He was acting strange around the house lately, my father. Often I would find him peering through the jalousies. As though in participation (or probably in some unfathomable sympathy) the whole world would fall quiet—the occasional barking of the neighbors’ dogs, the sound of children playing, and the gurgling noise of tricycles, all would suddenly wane.
Bare-chested and potbellied, he would pace around the house, anxious, then later, he would sit in front of the TV, switching channels as swiftly as the tube could accommodate. Mamang would sit beside him at night and complain of getting dizzy from the bright flashes of channels being changed now and then. At daytime, as Mamang left for work, he’d usually settle on a basketball game. Though jobless since the day I learned fathers ought to have a job no matter what, he wasn’t like this. He used to go around the village without a shirt on, meddling on other people’s lives, influencing other husbands to emulate him.
“It’s my job,” he had boasted at dinner when asked by Mamang, “I am the king of Cabantian, and I have to constantly oversee the status of my kingdom,” to which Mamang just rolled her eyes and sighed.
So much for being the invincible king, I thought after noticing his unusual behavior for the past two days.
His strangeness had its advantages. For one thing he no longer came home bleary-eyed, staggering and acting more grandiose than he already did. But it didn’t mean he could stay sober till the end of the day. He’d still get drunk, all by himself. He either got his bottles from the fridge (Mamang implied her consent by filling it up from the grocery) or, when the stock ran out, from a sari-sari store (he sent me to buy them for him). The chores? Some were left half done so I still had something to do for the summer besides getting hooked to Warcraft.
* * *
After lunch, having finished washing the dishes, I decided to spend the afternoon at an Internet café. I passed by the sala where my father sat slumped in the sofa, seemingly absorbed in the yells of the crowd on the TV, the sound of a ball bouncing off the floor and the squeaks of sneakers. I intended neither to ask permission nor even to tell him I was going out. Instead, I wanted to make my exit as stealthily as possible.
“’Yan,” he called, and that startled me. His eyes never left the tube. “Buy me a cigarette, will you?” It was more of a command than a request. He must have convinced himself that he was that much of royal descent to muster such a tone.
“Buy them yourself,” I replied. I swung the door open and felt overwhelmed by the blinding brightness of the sun outside. It was then I realized he had the curtains drawn and the whole house had been gloomy.
“Ay, lintik! Just try walking out on me,” he snapped without jerking from his seat.
The dog, our bitch Frida, brown and askal, ran inside, wagging her tail, her paw-nails clicking on the linoleum.
I froze, waited for a tirade to follow, except nothing came but: “The money’s on top of the fridge.” He uttered them so nonchalantly, I felt goaded to comply.
“How many sticks?” I hissed, fetching the 50-peso bill. I heard him answer: “One pack.” That was right before I slammed the door shut.
The children were playing on the street. Most of them were grade-schoolers soaking up their summer break, unmindful of the heat of the early afternoon sun. One child was chasing the others while he ran along a wet line.
I had to walk—yawa!—a little farther; the nearest store was two blocks away. Just last Sunday, the nearest one, Jojo’s, about four houses from ours, closed down. It was so sudden that not much rumor about its closure circulated. One speculation, the most convincing one, involved my father. He had a nasty fight with the owner, Jojo. It was on Wednesday, exactly a week ago, so people had vivid recollections of it.
I was there when it happened, the fisticuff. I remember the flying fists, the dull thuck! of knuckles against jawbone, the shouts of rage, blood spattering on the pavement, and later, much later, after the failed attempts of my father’s fellow drunkards to break them off, the arrival of the barangay tanod. My father’s lower lip was split while Jojo’s—nice and meek Jojo who maintained a moustache like Hitler’s—face was caked with blood, and his square moustache weltered, like a piece of mangled flesh dangling from his nose.
Everyone who witnessed it was shocked. The tanod held them back. “Putang ina ka!” my father spat, and Jojo attempted to lunge at him but was held back.
“Putang ina! Lemme go,” Jojo exclaimed.
Maybe I had just imagined the crowd gasping in surprise. It was highly unlikely of Jojo to become violent. People thought of him as sweet, sympathetic and charitable. (People also suspected that he was gay but that notion was certainly disproved that day.) He kept the only corner store willing to loan goods without interest, and the middle-class residents of Cabantian took full advantage of this, milking every opportunity though they weren’t that hard-up. Some even paid past due. Jojo never complained. It was hard to imagine him getting upset so easily. Thus, the Wednesday incident further marred my father’s reputation.
Mamang was irate. When she learned that her husband was in prison, she was clad in her old-fashioned schoolteacher’s uniform. (Once, I teased her about her uniform to which she replied: “Even in summer remedial classes, a teacher still has to look respectable. Especially in remedial classes wherein most students are disrespectful.”) That day I saw how she handled things, and her uniform made me see her as a martyr.
With the bulk of our savings withdrawn, Mamang paid for my father’s bail and for Jojo’s hospital bills. (Jojo was rushed to San Pedro Hospital where the doctor found nothing broken in him; he was nonetheless advised to stay “for further observations.”)
“For God’s sake, you nearly killed the guy,” Mamang berated my father. “Didn’t it ever occur to you that with the likes of Jojo, people will always think you’re to blame?” Silence met her and I pictured my father smoking as he stared at my mother without the slightest look of remorse in his face.
I was in the sala, the TV on mute. Frida lay curled in one corner, watching the door to the room from which Mamang’s voice came.
“I have tolerated your drinking all day, samtang ga trabaho ko nga murag kalabaw. Oh yes, I did. But how did you repay me? Is this how to set an example to your son?” A pause. “I don’t know what to do with you. You’re hopeless. Unsa mang gyod ang gusto nimong mahitabo? Unsa!?” A small object shattered, jerking Frida up on her paws.
“I’m going to bed,” I heard my father murmur. The house was that silent. The whole village was that silent. The neighbors were probably eavesdropping.
My parents went with their usual routine the next morning, acting indifferently around each other. They only spoke when they found it necessary. They even slept in the same bedroom. Where else would the other sleep anyway? Our house only had two bedrooms. I’ve always been alone in mine after my brother went to work in Kuwait.
Neither one of them mentioned the incident. The stories which I later received came from neighbors whose main job involved poking in other people’s businesses.
They said it was my father who started the fight. Jojo didn’t want to provide another bottle since my father was too drunk to piss straight. Some said it was because my father, too drunk to realize that other people had feelings, joked around about Jojo’s sexuality. Nonetheless, no matter what version of the story arose, fingers still pointed to my father. He could have defended himself by giving his side. But he didn’t. Instead, he merely acted strange around the house, as if afraid to go out, especially after the sari-sari store had suddenly closed down.
As for Jojo, he did not press any charges. He just moved out two days after getting discharged from the hospital. He simply boarded up the store window with tin and left. Now the tin was vandalized with nonsensical statements like Gangstah rulz, roy love jessica, fuck you and a carelessly drawn graffiti of a penis ejaculating before a pair of big, parted lips.
I wonder what happened to him. Last I heard he put up a store on Tigatto road.
* * *
I walked back to the house, in my hand, the pack of Marlboros. The children were gone, probably back inside their houses. From the gate, whose hinges squeaked, I had a glimpse of my father peering through the window. Then he disappeared from the window; the curtains, drawn shut, swayed a little.
When I entered the sala, he was sitting there as if totally focused on the tube. He didn’t budge even after I threw the pack of cigarettes on to the coffee table.
Then my phone rang, the tone patterned after the Wowowee jingle. I hurried to answer it in my room, ensuring that the door was locked. My brother, Raul on the other end of the line, sounded worried and had a raspy voice.
“’Yan, I won’t be long. I just called up Mamang. Is everything okay there?”
Reluctantly, I answered, “Fine, I guess.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean everything’s the same. Why? What did Mamang tell you?”
“She said that he’s…” He trailed off, and to wait for him to finish the sentence was futile. Raul, big brother Raul, couldn’t say it out loud.
The TV in the living room was barely audible. I knew he was trying to listen.
“What exactly is he doing?” Raul asked. “Is he hurting Mamang?”
“No, not that I’m aware of.” I thought about it then declared: “No, I’m pretty sure he doesn’t hit her.”
An unbearable silence followed: the memento of grudge and the conspiracy that transpired.
“He frequently looks out the window though,” I said, “and appears to be constantly watchful for I-don’t-know-what. And he doesn’t go out anymore. I don’t know if it’s good or bad.”
I could picture Kuya Raul nodding. “Aside from that?”
“Alright. I’ll take your word for it. But if anything happens, anything, especially if it involves Mamang, call me.”
“I’ll do that.”
After we hung up, the TV blared on again. The same noise of a basketball game. The sports reporter tirelessly gave vivid descriptions of the game and fearless comments on the players as the crowd cheered on.
Certain that he was able to hear, I stared at the door, feeling things out. I imagined him standing in the opposite side, waiting for me to come out, ready to pounce on me like a snake. But I couldn’t lock myself in for a long time. I had to get out. I pictured ways of beating him to a pulp in self-defense.
So I slowly opened the door, my heart thumping, blood rushing to my head, anticipating his sudden attack. But he was still in the sofa where I had last seen him, puffing a cigarette away. He didn’t look at me when I passed by. It was as if I were just smoke, nonchalantly expelled though pursed lips.
* * *
At dinner the three of us gathered while TV Patrol blared on about attempts at bringing down the Macapagal-Arroyo presidency. Breaking our silence, Mamang said, “Raul called.”
“What did he say?” my father replied.
“Just checking on us.”
“Ah.” He paused, the glass of water midway between the table and his chewing mouth. Outside there was a rustling in the bougainvillea Mamang planted around the house. He hurried to the window, drew back the curtains and peered through the jalousies. “Puñeta,” he muttered, returning to the table. “Iro lang diay.”
Mamang stared at him in disbelief. It’s either because he bluntly swore before his son at dinner table or because of his overt manifestation of paranoia. But she did not comment on this.
And, as if nothing was the matter, my father ate again in silence. Mamang said nothing of this.
A reporter on TV Patrol, on the other hand, interviewed a grief-stricken kin of a murder victim.
Distressing, really (my situation and not the news on TV). The air of hostility in the house intensified during dinner and everybody seemed to assume that being indifferent to it would make it eventually go away.
Once, somebody decided not to be indifferent. It was Kuya Raul, who just graduated from college at that time. That incident led to his leaving for work in Kuwait.
After Kuya Raul received his diploma, he sought work but either he didn’t suit the job or the job didn’t suit him. Even the Ateneo diploma couldn’t be of help for the work he aspired to. My father, however, insisted that he took the job in Kuwait.
“Prinsipyo,” Kuya Raul retorted. “I graduated from Ateneo. Why would I stoop down and become a blue-collared factory worker in another country.” My father yelled in his drunken state, “The hell I care about your prinsipyo! It will not get you anywhere. It’s either Kuwait or land yourself a job right now!” And, as if he didn’t sound unreasonable enough, he added almost under his alcohol breath but not quite under it: “Palamunin.”
Kuya Raul, who had borne the grudge for too long, punched him hard on the cheek. The king of Cabantian stumbled and toppled over a chair. Mamang, of course, turned hysterical. She and I tried to pull them apart. I got hold of Kuya who was struggling to break free while Mamang restrained our father who was fumbling to get up but only managed to stagger and finally fall down again.
Maybe the second fall sobered him up a little since he was able to throw in the line: “Bastos ka! Good for nothing son of a bitch. You’re just like me.” The last sentence was almost a whisper before he passed out.
That was also the first time I’d seen Kuya Raul cry in years. A few months and a loan from SSS later, he flew off for work in a factory in the Middle East. He hasn’t come home since. We’d already spent three Christmases without him; he neither phoned our father nor sent him any letter. Our father continued with his wastrel ways, until this strange behavior started, that is.
* * *
In the middle of the night, when only the monotonous reek! reek! reek! of crickets could be heard, I woke up, startled from some shuffling outside my room. I dropped the book I was reading and opened the door slightly. In the living room, under the faint yellow glow streaming from the light post outside our house, my father was peering through the window again. I observed him for a longer time: the vigilant look on his face, the regular yet noisy breathing, and the way he stood, bent, almost crouching. It was my father at his most honest: he unfolded before me like a dissected frog back in Biology, the heart—tiny, scarlet and delicate—pumping under the scalpel in my hand.
He remained honest when he turned to me, his expression of fear did not falter. And in his eyes, I saw a cry for help, restrained nonetheless in his pot-bellied, bare-chested body. He’s maimed, I confirmed, and he’s screaming inside, pleading, but his own alcohol-numbed lips kept him mum.
For a moment our gazes locked onto each other. As if his paralysis were contagious; I couldn’t move as well.
Then, unexpectedly, he ran back into their room and slammed the door shut. The loud, resonating bang echoed, like gunfire. I could hear the disoriented and startled voice of Mamang after that. “What?! Rodolfo?” Mamang croaked. “Is everything okay?”
I knew right then. I need not be told.
Mamang phoned the next day, saying she wouldn’t be coming back soon. “I have to accompany your father here. It’s the hospital policy…” She did not even have to finish what she was saying. I knew. Yes, the fuck I did as I held the phone against my ear, the phone Kuya Raul sent me from the Middle East, the same phone that connected me with Kuya Raul—together we connived against our father—through the invisible waves, the same piece of shit that was crumbling in my hand. Or was it me that was crumbling, disintegrating from it?