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.

Hindsight No. 29: Mr. Kapwa

Hindsight for Monday, August 1, 2022

THE HONORABLE congressman tried to scream when he saw the motorcycle dart out from the huddle of cars and trucks ahead, too quickly and too late for his driver Pol to brake or swerve, and the Lexus hit the rider broadside, sending man and machine into a deathly spin on the avenue. Immediately this was followed by the screech of other vehicles trying to avoid the fallen rider. 

No sound had come out of Leonilo’s mouth but he was hearing a shriek, and he realized it was his wife Henrietta with her hands over her eyes, as if refusing to see what had just happened outside. Pol sat frozen, gripping the steering wheel, wondering which was worse: possibly killing a man or displeasing his master.

That day had begun with Leonilo and Henrietta having breakfast by the swimming pool—Henrietta had decided that their interiors needed a makeover, especially now that her husband had been named one of the House’s deputy speakers, and the new paint was still drying in their dining room. Leonilo had wanted them to move to a hotel during the renovation, but Henrietta was too mistrustful of their staff to leave her wardrobe and jewelry behind. She had been known to plant a cheap earring or a bar of Hershey’s in the kitchen or one of the bathrooms as a test, and they had always been returned to her until the chocolate had gone moldy, but she remained convinced that everyone was out to defraud her of her rightful possessions.

“I need a new bag,” she had told him, adding a dollop of whipped cream to her coffee and then a sprinkle of cinnamon. That and a sliver of toast would be breakfast for her, while he dug into his beef tapa, eggs, and fried rice. She knew she had married the son of a stevedore, but since he now owned a shipping company, he could eat with his bare hands as far as she was concerned. He had done that, in fact, throughout his campaign, supporting his claim to being “Mr. Kapwa.”

“You already have more bags than there are days of the year,” he said, chewing on his tapa

“I already brought the Birkin to the SONA. It was in all the papers. There’s a new one out in ostrich—”

“I can’t tell an ostrich from a pig when they’re skinned,” he said, annoyed at being burdened with so mundane a matter. His mind was on his pet bill. It was certain to gain support among his colleagues and mark him as a man worthy of their highest consideration, possibly even the Speakership, come the next vacancy. It was a bill “to criminalize the malicious criticism of public officials and law enforcers, through direct or indirect means, such as by editorial commentary or ridicule, whether in print, on broadcast media, or on the Internet, such malicious criticism being intended to diminish the public’s trust and confidence in their elected and designated representatives, promote divisiveness and subversion, and impede the government’s development programs.” All government officials were rapacious crooks, if you believed the videos.

“You don’t have to,” Henrietta said. “You’ll see it when it gets here—they promised to deliver it before noon. I can’t wait to bring it to the party! I’m sure no one else has this yet. You have to be on their priority list for months!” She had chosen a reputedly sustainable Stella McCartney outfit with pants to go with the bag, and had practiced her posing. The Speaker’s wife was throwing a party, and the President was expected to drop by.

The crowds were already gathering around the injured rider and the Lexus. Pol had finally stepped out to see if the man was alive. Surely everyone could tell who was at fault. Pol berated the fellow. “Didn’t you hear the wang-wang? How stupid can you get?” On ordinary days they would have had a police escort with more sirens and blinkers, but on weekends they were in short supply.

Henrietta was hyperventilating in the back seat, clutching her ostrich bag to her chest. “St. Christopher, pray for us,” she kept saying, as if they were the victims. Beside her, Leonilo sat fuming, knowing they were already an hour late, and instead of chit-chatting with the President and telling him all about his brilliant idea—with 33 other Deputy Speakers to contend with, visibility was key—he was stuck in traffic with a hysterical wife and a PR disaster brewing quickly. “If we didn’t have to wait for that stupid bag”—it had been delivered at 4 pm, after frantic phone calls—“this wouldn’t have happened!” 

Leonilo noticed that several onlookers had their cellphone cameras trained on him, while another was clearly shooting his license plate, all of it fodder for tonight’s YouTube and tomorrow’s broadcasts. He then saw that the rider was getting up, shaken and battered but in one piece. Instinctively he sprang out of the car in his size 54 Brioni blazer and rushed over to the rider who was still gathering his wits about him. The cameras trailed Leonilo’s every move. From somewhere came the squawk of an approaching motorcycle cop. 

Leonilo brushed his driver aside and made a show of checking the man’s bruises. Blood streamed out of the rider’s nose and a drop trickled onto Leonilo’s Ferragamo loafers, horrifying everyone. Even the injured rider gasped at the red blob. “I’m sorry—sir!” Pol dove for the shoe and wiped off the spot with his hankie. 

“It’s nothing,” Leonilo said, pulling out his silk Aquascutum and giving it to the rider to mop up the nosebleed. “I’m just glad you’re okay—but we need to get you to a doctor.” He looked straight into a raised Oppo camera and said, “It’s the least Mr. Kapwa can do.” People began clapping. “Pol, take this man to the car, and bring him to the hospital.” Henrietta shrieked again when she saw Pol dragging a bloody mess to the car, and jumped out. “What the hell are you doing?”

Leonilo bent over the fallen Skygo, lifted it up, and straddled it with the look of a cowboy in the heart of the badlands. He called to Henrietta and said, “Get on behind me.” She held up the Birkin and said, “What? Are you crazy? Ride that thing?”

He fired up the engine; these cheap Chinese motorbikes seemed meant to be banged up. A motorcycle cop appeared and saluted the congressman. “Sir! What happened? Can I help?”

“Clear the way,” Leonilo said. “We’re late to the party.” As Henrietta clambered, whining, onto the back seat, Leonilo stared ahead—at their dramatic entrance, at the viral videos, at the inevitable interviews on radio and TV, at the limitless horizon. Behind him, Henrietta wondered how she could hold on to both her husband and her bag.