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. 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.

Penman No. 444: A San Diego Sojourn

Penman for Sunday, November 6, 2022

A FEW weeks ago, for the first time since the pandemic, my wife Beng and I took a plane out of the country, and I can’t tell you how liberating that felt after three years of being landbound. I’d had few complaints about the long lockdowns, because I’m used to working and writing in isolation, and have become much less sociable as I age. But I did miss the travel, the foreign air, the view from the other side of the ocean. 

Just before the pandemic hit, Beng and I had spent my first year in retirement (and a good chunk of my retirement kitty) gallivanting around seven countries, against the advice of family and friends who thought that we were overdoing it; perhaps we were, but now we know that the world we saw then will never be the same again, and that we ourselves—in or approaching our seventies—will never be able to do that again. And so it was with a huge sigh of relief that we boarded our flight to San Diego, where our daughter Demi has been living with her husband Jerry for the past 15 years. We’d visited San Diego often before, but probably not with this much anticipation, having been away for years. 

Sitting on the Mexican border, San Diego isn’t the first place most Filipinos would choose when they think of visiting America, unless, like us, they have personal reasons to go there. Los Angeles and San Francisco seem to be more exciting places, have large Fil-Am communities, and have long been the ports of entry for Pinoys landing on the West Coast. (Our Japan Airlines flight was that rare straight flight via Tokyo to San Diego.) But San Diego has its own charm and its own attractions, most notably Balboa Park, the San Diego Zoo, and Comic-Con, that annual extravaganza of pop culture that draws about 150,000 fans from around the galaxy. (Much to my young students’ chagrin, I’ve been to Comic-Con twice, happily ignorant of much of what I was looking at.) 

And whether you’ve lived there for decades or are just passing through, San Diego will always give you a taste of home, with dozens of Pinoy foods stores and restaurants, especially in National City and Chula Vista where you can shop at Seafood City for daing na bangus and Chocnut and at Goldilocks for your party cake while dropping packages off at LBC—or you can run to Mira Mesa for your Jollibee fix. (For me, an American sojourn would be incomplete without a trip to Arby’s and Red Lobster.)

Inevitably San Diego also has its own spotted history of East-West relations, in which Filipinos have figured; the better part of that history was celebrated last month as Filipino-American Heritage Month in the city. The worst part remains in the archives, in the memories of early immigrants such as Emeterio Reyes, who recalls that “I asked the driver if he could take me to a Catholic church. As soon as we got there, I told him to wait for me because I had a funny feeling I might not be welcome at this church. As I entered the door, a priest approached me and told me that the church was only for white people. That moment, I wanted to cry and die!” 

When Sebastian Vizcaino sailed into what he would name San Diego Bay on November 10, 1602, he found that he had “arrived at a port which must be the best to be found in all the South Sea, for, besides being protected on all sides and having good anchorage, it is in latitude 33½o. It has very good wood and water, many fish of all kinds, many of which we caught with seine and hooks. On the land there is much game, such as rabbits, hares, deer, very large quail, royal ducks, thrushes, and many other birds. On the 12th of the said month, which was the day of the glorious San Diego, the general, admiral, religious, captains, ensigns, and almost all the men went ashore. A hut was built and mass was said in celebration of the feast of Señor San Diego.”

As a major port facing the Pacific, San Diego has long been home to the US Navy’s Pacific Fleet, its base harboring over 50 ships. The naval presence defines much of San Diego’s character, and provides a good part of the reason why about 200,000 Filipino-Americans live there today. Since early in the American occupation, Filipinos have signed up with the US Navy as their passport to what they hoped would be a better life and to a bit of adventure. 

I just learned, for example, that the first Filipino to have joined the US Navy, back in 1903, was a seminarian in Manila named Potenciano Parel who snuck out of his vows to be a sailor, but not having the right papers, he used those of a friend and assumed his identity, Tomas Dolopo; the Dolopos continue to be San Diegans. Demi’s late father-in-law, Ric Ricario, joined in 1957; his eldest son, Ray, followed him into the Navy; Ray’s brother Jerry met and married Demi. And so we find ourselves now tied by blood to that long tradition, as did many thousands of others before us.

Despite having visited San Diego many times before, and having enjoyed its more popular attractions, we felt more acutely aware of history this time around. We finally stepped into the city’s Maritime Museum, a complex of many ships from various centuries that allows visitors a hands-on experience at traveling the world on water. The ships on display range from a full-size and fully functional replica of a Spanish galleon ca. 1542, the San Salvador, to the world’s oldest sailing ship, the grand, mid-1800s Star of India, to a ca. 1970s submarine that still holds the record for the deepest dive, the USS Dolphin. For just $15 for seniors and just slightly more for others, you can hop from one ship to another, and imagine what it was like to cross a tempestuous ocean with only the stars to light the way and nothing to eat but stale bread and salted pork. 

We enjoyed history of another kind by having dinner with our in-laws in a National City dive that our son-in-law Jerry chose for its unique ambience, which you can either call seedy or loaded with character. (There was a famous sailor’s bar in the area called the Trophy Lounge, Jerry told us, that used to be run by ladies from Olongapo…. But that’s another story, and San Diego has books of them, yet to be told.) La Maze is the kind of leatherbound ‘50s restaurant that the Rat Pack and other Hollywood celebrities frequented when in San Diego, and you can still order the same great steaks they had. A local band played dance music, and to the tune of “Solamente Una Vez,” I took the pretty silver-haired fox next to me to the floor and slow-dragged the night away. 

Qwertyman No. 7: No Garage, No Car

Qwertyman for Monday, September 19, 2022

(Photo from philstar.com)

JHUN-JHUN COULD barely contain himself as he stepped into the house dangling a pair of shiny keys before him. His mother looked at him; his father saw the keys. Either way, his entrance spelled trouble. They saw him for just once or twice a month at most since he moved out to a rented studio in Taguig—to experience, he announced, independent living, now that he had reached the ripe old age of twenty-three. 

“Independence,” of course, had a tiny asterisk attached to it, which was the rent paid by his parents for the place, which he promised to assume as soon as he received his promotion to unit manager. That was three years ago. He had spent his bonuses on furnishing the pad with a La-Z-Boy, a 66-inch TV, bladeless fans, air purifiers, and such other man-cave must-haves as a revolving liquor dispenser and a vintage Star Wars poster. 

“To what do we owe this visit?” said his mom in her nervous, high-pitched voice. She was going to day “the pleasure of” but decided not to lie.

“Didn’t you hear it? Didn’t you hear me coming?” Jhun-Jhun said, still jingling his keys.

“I thought I heard the garbage truck arrive,” said his dad. “Yesterday it came too early and we missed it, and now it’s almost an hour late—”

“No, Dad—you mean you heard the honking? That was no garbage truck, that was me! I was trying to get your attention!”

“You’ve been doing that, son, since you were born. What honking? Did you ask your cab driver to honk so we’d go out and pay your fare?”

“Oh, no, no, no cab driver! That was me—in my car. I wanted to show you my new car! Look, Mom, Dad—it’s out there—right in front of our gate!”

More out of fear than anything, the parents rushed to the window, and saw a shiny new car in a migraine-inducing electric blue on the street. 

“Isn’t it lovely? It’s called the Riva Riviera, a 2.0-liter crossover with Bluetooth, USB, rear parking sensors, etc. And the best part of it is—you won’t believe this, Dad, Mom—I got it because, well, because your son is now a unit manager! Finally! You’ll be so proud!”

“You got a promotion—and they gave you a car? Why—congratulations, son, I’m so proud of you!” His mother sighed in relief, and he opened his arms wide to hug her.

“No kidding!” said the disbelieving dad.

“Thanks, Mom, thanks, Dad!” Then he stepped back a bit and added, “Well, they didn’t really give it to me—I mean, I earned it, I’m earning it, I’ll pay for it—over the next five years—”

“What, you bought a new car on an installment plan? Will your raise even cover the monthly payments?” His dad was turning red in the face, but his mom was turning white.

“It will! I mean—I expect another promotion in one, two years, and by the time the 60 months are over, who knows, I might even be an assistant VP!”

“But what do you need a new car for—or even an old one? You live three blocks away from your office in that expensive condo that your mother and I are paying for, which brings up the question, weren’t you supposed to pay for your place when you got a raise?”

“But, Dad—it’s not like I’m going to be in that studio forever—or that job—I mean, it’s a dynamic, disruptive world we’re living in, I could be assigned to Makati or Vertis North, who knows? Don’t worry, I’ll take care of everything when I become AVP. I’ll get electric wheelchairs for both of you, take you out to an all-you-can-eat lunch on weekends, bring you to the seawall so we can watch the sunset together—”

“I don’t want to watch the sunset, with you or with—with Juan Ponce Enrile! I’m only 56, and I’m still working like hell because instead of you contributing to the family budget, we have to contribute to yours!”

“Dad, stop it! You know I get seizures when you scream at me like that. The last time this happened, I was in the hospital for ten days—”

His mother covered her face with her hands, like she was about to cry, and Jhun-Jhun held her to console her. “Don’t cry, Mom! I’ll be all right—”

“I hope you will be, son, because we had to sell my bridal jewelry to pay for that hospital stay!”

“Have you registered your car?”

“The dealer will, soon. Why?”

His dad smirked triumphantly. “Better give them back those keys. There’s a new law that says ‘no garage, no car.’ You don’t have parking space in your condo. So where will your Revo—”

“It’s not a Revo, Dad, it’s a Riva!”

“Where will your Rover sleep? Any vehicle left on the street will be towed away on sight!”

Jhun-Jhun looked at his car, gleaming in the sunlight just outside the gate. Inside the gate, in the old driveway, was the fifteen-year-old sedan his dad had used to bring him to school, and which he still drove to work. “Well, I’m thinking—maybe I could park it here? In our driveway?”

“What? There’s space for only one car, and it’s taken.”

“Wait,” said his mother, touching his arm. “If you park your car here, does that mean you’ll come home? I’ve kept your old room exactly as you left it, you know? Oh, I’ve prayed every night for your return! And imagine the money we could save by not having to pay your rent!”

“Wait!” said his dad. “And where’s my car supposed to go?”

“Oh, let’s think about that some other time!” his wife said, shushing him. “You can give it to Torio in the province, he can use it for buying chicken feed and bringing the fryers to market. And Jhun-Jhun can drive you to work and pick you up in the afternoons, just like you used to do for him when he was a little boy. What’s important is, we can be one loving family again, together, forever—ohhh, I never thought I would live to see this day!”

Father and son looked askance at each other, like something had gone terribly wrong. Mother’s eyes had settled on the Virgin Mary at her altar.

A heavy thud and the crunch of metal broke the spell, followed by a loud horn. They rushed to the window. The garbage truck had arrived and had smashed into the Riva’s rear. Jhun-Jhun felt faint, and the keys fell out of his hand, but nobody heard the noise they made when they hit the floor.

Some Families, Very Large (A Christmas Story)

(I wrote and published this story twenty years ago for the Christmas issue of The Philippine STAR, and I’m posting it here as a Christmas offering to my readers, who may not have come across it yet.)

A FUNERAL parlor was the last place Sammy expected to be on Christmas Eve—especially since no one he knew had died. And despite his father’s assurances that the man who lay in the shiny white coffin was a distant uncle of his—maybe one of those people who had come over for games and drinks and had mussed his hair—Sammy could not remember the long, rat-like face in the picture that hung over the burial announcement. 

Sammy was only nine, but he had a good head for faces. The names escaped him—his father kept teasing him for being hard of hearing—but he made a game of attaching a face to something else: mud-caked shoes, yellow nails, pitted cheeks. Most of them were his father’s friends, and while he had seen very few of them between this Christmas and the last one, he felt reasonably sure he could recognize any of them again, if he met them on the street. They had walked many streets that morning, and he had seen many new faces, but he had met no one even vaguely familiar. 

Sammy also knew something about death and funeral wakes. When he was six, his playmate Leo had drowned in the black froth of the estero. He had watched from the bank as they fished out the boy’s body with a hook-tipped pole. Leo looked very fat and very oily, and his tongue stuck out of his mouth like a peeled banana. They had stuffed him into a coffin and set up a wake on the sidewalk, where the borrowed candelabra outshone everything else at night, and passersby threw coins into a plastic can, which Leo’s mother emptied into a large pocket in her apron now and then. Leo’s mother sold fish at the talipapa, like Sammy’s own mother, who sold vegetables when she wasn’t turning scraps of fabric into hand mops. 

But she was gone now, like many things they had let go of over the past few years: the motorcycle, his mother’s sewing machine, the television set, even a typewriter said to have been used by his grandfather, a writer of dramas for radio. Indeed, a small transistor radio was the only thing they had left over from the old times, and Sammy would sometimes imagine hearing his grandfather on it, saying all kinds of important, grown-up things, although the man had died many years before Sammy was born.

That morning, his father had shaken him awake with an unusual gleam in his eyes. “Eat and get dressed,” his father had said. “I’m taking you out.” 

Sammy shot up. “Where?” It had been weeks—months—since they had gone anywhere interesting, like the seawall or the basement of the mall, where there were all kinds of food—and rides, fabulous rides on pastel dragons and rampant horses and bug-eyed fish. That was the one time his father had won anything big—five thousand pesos, his father had said, although Sammy couldn’t imagine what five thousand pesos could buy. It certainly was enough for a few days of roast pork, fried rice, and noodles, and he could run to the corner store and ask for anything without having to mumble that word he had learned to dread, “Lista.” 

That moment came and went, replaced by the old routine of making his own meals—opening a can of sardines and dunking a piece of bread into the red mush, leaving the best parts for his sleeping father—before rushing off for the twenty-minute walk to school. He had never come around to hating his father, although he had many questions to ask. His child’s instincts told him that something was terribly wrong, but his father seemed to have an explanation for everything: Mama had gone back to her hometown, very far down south, to take care of her own dying father, and the government was having a hard time keeping her island from drifting farther away into the ocean; Papa lost his job as a filing clerk at the factory because someone didn’t like the way Papa cheered for his favorite basketball team; the kind and quantity of food on their table depended on one’s success at dilhensya, which was in turn dependent on one’s abilidad

These two words burned themselves into young Sammy’s brain: they were what got you ahead in the world, or at least what saved you from curling up in a spasm of hunger. That was a man’s most important job, Papa said: to put food on the table, no matter what. Sammy had some vague idea of what his father did: a classmate said that he had seen Sammy’s Papa at the jeepney stop, barking out destinations and herding passengers onto waiting rides. When Sammy asked him about it, the father said that he was actually a kind of policeman’s assistant, a volunteer enforcer of traffic rules and regulations. People needed to be told where to go, and how to get there fast. People paid for that kind of abilidad.

That day, they had visited three houses on opposite ends of the city. They waited all morning outside the gate of a large compound on Roberts Street in Pasay. Through a vent in the wall, Sammy could see a lawn as wide as the sea, and a fleet of cars and vans on the far side. There was an armed guard just inside the gate who spoke to them through perforations in the iron. “He’s my congressman,” his Papa said. “We were born in the same hometown. I voted for him in the last election. I just wanted to say Merry Christmas. I brought my son to greet him as well.” 

The guard snickered and said, “I’ll send him your compliments. Go home, he’s not here, he left very early.” A metal panel dropped in front of the holes. 

“I’ll wait! We’ll wait! He knows me, he shook my hand once at a wedding!” They stood outside and then sat on their haunches for another hour. 

“Let me tell you something. This guy,” his Papa whispered to Sammy, “this guy, I saw him hand out crisp new five-hundred peso bills during the campaign, like he was giving away mint candies. I know he’ll be good for something.” At a quarter to eleven, the heavy gate swung open, and a large Mercedes-Benz the color of midnight slid out. Father and son jumped to their feet. The Mercedes paused just out of the gate for a second as the guard exchanged words with the unseen passenger, then the car lurched forward and sped rightward, and the gate closed again before Sammy’s father could say anything. “I don’t think he recognized me,” the man said to the boy. “The last time he saw me, I was wearing a barong.”

They next went to Concepcion in Marikina to look for one of Sammy’s godfathers, whom neither Sammy nor his father had seen since his baptism, but when they got to the neighborhood and the address that Sammy’s Papa remembered, there was nothing there but the charred hulk of a plastics factory that hadn’t even been there the last time. Sammy’s father had only a hundred pesos left on him, and they used some of that for a lunch of two bowls of arroz caldo at a roadside stand. Sammy loved arroz caldo, and would have been happy to let the day end there, but his father had another address on his list. Sammy didn’t mind moving around—the rides themselves were interesting, and he marveled at how his father knew so many places. Even so he was getting tired and teary-eyed, his eyes and nostrils smarting from the dust and the gas fumes. Many jeepney transfers later, they reached Damar Village in Quezon City, where his father convinced the guard to let them into the village. 

They found the place they were looking for—a large white house with Roman columns and statues of fish with coins in their mouths. This, the father said, was the home of his former employer, Mr. Cua. Mr. Cua always had a soft spot for him and would not have let him go, he added, but too many people felt threatened by his smartness, and in the end Mr. Cua had no choice but to sacrifice him for the sake of industrial peace. Sammy’s father announced himself to another guard—this was, Sammy thought, truly a city of guards, and he wondered if his father had ever considered becoming one himself, seeing how they held the keys to everything—and again they waited while the guard checked them out with Mr. Cua. But even before the guard could get in the door, Mr. Cua himself emerged, wearing a Santa hat and leading a group of children out to the yard, where small tables had been set. Some of the children wore masks that made Sammy’s heart leap with envy—Batman, King Kong, and other cartoon and fairy tale characters he could only guess at. Sammy stared at a pigtailed Chinese-looking girl who stared back at him, and his father stepped forward to get to Mr. Cua before he could vanish. The guard still stood between the two men and Mr. Cua shrank back as if by instinct, but Sammy’s father began to speak. “Mr. Cua! How are you, sir? I was a clerk in your factory, remember me? My name is Felipe Dinglasan—” At this point the guard drew his gun and the children shrieked, and Felipe Dinglasan, not knowing what else to do, seized Mr. Cua’s hands and said, “I just came to say Merry Christmas, Mr. Cua! Look, I brought my son Sammy, he’s only nine, but he knows—I told him—what a great and generous man you are! Say good afternoon to Mr. Cua, Sammy!” The boy stepped forward and said, gravely, “Good afternoon, Mr. Cua.” The guard lowered his gun. Still shaking from what he thought might have been an assault on his life, Mr. Cua forced himself to laugh—to come up with his best Santa ho-ho-ho—and patted Sammy on the head. “Good afternoon, Sammy! Ho-ho-ho!” Sammy’s father sidled up to them and said. “Wait for your present, Sammy. Santa will give you a present.” Caught in the middle of another ho-ho-ho, the befuddled Mr. Cua reached for his wallet, looking desperately for small bills, but finding nothing smaller than a five hundred, he peeled out a bill and made a show of presenting it to the boy. “Merry Christmas, Sammy! Be a good boy!” All the children cheered as Sammy mumbled his thanks and as Mr. Cua glared at Felipe Dinglasan, who had the good sense to begin walking backwards, flashing his most non-threatening smile.

“What did I tell you, boy?” Felipe said as he flipped the five-hundred-peso bill between his hands, before folding it neatly and sticking it in his wallet. “All you need is a little ability—well, more than a little, more than a little!” Sammy got the feeling that he, too, had done something marvelous for the both of them, and the boy smiled in anticipation of a reward—a movie, perhaps, or, dare he say it, the one Christmas present he wanted most, the battery-powered laser sword he had seen at a Rizal Avenue shop window.

The sun had fallen now, and Sammy could imagine that incandescent saber cutting swaths in the gathering darkness.

But they walked past that store, and as large as the lump in his throat was, Sammy did not complain. “You must be getting hungry,” his father said, and Sammy nodded. “There’s this special noodle place I know, just around one of these corners, your mother and I used to go there. We deserve something special—special beef noodles, what do you say?”

“You’re the boss!” Sammy chirped, and they veered off into a warren of streets and alleys. Half an hour passed and still they could not find the noodle shop Felipe remembered. In the dark the streets looked even more alike. Sammy trudged behind his father, wishing, praying to be carried, but he was too big for such favors now, and he soldiered on as one alley led to another. Finally they emerged into a street with one side lit up like a carnival and smelling like flowers. Boys Sammy’s age ran from one end of it to another, and men and women sat in chairs on the sidewalk, smoking and chatting, scratching their ankles. Vendors sold fried bananas, jellied drinks, and duck eggs on the street. It seemed incredibly alive, this nook of the city, and Sammy soon understood why: it was a street of funeral parlors all in a row, and even Christmas saw no let-up in business here. Sammy himself felt his senses quicken, awakened by the sweetness of caramelized sugar.

Felipe Dinglasan felt revived as well, for in a trice he had spotted a group of men in a corner, huddled over what he did not need to see to know. Breathing even more hoarsely than when he had been walking, Sammy’s father drew a ten-peso bill from his wallet—the remainder of his last hundred—and gave it to the boy. “Get yourself something to eat,” he said. “I won’t be long.”

The money was enough for a large glass of gulaman and a packet of cookies. Sammy watched his father insinuate himself into the group of men—at first watching, then chatting the others up, then finally taking a place in the circle, his back to Sammy. Once or twice, Felipe cast a furtive glance over his back toward his son, knowing the boy would never stray too far away. When Sammy approached him, wanting only to ask if they were waiting for someone again, Felipe excused himself from the game and quickly found themselves a solution. “Aniceto Navarrete,” read the sign on the door, but it meant nothing to the boy. “You wait here,” his Papa said. “I knew this man, he was a cousin of mine in Dipolog, it’s always good to meet new family at Christmas.”

And this was how Sammy—finally yielding to boredom and fatigue—found himself straying into the quietest and most desolate funeral parlor of the lot, the Funeraria Dahlia. Indeed there was no one and nothing in it but the white coffin when Sammy stepped in. A weak bulb kept flickering overhead like a solitary Christmas light. Sammy took one of the back pews, and soon fell asleep. 

When Sammy awoke hours later, jarred by the retort of a tricycle on the street, there was a woman seated beside him, holding a glass of milky coffee in one hand and a lighted cigarette in the other. A curl of lipstick marked the coffee glass. She had a large, hooked nose, and she looked much older than Sammy’s mother. She wore a collarless black dress, and her hair towered above them both in a pile of buns. The first things that struck Sammy were the bags under her eyes, and her broad red lips.

“What’s your name, boy?” the woman said.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” Sammy cried. “I was just waiting for my father!”

“I wasn’t telling you to go,” she said, flicking her ashes on the floor. “I was just asking who you were.”

“Sammy,” the boy said. “Samuel Dinglasan, ma’am.”

“Thank you,” the woman said, bowing to the boy. “My name is Mrs. Concordia Navarrete, and that’s my son Necing over there. Do you want some coffee? Are you old enough for coffee? Go get something to eat.” There was a small table on one side of the room with a thermos bottle, a jar of coffee, three or four Chinese apples, and a tin of butter cookies.

“No, ma’am, thank you, ma’am.”

“Well, then, suit yourself. Where’s your father?”

“Out there, ma’am.” Sammy could see his father, still hunched over the card game. 

Mrs. Navarrete looked at the men and blew a cloud of smoke in their direction. “He’ll be there all night. Unless—”

“Unless what, ma’am?”

“Nothing. My son Necing, he was going to be a lawyer. Do you know what a lawyer is?”

“No, ma’am.”

“A smart person—but never mind.”

“I know about smart persons, ma’am. My Papa is very smart.”

“Oh, is he, now?” Sammy noticed that Mrs. Navarrete’s eyebrows had no hair on them. “And just how did you find that out?”

Sammy began telling Mrs. Navarrete about his father, and the events of the day, as far as he understood them. When he got to the part about Mr. Cua and the guard with the gun, he giggled, although Mrs. Navarrete seemed very upset. “What’s so funny about that?” she asked.

“Well,” Sammy said, gesticulating breezily, “they were pointing a gun at Papa—and then they gave him lots of money!” It wasn’t how things worked—even Sammy knew that from the movies and from their games at recess.

“Well,” Mrs. Navarrete said, mulling over the story, “I suppose that’s funny. And where’s your mother, by the way?”

Sammy fell silent, and he looked fervently in Felipe’s direction, wanting to go home. The lady took his hand and her fingers felt like a bony animal perching on his. “Some families are large, very, very large,” she said. “Some families are small—very, very small.”

“My Papa says—” Sammy began, then paused, seized by a sudden doubt.

“Your Papa says?”

“My Papa says he knew your son. My Papa says they were cousins in Dipolog.”

“Is that soooo?” the woman said, arching her eyebrows again.

“What did you say your name was, again?”

“Samuel Dinglasan, ma’am. Samuel Occeña Dinglasan.”

“Dinglasan…. Weeell….. Like I said, some families are very large.  What else did your Papa say?”

“Papa says—”

“Papa says we should go home,” a voice behind them said, and there Felipe Dinglasan was, looking for all the world like he had lost everything, and while Sammy could not recall Mrs. Navarrete ever coming to their house, it did seem to him that she and his father had met before by the way she was sizing him up and his fortunes, that they were all relatives like he said, and therefore family. “I’m sorry if he’s been bothering you—”

“Not at all,” Mrs. Navarrete cried, getting to her feet. “Mr. Dinglasan, how good to see you, how nice of you to come and to pay your respects, it’s been such a long time!”

“But how—”

“Sammy here, of course, told me everything, reminded me of our connections—Dipolog, wasn’t it? Yes, Necing often told me about Dipolog, and how well he was treated by family when he came to visit. Please, have a seat—”

“But we really have to—”

“Go where, do what? It’s Christmas Eve—what should I call you again?”

“Ipe, ma’am—”

“Don’t call me ma’am, it’s always been Tita Connie. Lola Connie to you,” she said to Sammy. “But of course everyone forgot. That’s just how things are these days. I’m used to it. Tonight we meet, tomorrow no more, maybe never again. So take a look at your, uhm, cousin, go pay your respects—you, too, little boy, don’t be scared of the dead—while I make us some coffee.” Without taking another look at Felipe, she went to the small table and busied herself, lighting up another cigarette while pouring the water.

Sammy’s father lifted him up so he could see into the coffin, so they could both look very closely at Aniceto Navarrete for any kind of family resemblance. The dead man’s skin was very dark, and long thin whiskers stuck out stiffly from both sides of his mouth.

“You were right, Papa,” Sammy whispered. 

“Here, have an apple,” Mrs. Navarrete told Sammy when they regathered in the back row. “Rest up a bit and tell me stories, that’s all I ask, tell me stories. You, too, Ipe.” Leaning closer to him, she added, “And I’ll give you your fare in the morning.”

“Thank you,” Felipe croaked.

The woman made like she didn’t hear, and took the lid off the can of butter cookies. “Dunk these into your coffee, then close your eyes, and imagine you’re having ham and cake and grapes and cheese. The imagination, it’s a wonderful thing.” She demonstrated her technique with flair, holding the coffee and a cookie out as far as she could in front of her and shutting her eyes while joining the two.

“Yes!” Sammy shrieked, aping the woman. Even Sammy’s father found his own eyes closing.

The errant bulb flickered again and finally gave out, but not one of the three or the four of them knew it, not for a long moment.

(First published in the Philippine Star, December 24, 2001)

Penman No. 384: Seeing the “We”

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Penman for Monday, March 30, 2020

 

MORE THAN a year ago, on September 3, 2019, I wrote a column-piece titled “Meaning in the many,” in which I thought aloud about why so many young and often bright people were committing suicide or exhibiting a troubling emotional fragility. Was it, I surmised, a generational thing? Were we oldies somehow made of sterner stuff, or was that just an illusion haloed by time?

Whatever, I proposed that the answer to our individual predicaments could often be found in those of others, remembering that “We sought out kindred spirits and sang songs together, finding solace in community and in the sobering realization that many others had it worse. We found relief from our personal troubles by relieving the greater needs of others.”

I don’t pretend or expect to have too many readers, but now and then I post something that goes viral and gets hundreds if not thousands of likes on Twitter (where a version of this column appears a day or so later). That column on “Meaning in the many” got absolutely zero. I wanted to believe it was some kind of digital glitch, that people were getting a blank page instead of seeing what I wrote, but soon the cold reality set in that I had failed to communicate, in which case it was of course my fault.

So let me try again and see if I can get through in this time of Covid-19, which has been with us Pinoys for just about a month but which already feels like a year for many, long enough to spawn a torrent of memes and new buzzwords and phrases like “social distancing” and “shelter in place.” People are drowning in theories and prescriptions, rumors and rants, or otherwise occupied—somewhere between astonishment and anger—by prayers and eulogies.

It’s almost become a cliché to note the irony that at a time when we most need a sense of community (one commentator called it “seeing the ‘we’”), our best defense against disease is isolation and distance. Those of us lucky to have Internet access have formed communities online, through Viber and Messenger, passing on the latest tidbit with breathless anxiety, as if to say, “I’m still alive!” The patently fake news and repetitiveness aside, much of this traffic has been well-meant and benign—pleas for help and donations (almost instantly answered), jokes (not always funny, but better than news of another death), and coping strategies (everything from menus and exercise regimens to reading lists and Netflix favorites). They are, of course, the preoccupations of the living, and if there’s a certain bourgeois banality to them, it’s probably because they’re our most honest attempts at recovering a middle-class normalcy that has suddenly acquired meaning and value—even chores that we took for granted, if not disliked, like driving to work or doing the groceries.

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But now and then some messages have disturbed and saddened me deeply, almost as badly as the news of friends lost (three of them, at latest count), things which reminded me that long before this enforced lockdown, we had already, in a broader sense, quarantined ourselves and practiced social distancing, class-wise.

Topmost was that alarm sounded by a post—subsequently shown to be fake—claiming that scruffy gangs were threatening to loot a grocery and plunder rich folks’ homes. I have to confess that at first blush it scared me, because I thought it was true; it probably was, because people were going hungry, and when they got hungry, well, they….

And then I remembered how, in the early 1970s, another period of crisis—before I got a real job and wore a tie and went back to school to pick up a diploma and order a box of embossed business cards—my family and I were living in a hovel whose rusty GI roof was held down by a tire. My father had to work far away, my mother was a clerk, my siblings were in school, I was newly married, and we had very little but each other (and a pig that we kept in the bathroom, being fattened for the future). And sometimes there was so little food that Beng once had to sell her nicest clothes to tide us over. One Christmas, the best gift we could bring home was a set of new, cheap plastic plates to replace the cracked ones we were using. We were hard up, but if we were desperate, we tried hard not to show it.

Remembering that, I posted a message: “While all these scenarios are possible, I seriously doubt that these recent posts about the poor plotting to storm groceries and gated subdivisions are based on fact. They seem purposely crafted to sow fear and disunity, appealing to our worst instincts and characterizing the poor as a mindless mob, at a time when compassion and rational thinking are most needed. I frankly don’t know who would benefit from this kind of campaign, and I don’t mean for people not to be careful about their safety, but putting up more barriers, physical and otherwise, between people in common distress seems to me not only un-Christian but ultimately counterproductive.”

I know, that sounds more like the editorials I used to write for another paper. I should’ve just told my story, but I didn’t, because any suffering in the past almost sounds like gloating against the very real and urgent claims of the present. It was, I guess, a reminder to myself (and to our younger family members who never went through all that) that there are things worse than Covid, things worse than quarantine, like the loss of memory, and of our connections to one another beyond the physical and the digital.

Penman No. 354: A Scottish Sortie

IMG_0415.jpegPenman for Monday, May 20, 2019

 

AS UNLIKELY as it may seem, many Filipino writers have a special affinity for Scotland, that northern country (yes, it is one) bound up into the United Kingdom with England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. That’s not only because of our passing familiarity with the likes of Robert Burns and Walter Scott, but because, over the past three decades, more than a dozen Filipino writers—among them Krip Yuson, Eric Gamalinda, Ricky de Ungria, Marj Evasco, Rofel Brion, Danton Remoto, Mia Gonzalez, and myself—have been fellows at the Hawthornden Castle International Retreat for Writers, about half an hour by bus in Midlothian, just outside of Edinburgh.

That was where, in 1994, I wrote much of what became Penmanship and Other Stories, including the title story, which came out of a serendipitous purchase of a 1938 Parker Vacumatic at the Thistle Pen Shop in Edinburgh. Indeed, two literary anthologies have emerged from the Pinoy-Scottish connection: Luna Caledonia, a poetry collection edited by Ricky de Ungria and published in 1992, and Latitude, a fiction collection co-edited by Sarge Lacuesta and Toni Davidson and published in 2005.

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I returned to Scotland in 2000 with my wife Beng and daughter Demi in tow; I was a writing fellow then at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, and Demi was visiting us from Manila. As it happened, a local radio station was offering free train tickets to Scotland to whoever could dial in and answer some simple questions at 5 am, so for three consecutive mornings, I woke up early and did just that, and soon we three were rolling away to Glasgow, taking the scenic route along the western coast (and being feted on the train by a kindly Pinoy attendant).

That was 20 years ago, and since then Beng and I have expressed a more than idle longing to revisit Scotland—especially Beng, an unabashed fan of Braveheart and Outlander. In the meantime, Demi got married to bright young fellow from California named Jerry, and in 2014 Demi and Jerry treated us, on our 40thwedding anniversary, to a tour of Spain, following Rizal’s footsteps in Madrid and Barcelona, and Anthony Bourdain’s in San Sebastian.

We wanted to repeat that this year to mark our 45th, so it was no huge surprise that we settled on Scotland where Jerry—who likes his single malts—had never been. After meeting up in London, we took a train to Edinburgh and lodged in the shadow of its imposing castle, to which we paid the obligatory visit. I treated our small party next to a day tour of Stirling Castle, Loch Lomond, Deanston Distillery, and Doune Castle, before moving on the next day to Glasgow and its more down-to-earth, industrial vibe.

I wanted to record this not to bore you with the details of another family sortie, but to remark on what impressed us most, outside of the often desolate beauty of the Scottish highlands and our comic encounters with the “hairy coos” (the Highland cattle probably fattened by tourist feedings).

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For me, a retired professor who can’t help being interested in a country’s educational and cultural infrastructure, the question was, how could the Scots have done so much with seemingly so little?

Pop stars like Sean Connery, Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert Louis Stevenson, JK Rowling, and Annie Lennox aside, Scotland has produced engineer James Watt, inventor Alexander Graham Bell, penicillin discoverer Alexander Fleming, social philosopher Adam Smith, and explorer David Livingstone. A book by the historian Arthur Herman titled How the Scots Invented the Modern World asks: “Who formed the first literate society? Who invented our modern ideas of democracy and free market capitalism? The Scots…. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Scotland made crucial contributions to science, philosophy, literature, education, medicine, commerce, and politics—contributions that have formed and nurtured the modern West ever since…. John Knox and the Church of Scotland laid the foundation for our modern idea of democracy; the Scottish Enlightenment helped to inspire both the American Revolution and the U.S. Constitution; and thousands of Scottish immigrants left their homes to create the American frontier, the Australian outback, and the British Empire in India and Hong Kong.”

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This from a country of less than 6 million people (that’s right, six), whose influence extends far beyond their shores. While wives and widows everywhere may bemoan the loss of their husbands to golf and whisky, both industries annually contribute £1 billion and £6 billion, respectively—about P500 billion combined—to the Scottish economy, which is also driven by oil and gas, a £12-billion industry. (To put things in perspective, you can add up those three for a total contribution of £19 billion or about US$25 billion, which is what Philippine BPOs generate, as well as OFWs—but with a much smaller denominator.)

What was most telling to me was how Scotland, despite its plethora of warriors, politicians, engineers, and industrialists, valued its writers, who in turn valued Scottish national pride. The 200-foot statue of Walter Scott in Edinburgh is the largest in the world of any writer’s, and in Glasgow, Scott’s monument also towers over those of others in George Square.

Of course we can argue that we venerate Jose Rizal—only to elect his intellectual and moral opposites. As the Scots might put it, “A nod’s as guid as a wink tae a blind horse.”

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Penman No. 340: Wowwow, Mingming, Peepeep

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Penman for Monday, February 11, 2019

 

FOR REASONS still not too clear to me, since I had a great relationship with my late Dad, I never really wanted a son, and heaved a huge sigh of relief when Beng popped out a baby girl named Demi 44 years ago. Demi turned out to be everything we could wish for—bright, caring, and generous, an exemplar at her job in a major hotel in California, where she lives with her husband Jerry, another proud addition to our small family.

I may not have minded a grandson, but The One Who Knows Better decided that we were all going to be happier by ourselves, so Beng and I and Demi and Jerry have enjoyed our foursome, traveling together whenever possible and achieving what we could in this life without worrying too much about the future.

We couldn’t have imagined that in our later 60s, Beng and I would have to learn grandparenting a boy—a two-year-old named Buboy, the son and second child of our faithful housekeeper Jenny and her husband Sonny, who have been living with us for many years in our campus home. Beng and I thought that everyone could work better if we kept the family together instead of stranding half of it in faraway Bicol. So Buboy was born here, and has known nothing but our large yard and the falling mangoes, treating our noisy guard dogs as his friends.

Buboy wakes us up in the morning by banging his tiny fists on the door, and when no one opens it, he turns the knob himself and barges in with a ta-da smile. He likes to climb up our bed, which he thinks is his playground—and a trampoline.

He eats breakfast with us every morning, dragging his high chair and clambering on board even before I get to sit. He loves rice and boiled egg, rice and boiled egg, rice and boiled egg. Beng taught him how to pray before meals—something I tend to mutter if not forget, but Buboy’s instruction forces me to do as he does and make the Sign of the Cross with exaggerated flourish, although Buboy seems to think that tapping just one shoulder will do as nicely.

We speak to him in Filipino, just like we did with Demi—we’ve never believed in raising a kid in a foreign language, which school and society will take care of at some point—but he’s picked up a few favorite English words on his own: “no” (often used as in “Nononono!”), “fish” (“pish,” the Pinoy way), and “shoes” (which he can get picky about). He has his own plastic glass, and we make a toast and gulp our water down together, like drinking buddies.

Breakfast is followed by half an hour of cartoons, but what he really wants is for Beng to open his favorite book—one about a forest whose creatures are endangered by bad people.

I’m Tatay and Beng is Nanay. All dogs are Wowwow. All cats are Mingming. All cars and trucks are Peepeep (and he knows how to run back to his Mama when he hears a Peepeep rumbling down our street). When I’m away on a trip, he points to planes when they fly overhead, although I don’t know where or how he made the connection. A true tyke of his generation, he’s pretty good at figuring out how knobs and buttons work—twist this, press that.

When you ask him how old he is, he raises his two pointy fingers—he can’t make the V sign yet. What happens when he turns three? We’ll cross that bridge when we get there. He likes to swipe three colored poker chips from my bedside, and we’re using those to get him to count to three. Some folks expect their toddlers to do calculus, speak French, and play the piano; this boy will not be rushed by us into any prodigious feats, although we see him absorbing knowledge like a sponge. It’s enough that he knows how to do the manowith every elder he meets, to pick up things that fall on the floor and put them in the wastebasket, and to return objects where he got them from. He’ll soon learn “po” and “opo.”

His Ate Jilliane is a special child, years older but just as innocent as he is, and he seems to sense her specialness. They fight, of course, like anything over anything, but he can be sweet and gentle, offering her a share of such goodies as he can finagle from us. He probably doesn’t yet understand what we keep whispering in his ear, trusting in subliminal suggestion to work its magic: “Buboy, be good, be smart and study hard, so you can take care of Ate when you grow up.”

As empty nesters and with our own dear daughter well cared for, Beng and I have pledged to see to it that Buboy gets a proper education, in school and at home, for as long as we can help his family help themselves. Other retirees adopt causes and NGOs; he will be our mission, of course with his parents’ cooperation and support.

When our friend Julie visited recently from the States and had a few pesos left over, she bought a stuffed cat to give to Buboy, which he promptly embraced and named, of course, Mingming. It does take a village to raise a child, but it doesn’t take too much to make one happy.

 

 

Penman No. 266: The Pinoy Film Family

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Penman for Monday, August 28, 2017

 

LIKE MANY Filipinos, I really should see more locally made movies than the Hollywood and Netflix confections that have become our staple entertainment. That statement’s even more ironic in my case, having scripted about two dozen movies, mostly for the late Lino Brocka, between 1978 and 2003.

I missed out totally on this year’s Cinemalaya offerings because of a toxic schedule at work—I tried to catch Respeto on its last day only to find all the tickets sold out—so I made sure to make time for the Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino the following week. I suppose I more than made up by managing to see four of the PPP entries over as many days: Patay Na si Hesus, Pauwi Na, Birdshot, and Hamog, in that order.

I might have chosen these movies because I’d heard good things about them, but I also wanted to see how they represented the Filipino family—for me an eternally fascinating subject, even from the days when Lino and I explored its complexity in such films as Tahan Na, Empoy and Inay. Filipino society (and politics, for that matter) is nothing if not about family, which seems inextricably connected to our struggles for survival—we survive for family, and also because of it.

Directed by Victor Villanueva, Patay Na si Hesus has a long-estranged wife and now a widow, Iyay (Jaclyn Jose), drive her ragtag family in a minicab from Cebu to Dumaguete to attend the wake of her husband Hesus. Along the way and at the wake itself all manner of misadventure happens: a nun liberates herself, a lesbian relationship crumbles, a boy with Down Syndrome seems to get lost but actually finds his way, a coffin collapses, and a dog dies (curiously—and sorry for the spoiler—the three dogs in three of these movies all die). The dog’s demise has all the characters wailing and shedding the tears they couldn’t muster for the absent dad.

Pauwi Na is another family-on-the-road movie, with Mang Pepe (Bembol Roco) and his wife Remy (Cherry Pie Picache)—crushed by eking out an existence in the slums—transporting their brood back to the Pinoy fantasy of a paradaisical province, not by train or bus but by pedicab. Director Paolo Villaluna’s project is a long and laborious journey that ends in tragic loss, but the family’s dogged faith in a better life elsewhere infuses the film with both power and poignance. Mang Pepe is every Filipino tatay who’s gone the extra mile—many miles—to put food on the table and bring a smile to his family’s faces. (I’ll admit to having teared up remembering my own father, a highly intelligent man who wanted to become a lawyer but never quite got the right breaks, and who at one point had to work as a jeepney barker just to tide us over.)

Directed by Mikhail Red, Birdshot juxtaposes the coming-of-age of young Maya (Mary Joy Apostol) with the brutishness and brutality of political power in the rural hinterlands. The endangered eagle that she shoots dead is precious, but it’s hardly the most grievous loss the place suffers, although there’s little official interest in investigating the bigger crimes.

Hamog is set in another jungle—the bowels beneath and around Guadalupe Bridge, in the city’s slums and tenements where street urchins become almost feral in their predation. The movie is actually a diptych, an exploration of two lives—Rashid’s and Jinky’s—and it opens doors to what to most Filipino viewers would be unusual relationships (a Muslim man with several wives, a woman with a husband and a lover under one roof). While doubtlessly powerful, the narrative needed, I felt, a bit of rounding out, even assuming that its director Ralston Jover precisely wanted to make a point of leaving ends loose, as life often happens.

I’ve already mentioned the 100% mortality rate for canines in these scripts; another interesting parallel was the appearance of phantoms—Jesus Christ, a shadowy forest figure, Supergirl—in three of the films, which seemed more organic and necessary in Pauwi Na but too deliberately cinematic a touch in Birdshot and Hamog.

Their minor flaws aside, all four movies were well worth my time and money, and I was glad to see full houses for a couple of them, and appreciative audiences who clapped as the credits rolled. For someone who’s been out of the film industry for a while, it was heartening to witness such a wealth of new young talent—both on the directorial and acting sides (Chai Fonacier, who appears in the two road movies, has a great future ahead of her)—emerging to take over from the likes of Brocka, Bernal, de Leon, and the other masters of that generation. If I were to hand out my own awards just among these four, I’d give the top prize to Patay Na si Hesus, for its refreshing quirkiness and dark comedy.

What struck and impressed me from a writer’s perspective was the non-linearity of the plots and the moral ambiguity of the characters and situations—a far cry from, say, Brocka, in whose movies it was always clear who the villain was, and why.

Most important, of course, was to see how the Pinoy nuclear family had morphed in response to changing times—to nontraditional sexuality, to absentee parents, to the pressure to survive—and yet also to see the love and affection in it undiminished and even intensified by need. Bravo!

 

Penman No. 132: Return to Romblon

RomblonPenman for Monday, January 19, 2015

 

SOMETIMES THE best-laid plans are those you don’t lay out at all. I’d been meaning to pay another visit to my home province of Romblon, where I was born 61 years ago, but I kept putting it off from one year to the next until that absence became 20 years.

The last time I went home in 1994, I was with my father Jose Sr., who incidentally would have marked his 92nd birthday today; he died in 1996, so that trip was also his last journey home. We were born in the same small seaside town of Alcantara on Tablas island. When I went there to address the graduating class of the local high school, the marching band spelled out my full name and WELCOME TO ALCANTARA under the hot summer sun. I felt bad for the kids but deeply appreciated the gesture. I don’t think most of them had any idea who I was and what I’d done, but why should they? The only writers they knew were probably white and dead.

But Romblon has been good to writers (NVM Gonzalez was born several kilometers and 40 years ahead of me), offering a wealth of material as lustrous as its signature marble. And like marble, sometimes it lies starkly bare on the surface, and sometimes its veins need to be probed and palpated. My first novel, Killing Time in a Warm Place (Anvil, 1992) was set largely in Romblon, based on the events and discoveries of a long summer I spent there as a ten-year-old boy in 1964. Those discoveries included my grandfather’s windowed tomb, an enchanted mountain, and sweet water bubbling out of the mountainside, not to mention a crush or two on an older girl. Ten years later I returned with a wife heavy with child, seeking refuge from one of the many dragnets cast by martial law, and it wasn’t government agents my aunts sought to protect my wife and unborn baby from, but other evil spirits best kept away by a wad of herbs pinned to Beng’s chest called a carmen-carmen.

Two Fridays ago I had and took a sudden chance to return to all that, upon the invitation of my niece Susie and her husband Toto, who had to make a quick weekend run on family business to Bgy. Guinbirayan in Sta. Fe town, about an hour’s dusty drive from Alcantara. My mother had been born in Guinbirayan in 1928 and I myself had many happy memories of the place from 1964 of picking up sea shells at low tide and gorging on duhat as fat as my thumbs. I had a mountain of work set up on my desk for the weekend, but how could I possibly say no? I packed as much of my work as I could into my laptop, and Beng and I joined Susie and her sisters in a Pajero driven by Toto to the Batangas seaport, where we left the jeep and got on board a RORO vessel bound for Odiongan, Romblon’s busiest port.

We left Batangas at sunset and arrived in Odiongan early in the morning, shaken and stirred by tall waves off Mindoro, but eager to board the waiting van driven by another one of my nephews (I would discover that I had a whole village full of them—my Lolo Cosme had a dozen children—and the word “Uncle,” in English, would resonate throughout our brief stay). Guinbirayan was another couple of hours away by a winding mountain road, now thankfully paved for the most part (“It depends on who the mayor is and on his political clout,” explained Toto), and getting there at sunrise, in time for a breakfast of grilled fresh fish, crabs, squid, and nilupak, proved well worth the journey.

We had just one full day in Guinbirayan—Susie and her siblings were getting their lots surveyed—so we spent most of that on the old farm feasting on fresh buko and native chicken, and in the afternoon we took a banca ride to Puro Island, where my mother still owns a small seaside lot, with much of the beach now washed away. The following morning, before boarding another RORO boat for Batangas, we paid a visit to my hometown of Alcantara, just long enough to say hello to a favorite aunt, Manang Adoring, and to note that a Globe cellsite now served that part of Tablas (Smart ruled the other part, so it helps to have two phones in such corners of the archipelago). By sunset, we were steaming out of the harbor for home.

Forty-eight hours after twenty years may not seem long enough, but brevity makes for intensity, and everything that I had seen and felt from my previous visits came swarming back to me with poignancy, making me more aware than ever of time past and time passing.

I went back to Lolo Cosme’s tomb, recalling my peek through its curious window in my novel: “I saw my grandfather’s skull on its macerated pillow, its teeth long and raw, the bone laced with patterns of black and yellow moonscapes and Great Walls of China running into the hollows and into the silver thicket of his hair—fine wiry hair that radiated above and around his brow like an aura, rampant, resplendent, indestructible.” That view was gone, as they had joined his bones with my grandmother’s and two aunts’ in a big concrete box. But the beach on which I had strolled many an afternoon was still there, and across it rose the massif of Kalatong, the enchanted mountain, where, my cousins and nieces swore, fairies and spirits abounded, ever ready to cast their spells on the unwitting visitor. “They can look like beautiful children riding golden chariots,” said one. “But they can also be evil.”

As we crossed fields of mango and cassava, I heard how one schoolgirl was known to have been possessed by these spirits, periodically falling into a trance: “She would faint on the muddy road in her white dress, then rise without a spot of dirt on her!” We were spared the carmen-carmen, but were warned about the kilkig, a slow-acting poison induced into one’s food, causing days of misery. My cellphone caught a signal on a hilltop and I called my mother in Manila, who cautioned me about meeting certain people: “They’re a family of witches,” she whispered.

We were, indeed, bewitched during that weekend, and entranced by the food, so I suppose there was some sorcery at work. The first thing I did when we got back was to book ferry tickets for a longer visit in March.