or high-profile and exemplary targets such as Maria Ressa. It would have been easy for her to lash back at her critics and tormentors with the same viciousness. But, she says, “I will not become a criminal to fight a criminal. I will not become a monster to fight a monster.”

That, too, is a difficult choice, and one I am sure we are often tempted to cast aside. But Maria’s equanimity in the face of savagery shames us back into our better selves. It will be that kind of quiet resolve that we will need to survive and prevail. After all, we survived martial law. We can survive this regime—with agility, patience, and courage. But don’t take my word for it. Read Maria’s book to know that we can, and why we must.

Qwertyman No. 18: The Excavation

Qwertyman for Monday, December 5, 2022

PRISONER Q felt his shovel bite into the soil with what sounded like a sigh of satisfaction. It had rained, and the earth was dark and soft and yielded without complaint. Beside him, his fellow inmates attacked the job with gusto, happy to be outside under an overcast sky instead of stewing in their cells and taking turns napping, because of the limited space. The mayores or cell block leaders could, of course, sleep anytime; they even had bunks to stretch out on while everyone else languished on the floor or stood up against the railings. 

As an agurang or elder, Prisoner Q enjoyed a few privileges—he got into the front of the line at mealtimes, although he ate the same sweaty rice and slurped the same dishwater soup, and now and then he got a pack of cigarettes from his mayor or (he was told) even the warden himself because he could write in English and could draft special requests or letters of appeal, but otherwise, especially to the outside world, he was just one of them, another mouth to feed at the state’s expense.

So everyone was surprised when Prisoner Q volunteered to join the excavation detail that the warden ordered to be put together for a special project in a vacant lot toward the back of the prison. It wasn’t his body they questioned—he had stayed fit over the 14 years he had been in prison, and was in better shape than when he came in—but his mind. These labor details were usually assigned to newcomers who needed to be broken in, who needed to be jerked out of the utak-laya mindset they clung to with their fingernails. It was backbreaking work, and more than one inmate had collapsed from exhaustion or sunstroke. Many assumed that Prisoner Q merely wanted a change of scenery, a change of pace to ward off buryong, the prison blues that led to slashed wrists and, worse, running amok and causing mass mayhem.

They also wondered what all the digging was for, and why the warden didn’t just bring in a backhoe to do the job. At first it had seemed like all they were digging was a ditch, but it grew bigger and deeper by the day and by the week, until it was the size and depth of a swimming pool. And still they dug on for up to ten hours a day, their meals brought down to them, with a makeshift latrine in a corner for their immediate needs. The dig turned up old beer and soft-drink bottles, ceramic shards, a scorched wristwatch, and Army-issue spoons and forks, but nothing of extraordinary value, except for a silver ring that had lost its stone. Whatever they found was laid out on the surface on a white cotton bedsheet, and now and then the warden came by to inspect and to collect the more interesting pieces, tossing the rest back into the maw of the excavation. Sometimes the warden consulted a map that he had on his phone, which no one else could see, and measured distances. Rumors began to spread that the warden was after treasure, that he had gotten hold of a wartime Japanese map that indicated the presence of at least part of Yamashita’s marvelous loot in this particular quadrant of the prison. 

One day Prisoner Q dug up the head of a bisque doll, half of its face badly burnt. Its one good eye stared at him, and he threw it away. And then from a few inches deeper emerged the skeletons, a whole tangled mass of them, as if they had chosen to die together in some conflagration. A scrap of cloth bore a flowered print; the heel was peeling off a man’s shoe. The news of the bones’ discovery hardly caused a stir in the penitentiary, where corpses of even more recent vintage turned up all over. The warden picked through the bones like they were cattle, and pulled a thin gold ring from a finger. He ordered Prisoner Q’s gang to put the bones in the trash and to resume digging. Prisoner Q cradled the three skulls in his arms and set them down carefully on the wheelbarrow; one of them had a gaping hole on the right; another had lost its jaw. He wondered what kind of violence could have led to such a catastrophic end. He had seen terrible things done to people and to bodies in prison, and he had almost forgotten what violence meant. He felt impervious to injury.

That night, lying on his back, Prisoner Q’s thoughts drifted off to what it was like to sleep again on a soft bed with freshly ironed sheets and with a woman breathing evenly beside him, and much as he wanted to quench the thought, it grew, seemingly on its own, in his imagination. This was the utak-laya he had successfully suppressed within his first three years, making him forget the family he had forbidden from visiting him in prison; his share from the last robbery would take care of their needs for life, and last he heard they had a farm in Casiguran, facing another ocean. 

The woman lying next to him soon had a son of about six, who rode a red bicycle and was crazy about cars. When Prisoner Q offered him a car he had crafted out of a sardine can and bottlecaps, the boy turned away. Prisoner Q followed the boy to his room and saw how it overflowed with toys of all kinds—robots, guns, planes, and of course cars—and he jumped in surprise when a blue sportscar zipped between his feet and ran away, and the boy holding the remote control laughed gleefully. Then the woman came in and said, “It’s time for merienda. I made some biko and hot chocolate.” Biko, he tried to think, biko? The sticky rice clung to his palate and he could smell and taste the coconut milk in it, and he was smiling when he was shaken awake by a foot in his ribs, nudging him to get up. The dream exploded in his brain, and he tried to hold on to parts of it—that whiff of coconut, the boy’s taunts—but they came away in shreds. He wanted to lash out at the man who had woken him up, but it was just his friend Teroy, claiming his space on the floor.

That morning they dug some more, and then they ran out of earth, and hit solid adobe on which their spades were useless. No treasure could have been buried deeper than this virgin rock. The warden cursed at his misfortune and called the digging off. Prisoner Q’s grief was even greater; he was still scraping away at a hole that had opened up inside of him, and he could not stop.

Qwertyman No. 16: Prisoner Y

Qwertyman for Monday, November 21, 2022

PRISONER Y was still chewing on a tasty strip of cartilage that clung to the meatless rib he had fished out of the soup when he felt Cortes’ breath on his nape and heard his wheezing voice: “The warden wants to see you. Now.” He stood up, tossed the rib back onto his tray—a hand quickly grabbed it from nowhere—and turned to follow the guard. He wondered what the warden wanted this time. 

Nearly all the fans in the mess hall were out of commission and the inmates’ sweat mixed in the air with the fat curdling in the lukewarm broth, and Prisoner Y looked forward to the air-conditioning in the warden’s office, although he was sure the warden didn’t call him in for a conversation. The last couple of times, in fact, it was the warden’s secretary who had spoken to him, and he barely glimpsed the warden through the half-open door. 

The first time, he was picked up just outside the service gate by three men in an SUV, who brought him to a warehouse in Parañaque, where a man was trussed up, his head in a sack, screaming in a language Prisoner Y couldn’t make out. One of the men handed Prisoner Y a .45 and nodded; another man pointed another .45 at him; the third man held up his phone and recorded everything. Prisoner Y aimed at the victim’s head and fired; the body spasmed and stopped writhing. They drove him back to the prison, where Cortes met him at the gate and ushered him back to his cell. 

When his cellmates asked where he had been—now and then one of them would be gone like that for a day—Prisoner Y said that the warden had asked him to do some carpentry at his home; he had been a handyman in his past life, before the debts piled up and he learned to do other things with his hands. When someone asked him why he didn’t make a break for it while he could, and someone else remarked how all he wanted was an hour at the mall to savor the cool air and watch the salesgirls bending over, Prisoner Y said—truthfully, recalling how humid that warehouse was and how it reeked of stale oil and some shapeless menace—that he felt safer inside.

On his wife’s next visit that Sunday, she was deliriously happy. A man had come by their house, she said, and had dropped off some money in an envelope, saying that it was something owed her husband for a job he had done inside the prison. What did you do, she asked, did you build a house for the warden? It was enough to buy a new stove and a smartphone for Carmela, who needed it for school. I worked on the prison chapel, he lied, knowing it would make her happy; the old roof was leaking and you know the chapel is the warden’s pet project.

The second time it was different, because he had to ride on the back of a motorcycle that one of his handlers drove, and shoot his target on the run. The man, he realized to his horror, was the prison chaplain, walking the street in a Hawaiian shirt and slacks, as though on his day off, in search of a special meal or a movie to watch. Instantly Prisoner Y understood—the chaplain had spoken to the media about how prisoners complained to him about their food, how the prison officials skimmed a percentage off every sack of rice and kilo of stringy pork that entered the kitchen; there was talk of an investigation, although the inmates doubted anything would come out of it. He was there to make sure. It should have been easier to do with the priest in common garb, shorn of his soutane, but then the priest turned toward him as he fired and he could see the man’s terminal expression, one more of resigned acceptance than anything else. Despite himself, Prisoner Y muttered a prayer for forgiveness as they sped away.

Today Cortes led him past the secretary straight into the warden’s office and closed the door behind them. The warden was on his cellphone, a cigarette in his other hand; some ashes drifted onto his barong and he shot up from his seat to stub the cigarette into an ashtray and flick the ashes off without any change of voice in his phone conversation. “Of course, pañero, you don’t even need to ask, send my love to Mercy and the girls.” He shut his phone off and turned to Prisoner Y, who remained standing with his hands behind him. “How’s your wife? Is she happy? You know what they say—happy wife, happy life!” Prisoner Y murmured something like “Yes she is, thanks,” but the warden was already coming over to his side of the table. “Let’s take a walk,” he said. “I want to talk about your future.” What was there to talk about? The future was his life sentence for murder.

In his six years in the penitentiary, Prisoner Y thought he had seen everything, every grimy corner of it, even the luxury suites inhabited by the drug lords and out-of-power politicians, but now the warden led him past the kitchen down a corridor he had assumed led to cold storage, and he was right; when Cortes unlocked the doors and pulled them open, a blast of cold air stung his nose, along with an acrid curl of some potent chemical. 

The warden flicked the light switch on and Prisoner Y saw them: a swarm of cadavers—some on raised platforms, many just on the floor, under browning blankets that could not cover everything. He could see fingers withered dry. “Stabbings, cancer, TB, chokings—they all end up here, the ones without family, the ones no one will miss. We should just burn these but there’s a budget for their maintenance. I’ve made sure of that.” 

“Why did you bring me here?” 

The warden nudged the edge of one blanket with his foot. “Your next job will be so important that it will have to be done by someone who might as well be dead.” Prisoner Y rubbed his arm and said, “I still have a family.” The warden looked at him calmly and said, “I know. You do. That’s why we’re here.” Prisoner Y shivered from a chill colder than bare ice.

Qwertyman No. 13: Something Good

Qwertyman for October 31, 2022

MINISTER QUAQUA was having a bad day—a very bad day, probably the worst since he was appointed to his post by President Ongong after they had finished two bottles of Balvenie Portwood, with boiled peanuts and chicharon bituka on the side. Quaqua had brought the chicharon bituka to the Palace as a gift to the President, ostensibly as a sample of his company’s latest R&D. A self-professed man of science, the President was known to be interested in cutting-edge research. 

Pork was highly coveted by Kawefans, but was now considered contraband, because of a longstanding ban on pork and pork products forced by the great swine flu epidemic of 1986. Some Kawefan families, including the Quaquas, had made fortunes by creating and marketing fake pork—veggie-based substitutes for adobo, barbecue, and sisig. Pork smuggling was therefore big business, and naturally the Quaquas had a finger in that pie, too. The anti-pork law allowed for a tiny sample of real pork to be imported for research purposes, for producers of the fake stuff to run taste tests of their bogus bolognas against. The rumor was that pork was coming into Kawefo by the ton, and even more alarmingly, that the Quaquas kept a top-secret pig farm in the distant province of Suluk-sulukan under armed guard, producing Chinese ham, chicharon bituka, and tocinofor the most select clients, including the First Family. 

Quaqua had come to the Palace not just to share some pulutan with an old friend, but to advise him against yielding to the strong pro-pork lobby, which argued for the legalization of pork, so every Kawefan could enjoy his or her rightful taste of inihaw na baboy. It was a popular initiative, certain to gain the ruling party more votes in the next election. But Quaqua had a strong counter-argument: legalizing banned substances not only negated decades of established jurisprudence (he was a lawyer, after all), but would put legitimate producers of healthy substitutes out of business—and, he didn’t need to add, abolish the black market in pork altogether. 

“Just look at what those fools in Bukolandia did with drugs,” he told Ongong as he poured the Balvenie. “To take care of the drug problem, they legalized drugs, so not only is the whole country now on a high, but the economy is down because there’s no business to be made, with people planting weed and cooking up meth in their own backyards. We can’t allow that to happen—imagine, if people bred their own pigs, how common the taste of lechon and chicharon would be. Fake pork can take care of that demand without turning our country into a stinking pigsty. True pork has to remain—” and here he munched on a morsel of bituka—“a restricted commodity.”

There must have been something more than MSG in what Quaqua fed the President, because he was appointed Minister of Justice on the spot, as he had been praying novenas for. Now, he could tell the Kawefan Bureau of Investigation (KBI) to spend its time on worthier pursuits like chasing after subversive authors and professors instead of bothering with peripheral issues like pork smuggling.

But barely had he warmed his seat when his first crisis exploded. One of the President’s peskiest critics, Dr. Fofo, a radio broadcaster from way down south, had been shot dead by two men on a motorcycle. That wasn’t the problem—after all, presidential critics died all the time. They should’ve read the news and shut up if they knew what was good for them. The problem was that Dr. Fofo’s killers stupidly got caught when a piglet sprang from out of nowhere—likely an escapee from an illegal farm—and enticed the duo to chase it, until their motorcycle hit a post. In police custody, the two boasted of their connections and were threatening to out their mastermind if they weren’t released soon. Social media was on their case.

“We can’t let these idiots cause a fuss,” Quaqua told his assistant, Vice Minister for Public Affairs Zhuzhu. “They screw up, they pay the consequences. That’s justice!… Hoy, are you listening? I just said—”

“Sir, Mr. Minister, we have a bigger problem!” The assistant was on his mobile phone and looked deeply worried.

“Why? What happened?”

“Sir—your wife—Mrs. Quaqua was just arrested!”

“What? Where? Why?”

“At the airport. They booked her for—uhm—stealing the silverware in business class. They say they found several pairs of spoons and forks in her handbag.”

“Are they crazy? Does that airline want its landing rights revoked? Taking home spoons and forks from airplanes is an old Kawefan custom! Get me the airport manager—”

“Uh, it wasn’t in our airport, sir,” said Zhuzhu. “Your wife just landed in Paris, to attend Fashion Week—”

Oooh, that’s right, said Quaqua to himself—they’d had a spat over his latest mistress Gigi, and he’d given her the usual blank check to placate her. Still, it was embarrassing.

“Then get me the French ambassador! Let’s see if they’ll risk diplomatic relations on account of some—some stupid cutlery!”

“Uhm, the spoons and forks are innocent, sir—they’re not sentient beings,” said Zhuzhu, his eyes downcast. “I learned that in our Employee Development Seminar on Eastern Philosophy, sir.”

“Tell them to have seminars on gun cleaning and pest control!” Quaqua made a note to himself: “I swear, Zhuzhu, as soon as this blows over, I’m going to get me a retired general to take your place.”

Zhuzhu held up his phone to show his boss a news clip from CNN. “It’s on CNN now, sir. They’ve even posted a mug shot of Mrs. Quaqua holding up the forks and spoons.”

“What?!” The justice minister fell back into his chair and looked out the window. “They didn’t even blur her face? The inhumanity, the incivility…. What has mankind come to? Where’s understanding and tolerance when you need them? Whatever did my dear wife do to deserve this?”

“According to the great masters, sir, we sow what we reap, our past actions affect our present ones, so Mrs. Quaqua did something, like for example, she married you—”

Just then Zhuzhu’s phone rang again and Quaqua couldn’t wait to hear the news. “Did they release her? Did they come to their senses? What’s up?”

Zhuzhu looked sad. “I’m afraid it’s about something else, sir. About those two suspects in the murder of Dr. Fofo? I’ve just been told that they’re both dead. They had an argument and—well, they strangled each other to death in their cell.”

Quaqua’s eyes lit up. There was a God. “Then I must have done something good in my past life, Zhuzhu!”

“What about the madame, sir?”

“Alas, it’s beyond our jurisdiction,” Quaqua sighed, thinking of Gigi’s perfume. “Let French justice take its course.”

(Image from eatlikepinoy.com)

Qwertyman No. 12: The Changing of the Colors

Qwertyman for Monday, October 24, 2022

(Image from esquiremag.ph)

PITONG STARED out the window of his Chicago apartment to the shoreline of Lake Michigan, and watched the usual Sunday crowd of families with small children in colorful tracksuits and seniors plodding nowhere at half a mile per hour on their adjustable canes. It was getting later into the fall, and the colors were exploding all over the city from Lincoln Park to Promontory Point; at the Botanic Garden in Glencoe the Japanese maples blazed a vivid red. Pitong remembered that it was at a time like this, almost twenty years earlier, when he and Marietta had arrived in the United States, and they could not believe what a transformation the seasons induced in the chlorophyll and carotenoids of leaves. 

He felt intensely drawn to his postgraduate studies, which was what they came to America for—“To explore,” as he wrote in his application, “new ideas for the energization of the Philippine economy, particularly through the deregulation of key industries, including power and telecommunications.” 

With a US-minted PhD, Pitong thought he could return to a professorship if not a deanship at a top university, or a directorship at NEDA or Foreign Affairs. So immersed did Pitong become in his anticipated future that he forgot about Marietta, who had given up a promising career in pharmaceuticals to join him as his bedmate and cook, until he began to doze off after interminable arguments online about the American capacity for policy reform. 

She snuggled up to him in the deep of winter, and he was colder than ice. In their second spring she volunteered to usher with the local symphony; by that summer she had fallen for a clarinetist, and by the fall she had found her happiness, while Pitong continued to stew in his darkening pot of theory and counter-theory, of the sticky explanations how, in the post-9/11 world, security and economic concerns were inextricably intertwined and indeed congealed in the individual consciousness.

Pitong returned home alone when he failed his dissertation defense, while Marietta began a family in California, to where her clarinetist had moved to join a new orchestra. Almost immediately, through an old friend on the Left—yes, he had had more than a passing dalliance with that crowd, although he now denied it—Pitong found himself a job in the Palace, drafting speeches for Madame President and getting close enough to hold up an umbrella for her at the slightest drizzle. He began to project some political weight and smiled at whispers to the effect that he would soon become her spokesman. When he brushed his teeth in the morning, he ended by frowning at the mirror, as if the republic were about to collapse, and elocuting in his whiny voice, trying to sound as gruff as he could, “Good morning, ladies and gentlemen of the media.” 

And then the republic did collapse, or rather Madame President did, in a scandal that whittled down her stature even more severely, and rather than desert her like those scoundrels did, Pitong made noisy pledges of allegiance to her—while secretly negotiating, on the side and through the same old comrades (the Left had influence in any government, he would realize), an accommodation with the new regime. When they laughed him out of the place, he fled the country in humiliation, hooked up with his alumni network, got a job handling loan applications in a small bank, and prayed every night that a sinkhole would devour the Palace he left behind and all of its cursed occupants.

For his own entertainment, he opened a blog under the title of “Batang Recto,” a play on the Manila street where he picked up cheap textbooks and on all the connotations of “right,” which he embraced. He took every opportunity to lambast anything that had to do with Family “A,” communists, female empowerment, abortionists (he was convinced that Marietta had purposely lost their baby, not that he wanted to care for one), drug users, hippies, Barbra Streisand, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama (and 95% of his race), hip-hop, gun control, and climate change. 

He now proudly identified himself as an American citizen—he felt deeply insulted when someone asked if he was a “Pacific Islander,” like he paddled a dugout in his three-piece suit—and bristled when Pinoys from Pateros or Pagadian questioned his opinions on American issues like “birtherism,” as if they knew anything about American politics. But at the same time he felt perfectly free to dispense political wisdom to the islanders, because they seemed hopelessly lost in their fantasy of a liberal democratic paradise, which they failed to realize had been cooked up by a cabal in Washington since the days of Quezon and Cordell Hull to protect American economic and military interests in the Philippines for the next half-century. 

Pitong no longer relied on or believed in scholarly research to establish the truth; so much of it was produced and propagated by an academic elite intent on perpetuating its hegemony, against the challenge of intuitive thinkers like himself and a few other brave souls he had come into contact with. Together, on private networks, they reviewed and reconstructed history, and plotted a chart for human survival and development. The plan recognized the existential threats posed by liberal retardates still tied to obsolete notions like racial and gender equality, which accounted for their weakness at the core.

When a Pinoy strongman and his American counterpart became presidents of their countries, Pitong heard his angels sing. The world was clearly waking up to what he had known for many years—that there was genius latent in resentment, prejudice, and suspicion, in the politics of self-interest, the purest of human motivations. One stalwart was cheated out of re-election, but another was replaced by an even more reliable autocrat. When Russian bombs fell on Ukraine, he felt his logic justified—having denied Russia’s destiny and gone to bed with the West, Ukraine had no one else to blame for its misery but itself. Batang Recto was always right.

Pitong slept soundly on the pillow of these beliefs. He felt most virile after savaging some pink fool on his blog, and sometimes he woke up with a woman next to him, with whom he did not care to exchange names, mindful of security. When he looked out the window at the changing of the colors and at the people on the lakefront, he felt no irony, no loneliness, no remorse. He was never stronger, never surer. He tingled with anticipation at the coming of The Storm that would sweep all the liberals, tree-huggers, and Mariettas of the world away. It was the closest thing he felt to happiness.

Qwertyman No. 11: Good-Better-Best

Qwertyman for Monday, October 17, 2022

DOLANDS COULDN’T believe his good fortune; he had received his third SMS message that day offering him a bonus for playing pusoy online. Pusoy—also known as “good-better-best” to its players—was Dolands’ game of choice, allowing him to exercise what he believed was his sharply analytical mind. Dolands was one of those people who felt that life kept dealing him the wrong cards, obscuring his true potential, and he kept waiting for the opportunity to prove himself—to his Papang, to his friends, and to that snooty waitress Letty, who wouldn’t give him the time of day—that he was an achiever.

Today Dolands worked as a troll—a “social media specialist”—in an operation run by the famous Madame Venus, and while the pay was good, the job itself felt mechanical, involving nothing but the methodical execution of orders from the managers in the loft upstairs. Dolands wanted to turn “good” into “better” by becoming one of those necktied managers himself; but “best” was to be his own man, enriched by nothing but his talent, and the online gambling offers he kept receiving seemed to open that door. Sometimes Dolands suspected that his supervisors thought he was stupid, by the way they frowned at his haircut and at his fake Crocs shoes. 

Dolands was amazed that whoever texted him knew his full name and had used it in the message: “Rolando Quibuyen, now’s your chance! Here’s a P500 bonus for joining our 24-hour game of Cyber Pusoy at bahaybaraha.com. More prizes await you, including a 2023 Riva Riviera 2.0 in our grand raffle draw. Sali na!” Now, being a troll, Doland of course knew how it easy it was to get hold of mega-lists of people’s names, phone numbers, and email addresses; he knew that Madame Ventura even kept a special roster of influencers’ data for personalized messages, including death threats masked as hypothetical questions. But as lonely and lowly as he felt, Dolands wanted to believe that someone had actually taken the trouble of getting to know him and his penchant for pusoy, to craft a special message for him, and to throw him a lifeline across the water. Never mind that it was probably a bot, a faceless algorithm racing through a library of names and numbers; someone or something out there thought him worthwhile enough to bait; he existed.

He was itching to respond to the text and to click the link on his phone to start playing, but his shift wouldn’t be over for another four hours and any private use of his office computer was strictly prohibited. The managers upstairs not only had a birds’ eye view of the floor, but they could and did tap into any terminal to see what was going on. It was no different from the BPO outfit Dolands had been recruited from, except that that other job was more tedious because you had to talk people into buying this and that, which involved reason, whereas trolling played to the imagination, to what people believed and feared in their deepest of hearts. Everyone wanted to feel a sizzle of power, to say something outrageous without facing the consequences, and the trolls gave them the words for that. It was a lot more fun during the pre-election campaign when Dolands and his gang could attack a candidate’s daughters or the candidate herself with gleeful malice; today, defending the winner’s son or the winner himself when they did or said something incredibly stupid was boring and dulling. Doland looked forward to more challenging assignments where he could prove his mettle, and now he was about to get a taste of that.

“Quibuyen!” said his supervisor on the headphones. “Come up to the loft for a minute. Madame Ventura wants to talk to you.”

Dolands felt a lightning bolt shoot up his spine. He had never gone up to the loft before, nor had the madame ever spoken to him. He wondered what they needed him for, but today was truly his day to shine (although it was just past midnight, so his days were always dark). Things just got better.

Dolands fidgeted as Madame Ventura assessed him from behind her trademark dark glasses and wisp of smoke. He wished he had worn something other than the Nirvana T-shirt a US cousin had bequeathed him, to project a more professional vibe, but it was too late for that. They had to take him for what he was.

“They say you worked for the card verification and security service of a bank? You can spot fake numbers and accounts?”

“Yes, ma’am, I did, but—but I was just testing some software when—when they said, when they claimed, that I was misusing numbers—” Dolands began to sweat, amazed that they had found that sordid detail about his past that he had tried to bury and forget. 

“You mean you didn’t actually steal anything?” Madame Ventura sounded disappointed.

“No, ma’am—I mean, I just wanted to prove it could be done, so I did it.” He stole enough to buy a new car with, but he had to give it all back to escape prison, plus plugging all the digital holes he had punched into the system.

She blew another cloud of smoke into his face. “Can you still do it? Work with numbers and fake identities? Are you still that good?”

“Well—if you put it that way—”

“Let me tell you why, Mr., uh, Quibuyen. They just passed a new law requiring all SIM cards to be registered, to be attached to names of people with official IDs. We need SIMs—but we don’t want to bother real people to line up for us. So we need an official-ID generator to go with names, birthdates, addresses, maybe even pictures. Is this something you find interesting?”

“Uhm—yes—at least as proof of concept—”

“Forget concept. I want you to produce IDs for 100,000 SIM cards, just for starters. I know many people who will need this service. You do it and do it well, and I’ll make you a manager in charge of your own division. I think it’s about time we branched out from calling ugly people pretty, and vice-versa.”

Multicolored starbursts popped in Dolands’ mind—shiny shoes, flowery neckties, citrusy colognes. It was like he had been dealt 13 cards that broke down into a straight flush, a full house, and a high pair. I can’t believe I almost fell for those effing scammers, Dolands thought. This was good-better-best in real life.

Qwertyman No. 10: Monkey Poo

(Image from deviant art.com)

Qwertyman for Monday, October 10, 2022

THE WATER was still dripping from a leak in the ceiling of the office, caught in a pink plastic pail behind his swivel chair, when Gov. Tingting got the call from the Office of the President on the satellite phone. It was only a secretary on the line, but Tingting stood at attention as if he were speaking to the man himself, mumbling “Yessir, yessir” although it was a “ma’am” giving him instructions. 

He felt immensely relieved to have taken, at his aide Atty. Noknok’s pleading, the call which he had first presumed to be a prank, because he couldn’t imagine why President Ongong would be interested in him or his humble dominion. Well, of course there was that supertyphoon Digoy, which ravaged Suluk-sulukan among other provinces in Kawefo’s benighted southeast, but hundreds routinely died in Suluk-sulukan’s annual floods without getting more than a passing mention from the capital media, much less a call from the Palace.

Suluk-sulukan was a province best known for not being known. It occupied an island of the same name, and was reachable by a two-hour flight from Metro Kabugaw to the adjacent province of Lagunsoy, followed by a three-hour ride by pumpboat, and then another hour by bumpy tricycle from the pier to the capital town of Maunggoy. Its chief industry should have been tourism, given the abundance of its forests, nature trails, and beaches, but it came with one huge disincentive: the mountains of monkey poo that lined the roads and clogged the waterways, raising an infernal, ammoniac stink that the locals had gotten used to and barely noticed but which repelled tourists, invaders, and potential investors alike. The floods drained some of it out into the ocean but it was back as soon as the sun shone. 

Even the free face masks given out at the pier, imprinted with Gov. Tingting’s smiling face and the slogan “Beauty right under your nose” did little to encourage the intrepid to stay. Political dynasties had risen and fallen on the monkey-poo crisis, and Tingting—who had won on a promise to exterminate the monkeys—was surviving only because the bales of face masks they had airdropped on the island in the midst of the pandemic offered a temporary reprieve.

“So what did the President say, Gov?” Atty. Noknok asked, eager to absorb every snippet of political gossip, to affirm his status as “the little gov.”

“He asked me to come to the capital!” said Tingting, his eyes still glazed over with disbelief.

“Really? Will he hand you a check for disaster relief? I can take the picture, Gov! I’ll make sure it comes out in the papers.” Suluk-sulukan had exactly one paper, The Maunggoy Times, published by Tingting’s sister Mingming; there had been two, until the other paper’s editor was shot by a pair of motorcycle-riding gunmen whom witnesses could not identify because they looked too much like the governor’s bodyguards.

“What disaster relief are you talking about?” said the governor. “This is something much bigger! He’s inviting me to watch the Presidential Cup race with him, in the presidential box, at the Santa Mama racetrack! It’s the biggest race and social event of the year—remind me to get the missus one of those big, floppy, feathery hats. Imagine me, the governor of an obscure and godforsaken province, sitting beside the President!”

“What does he want—aside from, uh, the pleasure of your company?” Atty. Noknok didn’t get to where he was by being stupid. He was astute enough to know that every conversation in politics was a transaction. The President already had Suluk-sulukan’s 150,000 votes—there were more monkeys in the place than registered voters, and there was no shortage of simians willing to vote—so that wasn’t the issue. 

And then Noknok remembered: a delegation of businessmen and engineers from the great country of Wannamia had come to visit the President to talk about Suluk-sulukan’s deposits of mahalikite, reputedly the next big thing in semiconductors. Mahalikite was found in impacted monkey poo and was still a very rare mineral, but the Wannamese implied that they had found the technology to extract it from the raw stuff. Noknok had brought it up with his boss at one meeting, but Tingting was an old-school warlord whose interest in technology didn’t go far beyond guns and calibers, and so he dismissed the report as just so much chatter. 

“Nothing,” said the Gov. “He says he just wants me to have some fun, knowing how difficult it’s been for me and my family. We lost two houses and three SUVs to Digoy! Oh my God, I still shiver when I think about it. The pain of watching that Cayenne go under the bridge….”

“So you’re bringing your family?”

“Of course. I think it’s about time my boys inhaled the fine, industrial air of Metro Kabugaw, to prepare them for the challenges of urbanization.”

“Uhm, Gov—I hate to bring this up, but—won’t it look bad for you to be out there in the capital, betting on the horses, while thousands of Suluk-sukeños still don’t have enough food and are living in makeshift tents?”

“Are you my adviser or my enemy’s? That’s why I’m also taking you along—to provide PR cover and to find something good to say about my trip.”

“You are? Well—why didn’t you say so, haha, thanks! Of course, Gov, that’s elementary. We can always say that the real business in Kawefo takes place in the presidential box of the President’s Cup, and obviously, President Ongong has serious matters to discuss with you.”

“He does?” The gov sounded rather disappointed.

“Sure! I wouldn’t be surprised if he also invited the Wannamese to talk to us about large-scale exports of monkey poo for mahalikite extraction. I talked to you last month about it, but—you were too busy—”

“Of course I was! I’m always busy looking after the welfare of every Suluk-sukeño. So what were you telling me?”

“Well—we bring in the Wannamese, they take out our monkey poo, and for every metric ton, we impose a small tax, part of which will go to your, uhm, intelligence fund, which I’ll administer. It’s a win-win deal for all.”

“I like that—for the first time in our history, we can breathe poo-free air! They’ll build statues of me as the Great Liberator! What about the President? What’s in it for him?”

“He gets the bigger chunk, of course, for his intelligence fund. No worries—there’s a lot of poo to go around.”

A drop of rainwater fell on the gov’s brow, which he took to be a sign. “Forget extermination. I want you to think of a monkey-feeding program!”