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. 24: Barangay Magulang

Qwertyman for January 16, 2023

(“Smishing: the fraudulent practice of sending text messages purporting to be from reputable companies in order to induce individuals to reveal personal information, such as passwords or credit card numbers; a form of phishing.”)

MANG KANOR had a problem. He was a contractor for a scamming operation that involved using 50 burner phones to ferret out people’s personal details with, which he ran from the basement of his house in Bgy. Magulang. It was all going well, thanks to his wife Fely, who also happened to be the barangay kapitana, and who could guarantee the peace and quiet his business needed. No one really understood exactly what the boys and girls hired by Kanor were doing—and to be honest, neither did Kanor, who could barely text a message to Fely, let alone spell “phishing” or explain what it meant. But the barangay loved them, because they employed Mang Tining’s son and Tita Ruby’s daughter, and even Sgt. Choy’s handicapped nephew.

It was their teenage son Boogie who had everything figured out, who had introduced the scheme to his parents for them to finance. He had dropped out of the novitiate, realizing that his true calling lay elsewhere, in the world of Dota, Tiktok, and Instagram. When Mr. X offered him a smishing franchise after seeing how adept he was at computers, he jumped at the opportunity. He would harvest personal data and turn it over to Mr. X, who mined it for money.

But he needed capital, and only his mother—who had a steady revenue stream from jueteng—could provide that. She bankrolled him for the 50 phones, three computers, and the ten high-school graduates he needed to man them, plus their snacks of bottomless iced tea and banana cue. His father Kanor provided the muscle—building the cubicles, laying out the wiring, and fronting as the shop’s manager.

The money poured in—Mama Fely was immensely proud of her baby’s entrepreneurial bent—until Kanor ran in one way, panting and waving a newspaper in Fely’s face.. “Boogie! Fely! Have you heard? They’re now requiring all SIM cards to be registered! They want the names and addresses of all SIM card owners. No registration, no activation!”

“Whatever for?” cried Fely. 

“It says here that they want to weed out scammers—people who use prepaid phones to get into other users’ accounts and take their money—I think they mean us!”

“But we just get their information, someone else takes their money, it’s not fair! We’re not subversives, we have privacy rights—”

Boogie didn’t seem bothered. “I’ve been telling you, if we expanded, we could do both, end-to-end—get data and make money. Then we wouldn’t need Mr. X anymore.”

“Are you crazy?” shrieked Fely. “That’s asking for trouble! You’d need protection all the way to the top, which we can’t afford. We’re only good for this barangay.”

“That’s the problem with us, Ma! We think too small. If we go bigger, you could become the mayor!”

“Wait, let’s solve this SIM problem first!” said Kanor, who was easily rattled by things he couldn’t understand.

“Leave it to me, Pa. I’ll look into it. From what I’ve seen on TV, there isn’t a law in this country without a loophole! You can even get away with murder if what they call the ‘chain of evidence’ is broken!”

“Oh, you’re such a smart boy,” gushed Fely. “If you’d gone on to become a priest you could be the Pope! But I’m glad you didn’t because we need grandchildren to continue the proud family tradition—”

“Ma, how many times do I have to tell you, I’m gay!”

“Oh, you’ll get over it, don’t worry. I’m setting you up next week with Mareng Siony’s daughter Olive. She’s sweet and sexy.”

“Wait, what will we do with this SIM law?” Mang Kanor screamed.

A few days later, Boogie had an answer. “I tried the system, and it’s pretty simple. You go to your provider’s website, and they ask for your name, address, official ID, and photo. That’s it, your SIM is registered to you.”

“So they’ll know it’s us who are running this racket? That’s not a solution, that’s the end of our business! Son, you have to do something. I don’t want to have to go back to chopping up cars—this is my first decent job!”

“Don’t worry, Pa, I have it all figured out. We can get around the system.”

“Really? How?” asked Fely.

“What else? By registering.”

“You mean, we go honest?” Kanor couldn’t believe it.

“Of course not, Pa. If they want names, addresses, IDs, and photos, we’ll give it to them.”

“And risk being caught? I’m a respected and responsible public official, son, I can’t afford the scandal!” said Fely.

“They’d be chasing ghosts. Can’t you see, Ma, Pa? All we need to do is to fake everything! There’s nothing in the system that checks to see if what you’re saying is true. So we just fill in the blanks, and we’re done.”

Kanor tried to wrap his head around the plan. “Do you mean we cheat the system?”

Boogie laughed. “Is it cheating if we give it what it’s asking for?”

“But how and where do we get the names and the pictures and so on? What about the IDs?” asked Fely.

“Ma! We’ll make up the names of people. Who was that councilor who called you a crook? We’ll use his family’s names. And which barangay was it that dumped their garbage here? We’ll use addresses there.”

“Oooh, that sounds like fun! But what about the IDs and the selfies?”

“What’s the computer for? We can copy any school, office, or senior ID you want. As for pictures, we can scan yearbooks, wedding albums, Facebook profiles—we can even create a whole new person through artificial intelligence! We can do anything, Ma!”

Doubts persisted in Kanor’s mind. “Surely they’ll verify the entries? What if they find out?”

“Find out when, Pa? Let me ask you—you and Ma applied for your National IDs, right?”

“Yes. Three months ago.”

“Well, do you have them?”

“No, not yet.”

“There you go. Everything in this place takes at least three months to happen. In three months, we buy new SIMs, and do the same thing all over again.”

“Why, if we can do this for ourselves, we can do it for others, for a fee—tell Mr. X!” said Kanor.

“You’re a genius, son! Oh, I love this family. I can’t wait for you to meet Olive! She’s studying accounting—your kids will be so cute and so smart!”

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’.”

Penman No. 446: Our Oldies

Penman for Sunday, January 1, 2023

IT’s BAD enough to be out of touch with the present, so it must be worse to be out of touch with the past—or at least, someone else’s past. 

Nothing reminded me more starkly of the great divides that exist between generations than last month’s Eraserheads reunion concert, hailed by its attendees as nothing less than the Second Coming. “A spectacle unto itself. It was like mix-mashing the Super Bowl’s half-time show and a rock concert. Except it went one better as it was also like one four-hour-long karaoke set,” wrote reviewer Rick Olivares in the Inquirer. “The four-hour, three-part show was filled with nothing but singing our hearts out, jumping for joy, and all the while taking in the fact that yes—this is the Eraserheads, and we are ever so lucky to hear them live again,” gushed Nikka Olivares on GMA-7. 

What struck me was how so many of my younger friends—writers, artists, and teachers now in their 40s and 50s—posted pictures of themselves waving their concert tickets like some generational badge of honor. And indeed it was, if the reported crowd of 75,000 that drove out to the reunion was to be believed. It was a paean to the 1990s and to Generation X, to 486-DX PCs and clunky cellphones, to mixtapes and dressing down, to self-reliance and partying on. (Hold it—why is this so familiar? Now I know why I should know—our daughter Demi, born 1974, is a card-carrying Gen-X’er. “I caught up with the Eraserheads in UP,” she told me from California, “and I used to watch them at the UP Fair at the Sunken Garden!”)

I’ll take my former students’ word for it and believe that the Eraserheads were the best Pinoy band of their time, and that their songs captured the heartbeat of their generation. I’m sure that there’s a thesis or dissertation to be written there somewhere, if it hasn’t been done already—a project that will go far beyond melody and rhythm to dissect the E-heads’ contributions to political and social commentary (not much fun, but academia is the land of the morose). 

For Demi’s mom Beng and me, however, much of that remains a mystery, because it all begins with the music, which somehow went past us. “Do we know any of their songs?” Beng asked me. “Well, yes, one of them,” I answered, “the one that goes ‘Magkahawak ang ating kamay at walang kamalay-malay….’” And I went on to hum the tune for her, and she remembered. “I think its title is ‘Ang Huling El Bimbo,’” I added helpfully. Totally geriatric dialogue, but there we were, trying to figure out a context for that snippet of a song. Of course we knew the original El Bimbo dance, where your conjoined arms opened like a fan, but that was about it. We were lost in this strange territory.

That reminded me of that time, maybe thirty years ago or more, when drove Demi to school in our VW, and turned the radio on. Demi asked if she could change the station, because she wanted to hear some “oldies.” Oh, great, I thought, finally, my daughter’s wising up to the classics—maybe to some Sinatra? And then she played Earth, Wind, and Fire. “Do you remember, the 21st night of September…” (I remembered another September 21!)

So, all right, my oldies aren’t your oldies, and we respond to music on different wavelengths. There’s nothing that unites us more than music—think Christmas carols, church hymns, fight songs, and national anthems—and also nothing that divides us more than music.

I suppose we Boomers can be typecast as Beatles fans, and that won’t be unfair, as it was de rigueur for teenagers of the ‘60s to know the Beatles songs by heart if not to play them on a Lumanog guitar, with the aid of a chord book. But to be even fairer, I don’t think our taste in music could be pegged to any one band or genre. The fact is, we were incredibly eclectic, and liked everything from crooners like Tony Bennett, folk singers like Joni Mitchell, and bossa-nova masters like Antonio Carlos Jobim to rock bands like Queen, divas like Barbra Streisand, and disco kings like VST & Co. And let’s not forget the birth of OPM at the first Metro Pop festivals, with the Circus Band and the New Minstrels.

Life was a big jukebox, and you had a song and a singer for certain moods and certain days. (That probably explains the Beatles’ popularity—they could go from soulful ballads like “Michelle” and “She’s Leaving Home” to barnburners like “Rock ‘N Roll Music” and “She Loves You.”) Feeling, more than idea, was key to a song’s full enjoyment, and much of that feeling was generated by the melody and arrangement. 

Bottom line, a song had to be singable. (The master of singability for me was Burt Bacharach.) For a while back there, we might have put on snooty airs and publicly disdained cheesy acts like ABBA—only to embrace them and warble along at their revival. Danceability was another important factor. The shift from the ‘70s to the ‘80s was the golden age of disco, spurred on by “Saturday Night Fever.” (Miserably, my dancing skills never went beyond the jerk and the boogaloo, so doing the hustle with Beng remains on the bucket list.)

I guess this all means we have a lot of “reunion concerts” to look forward to—the only problem being, most of the singers we’d like to hear have croaked their last. The last one Beng and I attended, a few years ago at the Araneta Coliseum, was that of the Zombies (yes, they were big, cool, and British). Instead of 75,000 screaming fans, ours was a crowd of several hundred white-haired, well-behaved seniors, happily humming along to “The Way I Feel Inside” and “She’s Not There.” Maybe we forgot the lyrics here and there, but hey, we were feeling groovy, as we might have said back in 1969. So, kids, here’s to the next Eraserheads reunion, sometime in 2042. 

Qwertyman No. 20: The Gift

Qwertyman for Monday, December 19, 2022



(Taking a break from politics, I wrote this Christmas story that might take a little effort to figure out, but which I hope will be worth your while. With apologies to my mom Emy for using her picture above.)

I’M NOT deaf, she wanted to shout, I can hear, I can understand what you’re saying—I’m not stupid, I’m just… lost. I don’t know who you are or what I’m doing here. You seem to be a nice man, and thank you for the chocolate and the barquillos—I don’t know how you knew I liked those—but I have to say that I don’t feel comfortable sitting here with you asking me how I am, asking all these questions about names and places I can’t recall. You’re very nice and very kind and speak to me like I know you, like I should know you, and it makes me feel very bad that I don’t have the answers you seem to be looking for. Like “the champaca near the fence of the house on Tagumpay Street.” Of course I know champaca and how nice it smells—but the house, a house, on Tagumpay Street? You say we lived there? When? Why should I have lived there, with you? 

They laughed and Jovy shrugged and said, “She’s somewhere else—again.” Laura cast her a pitying glance and said, “I wonder if there’s something we can do or say to bring her back, even just for tonight. I mean, it’s Christmas, right? Surely God can work some miracle to allow Mama to enjoy her family? It would be such a gift to the kids. Where are they, anyway? It’s past nine.”

Jovy reached for a bottle of Macallan and poured himself a shot. “They’ll come if they will. I don’t remember them talking much to her when she was still okay. Don’t see why it should be any different this time.”

Laura stared out the window at all the Christmas lights that made their gated village look like a bed of stars. From the kitchen wafted the confused but beguiling hints of vinegar, red pepper, and other pungent flavorings.

Laura liked to think of herself as the family minder, the one whose job tonight was to make sure everyone had a filling noche buena and wished each other well, like a good Filipino family, albeit with one somewhat distracted member. With the pandemic still festering and the world they knew upended, a return to some sense of order and normalcy felt overdue. In Decembers past, she and Jovy would take the children, Toby and Rina, to chilly getaways in Baguio, with Mama maddeningly singing carols from the back of the van all the way up Kennon Road.

“I’m sure the kids will come,” Laura said, adjusting a bell on the Christmas tree. “I told them they were getting special gifts from us.”

“They are? “ Jovy said, surprised. “Like what gifts?”

“Papa’s Longines and Mama’s bridal necklace,” Laura replied under her breath, as if she expected Jovy to react badly. “It’s about time we passed them on.”

“Papa’s gone so I guess the watch is okay, but have you spoken to Mama about the necklace?”

“And tell her what? She won’t even know what she’s looking at.”

“Maybe we should wait for Rina’s wedding—“

“That girl’s not getting married for another ten years, if ever. I just want us to make something special happen tonight, like families do.”

“At least you could show it to Mama. Make it look like she’s the one giving it to Rina. As if Rina will even care. You know she hates old things. She’ll probably just sell it on eBay.”

“What she does with it is her business. What’s important is that we’ve discharged our generational responsibility.”

“If you insist—“

“Leave Mama to me.”



“IT’S A VERY small watch,” Toby said, unable to mask his disappointment. He was a stockbroker who lived in his own condo and came for dinner once or twice a month to brag about his  new girlfriend, or his new bike. 

“That’s what men wore back in the ‘50s. I guess you could give it to what’s-her-name, Nikka, now,” said Jovy.

“Nikka would like Mama’s necklace more, I think. Maybe Rina and I can do a trade.”

In her corner, Mama stared as Laura opened the blue velvet box that held her necklace of white gold and tiny emeralds, sold by a prominent Escolta jeweler before the war. Rina was on her phone near the door, mumbling an apology to someone. She wasn’t even vaguely interested in the necklace that Laura was bribing her with; she’d come home for a bunny costume she needed for a New Year party. She hated being asked about marriage, and the bridal jewelry was another not-too-subtle nudge.

“I wanted to show this to you, Mama, before we—before you—give it to Rina. You remember Rina, your granddaughter? She’s almost thirty, and should get married soon!”

I don’t know this Rina you’re talking about, Mama thought. And why do you always ask me to remember, why should I remember? Isn’t it enough that I eat my porridge and drink my tea?… But—this shiny thing in the box, I know it, for some reason…. It’s very pretty, so sparkly, those little green eyes…. I know I’ve seen it, in the mirror—around my neck! It was a happy day, I was happy all in white with these green sparkles, and I was all so white and so very happy.

“Do you want to be the one to give it to Rina?” Laura said, unsure of what was passing through Mama’s mind. She noticed some agitation, some flicker of anxiety, although Mama was smiling.

“Give it? Why?”

“Because it’s Christmas, Mama. Because it makes us happy to give gifts.”

“I thought this was my gift. It makes me happy.”

Laura tried not to sound exasperated. “You don’t need it anymore, Mama. It’s time it went to Rina.”

Mama now remembered: her wedding day, the carriage, the lilies along the aisle, the choir, and her groom Miling, so blindingly handsome in his white sharkskin suit. 

She saw Rina, the girl they said was her granddaughter, still on her phone across the room. From that distance she looked virginal, almost angelic. Mama could imagine her in a white gown. Mama looked at Laura, who seemed distressed, waiting for an answer. Now that she had finally remembered something, they wanted to take it away. 

She ran the necklace through her fingers. She recalled how the clasp had pricked her thumb that morning, but she was in such bliss she hardly felt the pain. She looked at Rina, and sensed the younger woman’s deep unhappiness. It seemed so unfair.

Mama shut her eyes and shut the box and turned her face away. “I don’t know what this is for,” she told Laura. “Give it to her.”

“Thank you, Mama,” Laura said, much relieved. “And Merry Christmas.”

Mama seemed more distant than ever, lost in her thoughts. “I don’t think she even knows what Christmas is, anymore,” Laura sighed.

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. 17: A Crying Boy

Qwertyman for Monday, November 28, 2022

WE ALL cheered two weeks ago when nine-year-old Bince Rafael Operiano—a boy from Oas, Albay—came home with medals from the 6th Eastern Asia Youth Chess Championship in Bangkok, Thailand, where he finished on top of the Under-10 category and sixth overall. 

But then we were saddened by the news that Bince had had to struggle not just with his opponents in the early rounds, where he lost, but also with loneliness, because his father was not around, having had to wait for his plane ticket from the Philippine Sports Commission (PSC). Bince was said to have been crying. Fortunately, according to Albay Rep. Fernando Cabredo, Bince’s father caught up with Bince just in time to cheer him on to victory. 

So all’s well that ends well, right? Not according to an anonymous “Grandmaster” (possibly an alias) who posted on Viber that things were even more complicated than that. This “GM” alleged that Bince’s parents had received donations for the kid, but that the money had been spent on paying off debts and other expenses. The Operianos, he said, were “making drama” to raise even more money; Bince, he added, wasn’t even that great a player, and that other Filipinos had performed even better in the tournament, to much less publicity. 

I don’t know who “Grandmaster” is, or if he is even a real GM (we now have at least ten Filipino GMs on record, all of them male, which is why I’m defaulting to “he/him”); the post strongly suggests that he’s someone on the inside, in the know, the guy with the goods.

All right, that he may be. But even assuming that everything he says is true, my question is, so what? The journalists (and the “Mariteses”) in us might respond to the possibility that the boy and his story are being manipulated for money with dismay if not righteous outrage, and demonize the parents for their greed, or for being what we Pinoys would call “mukhang pera.”

But honestly, who isn’t “mukhang pera” in this society of ours, where profit-seeking—quite often at someone else’s expense—has become the accepted norm? Of course, when developers buy farmland on the cheap from desperate farmers, they don’t get called out for being “mukhang pera”; they might even get voted to high public office. When someone secures an apologetic write-off for billions in unpaid taxes, that’s not being “mukhang pera.” When favored government offices get billions in “intelligence funds” with nary a question, that’s just business as usual, nothing to do with “mukhang pera.”

But let’s get back to Bince and his story. Clearly the family was in dire straits, or they wouldn’t have used whatever cash they raised to pay off debts. Clearly the father wanted to accompany his son, or he wouldn’t have followed him to Bangkok, albeit too late for the opening round. Someone out there will almost surely berate them for not handling their donations “responsibly,” and they could be right, but poverty and sudden money can addle the mind and one’s priorities (so can huge wealth, for that matter).

These are matters of adult concern. I suggest that it will be better and more fair to put ourselves in young Bince’s shoes. You’re nine years old in a foreign country, probably on your first plane ride overseas. You know some people on your team and you know how to play chess, but everything else is strange and bewildering. You’re looking at your chessboard and at your opponent who’s just as old as you are—the two of you should be playing in the sun outside but you’re here to demolish him or her. The other kids have their parents watching on from the gallery, and you can see your opponent’s eyes dart now and then to his or her parent, for comfort if nothing else. After the game, they will share hugs, maybe even an ice cream, and tour a mall. 

You think of Papa, whom you left at the airport. He promised he’d follow, but there’s still no sign of him, and you panic; you feel like crying but you can’t do that while you’re playing. Your opponent can feel your distress and seems torn between pitying you, or killing you outright. He/she moves his/her rook to c4 and you know you’ve lost. You quickly shake hands like you’ve been trained to do, then you run away and go to a corner and cry. It doesn’t bother you anymore that some people can see you crying. They probably think you’re just a sore loser. You want to tell them, it’s not the game, it’s Papa, I miss Papa, and Mama, and our home in Oas. I know they told me not to think about them too much, I know I shouldn’t, but I can’t help it, I really tried. Please don’t get angry with me. I’ll do better when I see Papa, I promise.

That’s the issue, from Bince’s point of view. Whatever other people may be making of his case is beyond him, and should be. As he grows older, he’ll begin to feel and understand the real pressures he’s under—to succeed for his family’s and country’s sake, with little support; he will have to get used to being alone. 

Some will say, that’s par for the course, that’s the way champions are made; you forge them like steel in the hottest of fires. His very hardship will be the source of his power. But still I have to ask, must it always be this way for the children of the poor? As fortunate as the Operianos may be to even have the option, why must Bince see sport as a way out of poverty than just a wonderful game to play? 

But to end on a happy note, let’s report as well (with thanks to Rappler for the data) that Christian Gian Karlo Arca topped the Under-14 and gained a Master title; Lexie Grace Hernandez won the Under-18 crown and took a Woman International Master title while April Joy Claros placed second but was the top Under-16 player, winning a Woman Master title and one Woman International Master norm. Jemaicah Mendoza topped the girls’ Under-12, and won a Woman Master title. (Bince is supposed to get a Master title when he turns ten.) May the best of futures come to you all.

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.