By Jeffrey P. Yap
photo by Om Narayan Velasco
From a pedestrian’s perspective, the avenue was just a sea of buildings.. For us living in it, it was something else. The news arrived as a hearsay at first, from gossip mongers who strutted alongon the arcaded sidewalks, that shaded from the sun. Bernice, one of our regulars, closed her and approached the shop. Our store occupied one of the mid-rise buildings that shaped this part of the city and glowed in neon signage when the night set in. The stirrer removed her sunglasses, placed it on our glass counter, and fanned herself with a tabloid.
“Here, it’s official. They’re killing your street,” Bernice said, showing us newspaper and blowing air down her red silk dress, which shimmered in the blazing afternoon. My wife Alice took a good look at the front page. The woman pointed at the small article just below the headline. ‘Train to be built soon.’ What a horrid title it was – thank god it was in small fonts, almost invincible to a passersby glancing at the dailies.
Reading it further, it mentioned a 10-kilometer train above the street that would pass through the avenue, not just a street as the woman had said, but an extended road that traversed eight cities.
“From 45 minutes to 10 minutes travel time, from point A to point B. Now that’s pretty fast,” said another customer who came in with the same paper tucked under his arms. I stormed outside, just to breathe out. I looked up and in front of me was a stand-alone . We had about ten of these structures, all lined up in less than a kilometer. Motion pictures were shown in buildings with façades adorned with relief carvings of leaves and sometimes geometric shapes. The massive concrete one in front of our shop had details of straight and curving lines. Right at its entrance were vertical blocks lined up to form an uneven . Its signage lit up in pine tree green at night and its billboard was surrounded by over a hundred yellow light bulbs which glared the title of the weekly Hollywood film.
Further to the right there were shops of different kinds. Next to us was a shop selling sporting goods where special basketballs were encased in glass counters and could not be dribbled unless there was a promise of purchase. A number of bookstores lined the avenue, all the way to the junction where the universities stood almost next to each other. Books were stuffed on shelves while the school supplies dominated the center aisle. Children accompanying their mothers to the store always wanted those piles of new notebooks, neat and freshly minted, with hard covers and smooth white paper in between its pages. The aroma of scented erasers was blown away by the electric fans standing at every corner of the store, including the scent of intermediate pad and yellow paper. But the smell of plastic covers dominated, standing vertically near the cashier counters. It was all rolled up to make the lives of sales ladies easier, so that they still had ample time for lunches of hot soups, steamed rice, and sweet and sour pork in Chinatown.
I turned my back and looked at our building, a two-story prewar building left to survive more than three decades ago when our district was burned down and shelled, and our families were left with nothing but a structure that was almost razed to the ground. Ours was three buildings from the corner hence it was spared because corner buildings were most likely to be damaged by war than mid-rises built in between two structures. We painted it off white, including its columns and arches. The swing-out glass windows were always cleaned with moistened newspapers and it glared when the sun would blaze right through it like a punch of a fist. But our signage was a bit discreet, just a little above the arches of the ground floor that says “R.D. Lim Grocery” in block letters and was different from other stores in the inner Chinatown with names like “Double Prosperity,” “Lucky Eight,” and “Red Dragon Merchandise.”
My wife, who was raised in this district, found the trend of naming a business after a value, virtue, and dragons a bit silly. She named our store after her father who owned the building that was built in the 1920s, back when our avenue was just second in prestige to the first class near the church and the plaza.
Alice felt a sense of doom after reading the short article on the tabloid’s front page. It mentioned that the government had already approved the 1980 memorandum tha the elevated train would cut straight to the inner city where our building was located. There was a photo showing the gleaming concrete like an overfed python with a rolling train sliding above . Below the train tracks was the street without lights and on both sides were the sea of buildings, all war survivors, about to take on the challenge of this massive reptile, planning to take over and spew venom in our district.
I sank into a chair behind the cashier counter. Everyone in the shop felt that these were times of uncertainty. One loyal customer who came in with his basket even asked me what was wrong. Alice who was about to go to the stockroom answered for me and told the man that our business, the avenue, and the community was about to face the huge snake of a train.
Because of this news, our community could no longer hide what we wanted to say about the . We knew we couldn’t fight the giant who made the protesters and student leaders disappear. Plans of peaceful protest were mapped out and our version of Town Hall meetings were done during downtime, when there were no customers, to discuss the problems at hand. After talking about our main agenda, we would extend our talk over coffee and express our sentiments about the failure to collect the garbage on a regular basis or why we had to give food to the metro police who visited all of the stores at noon time. We always gave them the canned pork and beans that were about to expire. When they returned and asked why it tasted funny, we told them that it was the natural flavor of imported beans.
The woman with the tabloid heard the hiss of the smokestack near the river. It was four in the afternoon. It was time to go, she told us. “By the way, that ice plant will be torn down by the train construction,” she added.
The ice plant laden with red bricks, a smokestack that belches thick, black fumes and a whistle that blew everyday at four in the afternoon to remind us that another day has passed; these were the structures that made the downtown distinct from the suburbs. Every time Bernice dropped by the store she spoke about this. She even suggested that we should rally in front of the city hall or the office of public works to stop the demolition. If the ice plant will not be spared, how much more at risk was our lowly business in an equally-antique building?
I told Alice that there won’t be a direct hit because the train will be built in the middle of the road. But she looked at me like I had dropped a crate of apples on the street. She explained to me that constructing an elevated railway in the middle of a busy intersection will threaten all the businesses that surrounded it. Of course I knew that. Who wouldn’t? Even our sales girl and delivery boy understood the consequences when they heard the news.
I assured Alice that our loyal customers would keep us afloat for a few more years at least, until the market catches up again and sustains a regular flow of patrons. But she knew that the demographics changed when something new was introduced. This time, it wasn’t just about curfew and prohibition of selling alcohol to minors – these were easy to deal with. But when the store loses its buyers, the python must be stopped.
Alice kidded me that we only had five loyal customers. She gave me a silly grin that made us laugh at least for a moment and I remembered that when she took over the business from her father the store was called Otis Department Store. I was the head of a construction company that retrofitted their building. I liked her the first day we met because I found her easy to talk to compared to other Chinese-Filipino building owners that I dealt with in the past. My father whom she never met was one of the first Filipino architects in Manila and I was so inspired by him that I became an architect as well. During our first five years into marriage, I adored Alice because she breathed life into the business that her father had bequeathed her and she loved the building even more than the store. It was a structure reminiscent of a bygone era, an original façade, with neoclassical columns and pilasters that seemed out of place on an avenue where the fine clean lines of art deco structures dominated the streetscape. But getting married to Alice meant giving up my profession to help her manager the store.
Alice liked selling general merchandise and preferred perishable items like meat and vegetables to shoes and bags. She told me that food sold better than luxury items. I had suggested that we put up a school supplies store, but she said that notebooks and pencils would not sell because we were no longer living in the heyday of Manila.
So, instead, we sold black chicken, an exotic Chinese delicacy famed for its medicinal, healing, properties. We were the only store on the avenue that sold black chicken and it could not be found in markets and groceries. After several months, we had to wake up as early as five in the morning to satisfy customers banging the glass door and pleading for us to sell the poultry. We also ventured into wholesale items. Boxes of canned instant milk and luncheon meat were stacked up in our small warehouse at the back of the store, where rats almost as big as our missing cat could be found lurking in dark corners, perhaps feasting on uncooked spaghetti noodles still wrapped in its packaging.
All of these things, these minor matters in the store, prevented us from having children. Alice told me once while I was helping her arrange the canned milk on the shelf that she couldn’t afford months of having another human being inside of her. The afternoon heat while tending the store could roast her and the baby. I told her, almost in a whisper, that it would be nice to have a son assisting me with the inventory or a daughter helping her mother organize the shelves. “We’re still young,” Alice always told me. “All of the black chickens should always be sold at the end of the day.”
As I threw away the pack of spaghetti that was eaten by the rodent, Alice reminded me that I should man the store at all times especially when she was out on a meeting with the suppliers. She also told me that I should increase the frequency of checking the inventory from three times a week to five times a week, and inspect all the corners of the store for pests lurking in the grocery items. Sometimes I feel as though I might as well wear a blue short-sleeved polo shirt with a black-plated name tag, a pair of blue trousers, military boots, hold a baton, and walk in and out of the store.
Alice asked me for a strategy, for a plan. She told me that she had already submitted a letter of appeal to the city hall asking to reroute the railway to another street parallel to us. However, after a number of phone calls to the mayor’s office, the secretary with a shrieking voice was already hanging up on us. We changed the tone of our voice and pretended to be someone else, but that didn’t work. Passing by the newspaper stand, the headlines screamed in our faces that the plan was final. Construction would start soon.
There was no point in cursing the national and even the local government. Alice had been repeatedly shouting “idiot” in the store until one of the customers thought that she was referring to him. With profuse apologies, Alice held man’s hands and asked for his help. How we could save the store from this so-called development? She let go of the man’s hands, turned to me, and asked what I could do help her.
“I don’t know how to deal with politicians,” I answered.
“I’m not asking you to talk to the mayor. Think of an alternate marketing strategy for store promotion,” Alice said.
Several ideas came to mind. I suggested that we place an advertisement on top of the school at the foot of the bridge and give out flyers. It was a strategic vantage point, and people walking along the plaza would see the name of our store “R.D. Lim.” Why not put out another ad? “R.D. Lim–if you want black chicken…we have it.”
“A simple advertisement won’t work,” Alice said.
This woman can read minds.
“How about a huge advertisement near the church?” I asked.
“I don’t think so,” she replied. “The priest hates black chicken. Besides, have you seen the banner of the other grocery on top of that bank in front of the church? They have a grocery section too you know.”
“But not black chicken,” I said.
“Forget black chicken,” Alice said. “Our customers already have more chicken than they can consume. A sale banner in front of our store will do.”
I shrugged and resorted to picking up the string of noodles left by the rat. Alice talked to one of our regular customers who had come to the store earlier asking for the black chicken to be replaced with a bar of detergent. Wishy washy. From cooking to laundry. From chicken to detergent. He always assumed that we would completely understand and immediately replace his purchase. He even requested that the laundry soap not be cut in half because he preferred it that way.
One of the reasons why the rats were so enjoying their stay at our store was because Griswald the cat had not made an appearance for a while. He had been missing in action since last week. Alice said that we needed to find the cat so it could start catching vermin in the store again.
What Alice didn’t seem to realize was that we were in the pits of downtown. Griswald had probably been slaughtered by the cooks at a nearby panciteria, and grinded into meat for siopao. I told Alice the rumors about the delicacy made from cat’s meat. She got offended, thinking I was accusing her race of being unhygienic and cat-eating .
Alice was talking to another customer, a Chinese man whose skin was like dried plum and smelled of the Tiger Balm that wafted through the store. He explained that he wanted a regular chicken because the black chicken tasted like rubber. She attended to customers like a domino: No matter how many the complainants were, she toppled them all by the flick of a finger by saying, “No, I’m sorry. I can’t replace that.”
Alice approached me when the complaining customers left the store.
“What are you doing just staring at the merchandise? A customer is complaining, and I have to deal with it all by myself. Nora is getting stupid by the minute, and you have nothing better to do but stare.”
“We need air-conditioning,” I said.
“Pardon me?” she asked.
“You heard me. We need to cool this store so you stop be in a bad mood all the time.”
“Start looking for the cat! I have no time for your silly remarks!”
Walking out of the store had become my habit each time Alice and I argued. It was the most peaceful and least messy reaction that I can think of. When Alice was deranged, especially now that the store was under threat of closing shop or worse, demolition, the best solution was to let her babble endlessly until her furor subsided. Her anger, though tolerable at times, was something I had difficulty analyzing. It was difficult to figure out or to know where it was coming from. It could be the threat to the business. Or it could be Griswald the cat. Next to the grocery store, that cat was her source of joy.
Looking for Griswald in the midday sun was as fun as supervising the unloading of goods from the suppliers. Alice was right. The construction of the concourse and platform of the elevated train station was right in front of our store. The station would be wide enough to cover the entire intersection of the avenue, thus turning the junction filled with natural light into a dark pathway with very limited space for pedestrians. There was no way that the construction could be transferred elsewhere because the purpose of the mass transport was for convenience. The avenue would die.
A jeep zoomed in front of our store, almost crushing the bones of my toes. And Alice was hopeful that Griswald was still alive? Those jeepney drivers would not think twice about running over my wife’s cat.
On the way to the plaza, it dawned on me that the search for Griswald was a perfect excuse to stay away from my responsibilities at the store. The inventories, stock orders, and replenishment of sold out items were so mechanical, and allotting a whole day solely for work made me want to bite my nails. Cruising downtown and its inner streets was far better than counting the boxes of canned milk. From hearing street peddlers shouting simultaneously, almost like a chorus, to marveling at the charm of the prewar buildings and two-story old houses with tiled roofs. Smelling the hopia mongo fresh from the oven and put on the tray for a free taste, walking past fellow city dwellers, skin to skin. Making my way out of the side street onto the avenue were things that I actually enjoyed, far more than the everyday routine of manning the store and staring at nothing.
The church near the plaza was drawing in people coming from the inner streets. There were green and white-striped nylon tents near the church door and a couple of vendors selling puto and bibingka. It could be another fund-raising project for the reconstruction of the church convent. Alice mentioned that some choir members had come to the store with a solicitation letter, singing their guts out. I doubt she gave them a decent amount of cash. She probably just gave them a box of canned goods that were about to expire.
I checked out one of the stalls and peered at the bibingka being tended by a young woman with a ponytail , wearing a plain white shirt and a shin-length jean skirt. Her skin was like a polished porcelain and caught one’s eye at first lance. She was the type of woman who needed to smile in order to attract men. But the smell of melted butter and cheddar cheese on top of the bibingka made me turn around and give her a closer look.
“Would you like to sample our specialty?” she asked.
“Actually, I’m just looking for something,” I told her.
“Just one bite, Mister,” she asked me with all smiles. Her eyes brightened up when stared at.
“I’m Jeric,” I said as she moved her hand to pop her bibingka into my mouth.
“You’re looking for something?”
“Our house cat has been missing for a week,” I replied while chewing her bibingka.
“What kind of cat?” she asked.
“A macho cat. A small monster with orange stripes reaching up to the end of its tail,” I replied.
“I’ve seen a lot of cats around here especially in the morning when I sweep the church’s front yard,” she said.
She told me that everyone in the church called her Miss Clarisse. She was a regular church person who volunteered at the parish church for two hours every day including holidays.
“I think I’ve seen your cat before,” Clarisse said.
“When did you see him?” I asked.
“I saw him on the church steps two days ago and he ran towards the plaza,” she said.
She pointed directly to the bank and told me that Griswald was on its steps and rubbed its head on one of the Carrara marble pillars that supported the building.
It could be one of those cats wandering the side streets with stomachs drooping on the asphalt because it was stuffed with food leftovers from the soda fountains. But I wanted believe Clarisse so I can tell Alice that someone had actually seen Griswald. Besides, it gave me free time out of the store to interact with people other than customers who complained that our black chicken was not fresh anymore.
“Thanks, Clarisse,” I said. “I will return tomorrow and look for him.”
“Why don’t you stay for a while? The parish community will be serving snacks for everyone. You can eat more bibingka if you want,” she said.
A couple of volunteers carried tables and chairs made of rattan and placed them in the front yard of the church. As the late afternoon breeze cooled the surroundings, the food was already on the table, and the people at the plaza started coming in. Some of the churchgoers also brought food in aluminum trays wrapped in transparent plastic. Had I known that I would be invited, I would have brought some steamed black chicken.
“Hello, sir. Hello, ma’am,” I said as I smile at people who nod at me. “I’m the owner of R.D. Lim Grocery!”
“Oh, the store that sells black chicken. Where exactly in the avenue again?” asked a woman wearing loads of fake jade bracelets around her wrists.
Some people were still having difficulty figuring out the exact location of our store, so I told them that we were in front of the art deco theatre near the plaza. I intentionally left out the information that our rival, The Emporium, was just across the street from us.
“But your business is in danger because of that construction, eh?” she said.
I fell silent. Clarisse ushered the woman away from me. Gossip mongers like her loved to talk about problems of other people but never provided solutions or suggestions.
I sat on the bench that faced the bank and watched the flock of pigeons descend on the roof but flew away when they saw the three sculptures of eagles just below the building’s trusses, with their wings spread like they were about to take a flight, and their eyes aimed at a destination far from the city.
“Naysayer,” I told Clarisse while pointing at the woman.
“Just ignore her. She thinks that she won’t be affected by the construction,” Clarisse said and sat beside me to eat her chicken sandwich.
“You know, I went to your store once,” Clarisse added.
“Really? What did you buy?” I asked.
“Just a few groceries–soap, shampoo, detergents, toiletries mostly,” she said.
“You never bought food from our store? You were just eager to buy cleaning aids I suppose,” I asked.
“Anyway, what are your plans? Are you going to file a complaint to stop the construction?”
“Alice is taking care of it,” I said.
“Is she your wife?” she asked.
“Yes,” I replied.
“I think I saw her when I went to your store that day. She looks like a Hong Kong actress,” she continued, “her skin was glowing in your dimly-lit store.”
I nearly choked hearing this. I drank a soda to clear up my throat.
“Look for me next time you visit so I can assist you,” I said.
“I will. But I wouldn’t buy your store specialty,” Clarisse replied.
“Fr. Perez says that black chicken is bad for the soul.”
“That’s his opinion, what’s yours?” I asked.
“I don’t know. But don’t you think it makes sense?” Clarisse said.
“It’s just the color of its feathers. It’s actually sweeter than the traditional chicken,” I answered.
“Really? So how should I cook it?”
“You can roast or fry it. But it’s best if you stew it,” I said.
“Like tinolang manok?”
“Yeah, just like that,” I answered.
“Wouldn’t the broth look like squid ink?”
She laughed and covered her mouth with her hands. I told her that I would be back the next day and would try to bring her a steamed black chicken.
The priest with his immaculate robe billowing against the wind finally arrived. The children ran to him while a couple of women shook his hand and guided him to his reserved seat. A plate of pancit had been prepared for him. When he was about to sit, another woman grabbed his arm and gave him an embrace that made him gasp for air.
“Are you talking about me?” asked a man whose voice was hoarse, yet audible.
“Father, this is Mr. Jeric. We’re talking about the merienda, and how grateful we are that you initiated this event,” Clarisse said.
Fr. Perez gave me a forceful handshake and looked at me steadily. I think it was for over a minute. He looked at my full head of hair parted sideways, my eyes shaped like almonds, my nose – not flat but not high-bridged either, the shape of my face that’s just right for my body frame, my tallness of five foot and ten inches and my brown skin that made me look like a katipunero.
How about his eyes? He was not cross-eyed, but they were too small that a mere smirk would make them disappear. The hair, receding from the top, but cut about an inch long, was an indication that he had already accepted the fact that he was losing his hair. He was fair, like a mestizo friar from that old medieval city across town. Tall? About the height of ten small soft drink bottles stacked on top of each other.
“I heard that you’re a shop owner in the avenue. To be honest, I’m in favor of building those tracks. More people will visit downtown,” the priest said.
“But our community is not in favor of it. We’re already losing customers who prefer shopping in the new commercial centers outside the city.”
“Why don’t we wait it out? Let’s allow the construction to roll. Then we take it from there,” he said.
The priest tapped my shoulders and walked away. The crowd was building up and I somehow felt that I was drowning in it. The more people who arrived, the more I felt the need to leave.
Clarisse sat beside the priest as I left the church. She was all prepared to serve her master – ready to pour water in his glass, squeeze calamansi on his pancit, and slice a bibingka.
Nora and Alice were putting up the banner “SALE! 50 % OFF ON ALL ITEMS!” in front of our store while the customers kept asking them questions about the upcoming sale.
“Any luck with Griswald?” Alice asked.
“I looked everywhere. I’ll try again tomorrow morning,” I said.
“Are you serious? I need you here tomorrow. I’ll ask Nora to look for Griswald,” she said.
“Can I look for the cat myself?” I asked.
I should master the art of conversing with Alice. I should tell her, “No. I’ll look for Griswald tomorrow,” and that would be it. Her interrogation should stop when I said no.
“Fine. Start looking for Griswald tomorrow, but you should come back early,” Alice said.
I started mimicking her as I entered the store. It had been a tedious day of looking for a cat that did nothing but eat tuna, walk the streets, and wiggle its tail all day in the hope that passersby will find his antic adorable. Why are cats self centered? I wished I could tell Griswald that it was not always about him. We were busy running a business and a pet was supposed to make things better. After a long day at the store, pets should entertain their masters.
I took off my shirt and went straight to bed. I felt the heat coming out of my body like steam. I smelled of cheese and butter bibingka that blends with the odor of the city that bathed whole day in the sun.
Time to rest, I told myself. I didn’t have to convince myself that I was tired, but I was still changing positions so I could sleep comfortably. I thought of taking a shower, but that would take up too much time. I tried closing my eyes again but still, I can’t sleep.
As I was about to doze off, Alice came in and said something that I couldn’t understand. I tried to read her lips through the haze and figure out if she was telling me to get up because it was still too early for bed and we hadn’t had dinner yet. Forget having dinner, forget about closing the shop. I was not hungry anymore and I was sure that the shop had already been closed for the day.
I was half asleep but could smell warm cheese and coconut shavings coming in from the window. We had been smelling all sorts of things like a bunch of bananas, fish balls being deep fried in rancid oil, and even the soy noodles from the restaurant a few buildings away. Then I felt Alice slap my face with a newspaper. She told me to get up because some people from the city hall were downstairs and wanted to talk to us.
I grabbed my shirt and went down the stairs. The men from the city hall were in crisp white shirts and khakis and looking like tamed school boys. A letter was handed to us that was signed by the mayor. Alice read it first, her eyes squinting at the small texts. She frowned for the most part and didn’t finish it. She gave it to me and I read it quickly.
“As the president of the shop owners community, the mayor would like to seek your support and understanding on this project. It’s for the best and will benefit the public,” the officer said.
“But why the avenue? Of all places?” I asked.
The officer shrugged. Perhaps the question didn’t warrant an answer or he didn’t know how to respond to it.
“Why not put it underground? Just like in other countries?” Alice asked.
“Ma’am, our city is a swamp. If we start digging, it’ll flood and we’d all drown,” the other officer replied.
“How about rerouting where the train would pass?” Alice said.
“That’s not possible, Ma’am. Plans have already been made. And signed,” the man said.
“Can it be retracted?” I asked.
“No, sir. We’re very sorry,” the other man said.
“So there’s nothing you can do?” Alice asked.
The two officers bowed in defeat and left us standing and holding the letter.
I sighed and went outside the store. I squinted when the streetlight flickered outside the window. I looked at the signage of the theater with its green neon light peering through the darkness of our store only brightened by a number of light bulbs covered by cobwebs. I thought of going to inner downtown, where the noodles houses and burger joints were still open until late evening. Bowls of broth were lined up on the table for the customers to see. I signaled Alice that I was going out, again, but this time, for some fresh air because I was not longer able to sleep.
Across the street from our store were tailor and clothes shops tended by elders with tape measures around their necks. Swaths of fabric in shades of ocean blue, blood red, and moss green were on display on the shop window. The store beside it had two mannequins. The man was in white trousers, vest, and blazer. A black tie completed the get up while the woman was in a blue polka dot dress accented by a large red ribbon on her neckline.
The neon signs were lit up and the theater lobbies began to smell of buttered popcorn and spilled soda on the marble floor. Couples were lining up on the ticket booth with signage that gave the moviegoers an option for orchestra, l, and balcony. Volkswagens and jeeps were racing against each other on the avenue and men hanging around outside the theaters were looking at the women still in their office uniform of short skirts.
I opted to have a sandwich in a diner past the two bookstores and shoe shops. When I arrived, I saw in the glass divider that the cooks were flipping burgers in the kitchen. I sat in a bar stool and told the waiter that I wanted a cheeseburger and orange juice. The waiter was elderly, his white hair was half covered by his hat. His wrinkled face must have witnessed this avenue in its golden age, seen how it had been destroyed and then how it had flourished after the war and was about to go downhill again in the coming months.
I asked the waiter if he knew about the train construction. He said yes so I told him about the visit of the people from the city hall to our store. His eyes had a hint of preparation as I told him about the possibility of closing the avenue for the contractors who would be occupying the street to lay down their materials. Each post that would be built would cover the frontage of every store and every theater, I said. By the time that the elevated railway was be finished, the entire area will be blighted, I told him, and that the shops might well start to lose their customers.
“Are you afraid?” he asked.
“Of what’s going to happen to our store? Yes, of course,” I replied.
“No, I mean if we hold a rally,” he said.
“How? Where? Well, yes, that I’ll be afraid of as well,” I told him.
He smiled and began wiping the counter. As I finished my juice and burger, I left my money on the table and waved him goodbye. When I stepped outside, there were parked jeeps on the street that caused gridlock all the way to the end of the plaza.
There was a sense of dread going back to the store, like the feeling of Sunday nights for an office worker and the first day of school for an incoming high school student. Maybe it was because the impending rain that would flood the avenue knee deep or the uncertainty of what was going to happen in the coming months. I had anticipated the construction of the platform right in front of our store. In the next few weeks, we would be covering our frontage with a huge plastic to prevent the dust from seeping into our grocery, and the heat of the mid-afternoon and the odor of steel and cement would be wafting through our bedroom. I was also prepared to accept the frustration of Alice over our failure to convince the mayor to stop the construction.
When I arrived at the shop, I saw the sign “Sorry, we’re closed.” It wasn’t even late evening yet so I took out my keys and opened the door. When I went upstairs, Alice threw a towel at my face.
“You stink of the afternoon sun. How about taking a shower first before going to bed?” she said while she was combing her hair in front of the mirror. The glare of the fluorescent light faintly illuminated her face. She seemed far away from me, as if I couldn’t reach or touch her.
“I left the food on the table,” Alice said.
“I already ate at Sam’s. I’m tired,” I answered.
When I woke up the next day, I felt the sweet heat of the morning sun on my skin. I lacked sleep last night so I closed my eyes for a few minutes and looked out the window and gazed at the flock of pigeons flapping their wings and landing on the signage of the theater. I wanted to put birdseeds on the smooth surface of our windowpane, but Alice didn’t want to see bird droppings on the glass window. While I offered to clean the windows every day using old newspapers, she said that selling chicken was more important than feeding pigeons.
Alice was cooking fried eggs again. I heard the clink of the jar as she scooped out fetid lard and dropped it on the skillet. The aroma of heated oil and egg reached our bedroom. I swear to God, if I ate another fried egg for breakfast, I would grow a beak and black feathers. She served pancakes with butter and maple syrup and crisped bacon only if she was in a good mood. If she was cranky and foul she fried eggs.
“Breakfast!” she screamed from the kitchen.
“I’ll just take a shower!” I shouted back.
I didn’t hear more from her. She was probably downstairs, cleaning up and preparing for the store opening.
I couldn’t help but feel giddy about leaving the store that day while I shampooed my hair and played with the soap suds. I splattered water all over the bathroom and Alice’s bathrobe. The stacks of tissue papers were already dripping wet so I grabbed the bath towel hanging behind the door and prepared to get dressed.
“Aren’t you joining me for breakfast?” Alice asked
“Coffee’s fine,” I answered.
“Are you sick and tired of my fried eggs?”
“Not just the eggs,” I half whispered.
“I can cook bacon and pancakes if you want.”
I told her that I needed to check the inventory before I left the house to look for Griswald. I was almost middle-aged so product control in our store was like brushing my teeth or parking the car on a side street. My main task made me yawn by midday but eventually I would catch myself going ballistic over a missing can of meat loaf.
“It’s good that you’re constantly checking the inventory,” Alice said while she handed me a cup of coffee.
“I’ve been doing this every day. We have to make sure that all the items are in good condition,” I said.
“Take a closer look at the can of corned beef,” Alice said.
“What about the corned beef?” I asked.
“The label,” Alice answered. “I can draw a better-looking cow.”
“It’s easy to draw a cow,” I replied.
“You can’t even draw a spoon and fork,” she said.
“Well, what about the cow? What kind of cow do you plan to draw?”
“I will draw a strong cow. I want its mouth open and its body muscled and well contoured. That cow looks weak and somber,” Alice said.
“He’s sad,” I said.
“You think so?”
“He’s sick and tired of being a cow. That label reminds me of those prewar photos of Filipinas that appear on tobacco labels. They’re all beautiful but behind the make-up and the piña dress, they have no idea that their picture will be used for tobacco and sold everywhere.”
“So are you saying that they’re idiots?” Alice asked.
“They’re misled, not idiots. They probably think that it’s for an art exhibit. A picture perfect photograph is an image of the fine life that they long for. They just want to be happy.”
“Why the sudden interest in women?” she asked.
“I’m analyzing, not taking interest,” I replied.
I left the store and assured Alice that I’d be back before lunchtime with or without Griswald. She nodded and kept staring at the corned beef label. I wondered if she was serious when she said that she was planning to call the manufacturer and send them a sketch of her healthy and happy-looking cow.
The street sweepers cleaning the street wore their yellow shirts and matching red pants and bandana. I strode towards the church while the morning fog sheathed the city and the mist coming from the hose dampened my face. Since the parish was just a few meters away, I thought I might as well pay Clarisse a visit and thank her again for the hearty meal and good conversation yesterday.
The church door was open and I could see Clarisse sweeping the marble floor. I approached her whilst parting my hair on the side. It felt like approaching a college girl sitting on a cement bench under the shades of the mango tree during break time.
“The churchgoers will slip if you keep on scrubbing,” I told her.
She looked at me and wiped the trail of sweat from her face with her bare hands. She smiled. She looked away. She looked at me again and smiled with her lips closed.
“So have you found Griswald?” she asked.
“Not yet,” I answered. “Perhaps you could help me.”
“I’d like to help you, but I’m very busy today.”
“That can wait,” I said. “May I invite you to breakfast?”
“I already ate,” she said. “Cheese and pan de sal.”
“How about a proper meal at Ramon Lee’s?”
“Chicken for breakfast?”
“A heavy meal. Just for today.”
Clarisse left the broom and dustpan in one corner and told me that she had to be back in an hour. Not a problem. The cook can prepare fried chicken, rice, and atsara in five minutes. I can eat fast but I wasn’t sure if we had enough time to talk.
“What about your wife’s cat?” she asked.
“Let’s forget about the cat for now. Come on, let’s eat,” I told her.
I turned back and saw Fr. Perez peering at us through the capiz shell window of the convent. I didn’t know if I should tell Clarisse that the parish priest was looking at us. I stretched my arm over her shoulders and looked at the priest, who was still staring at Clarisse. I tried to make eye contact, but his eyes were focused on Clarisse’s nape.
The inner streets of the city had a life of their own and it was physically different compared to the avenue where our shop and other stores were located. As Clarisse and I walked and asked each other about morning rituals and our day-to-day activities, we had the back of the buildings as our backdrop, with those emergency exit ladders jutting out of the structures. On the sidewalk were garbage bins filled with black bags still uncollected by the metro cleaners. The new government claimed that even the pits of the district would be spic and span, so that even a fly would not dare plant its feet on the sanitized ground. But there were rodents bigger than Griswald, and even the stray cats had already ignored the pests that hung around them. Clarisse witnessed everything but she never said a word; she didn’t even ask me why we took a turn on a shorter but more decaying street. I was about to say that it didn’t look like this before but I when I looked at her, she seemed to have understood what I was about to say.
Walking briskly and doing small talk in a city with cramped sidewalks proved difficult. But I was contented. At least this was a different kind of morning.
Past the narrow alley, we were pleased that we were walking again to the avenue extension. Here, the morning was sweet like those sugar cane juice sold in Chinatown nearby. One could feel the weather was just right: not too hot, not too cold. There was fog on the steps leading to the chicken restaurant. Two old women were carrying a basket on their way to the market. A young man whose skin was as brown as horse manure clanged his bell and yelled, “hot bread in the morning!”. A young mother, still in her house duster, dragged her son to school, while he opened his lunch box and inspected the juice in tetra pack and sandwich wrapped in a green transparent plastic.
We ordered the fried chicken that arrived in a few minutes. It was nice to see spring chicken after so many years of selling black chicken.
Clarisse eagerly dispatched every piece of chicken into her mouth. She admitted that she was very hungry. A decade of eating cheese and pan de sal for breakfast was just not right.
“This is so embarrassing. I’m a good eater. There are so many things that you still don’t know about me,” Clarisse explained while she was halfway through the basket of fried chicken.
“I think we have enough time for your stories,” I said.
“I don’t think so. I’ve got to run after this meal,” she said.
“Eat and run?” I commented.
“So what do you do for a living aside from owning a grocery?” she asked.
“It’s not really mine,” I replied.
“What do you mean it’s not really yours? That’s conjugal property, right?” she asked.
“My wife runs the place. I just help her,” I told her.
“So what do you do aside from helping your wife?” Clarisse asked again.
“I handle the marketing side,” I said.
“More of a promotion for the store,” she added.
“I also handle the inventory, logistics, and sometimes, the customer complaints. My wife handles the finances and store management,” I said.
“You seem good at doing several tasks at the same time. You’re like an acrobat who can do various stunts. I can imagine your body rolling forward or backward, your knees bent and your feet going over your head,” Clarisse said.
“I can perform acrobatic stunts to promote our store!” I said.
“And it will be more fun if you’re holding a chicken while doing the stunt! May I ask why you do all sorts of things?” she asked.
“I do it for Alice, for the store, and for the customers,” I muttered.
“How about you? What do you do for yourself?” she asked.
I look at the ceiling and cupped my mouth with the palm of my hand. I asked her more questions instead.
The chicken basket was almost empty when Clarisse realized that we have already been in the restaurant for almost an hour. We left the store and she suggested that we take the street parallel to the avenue and walk all the way to University Avenue. She told me that most of the stray cats roaming the city retreated there because the sunlight receded behind the three-story accessorias thus making the sidewalks cooler and comfortable resting place for lost and homeless animals. I told her that we can walk on any street that she wanted.
“The cat might be sleeping in one of those alleys,” Clarisse said.
“Or Griswald’s innards have already been cooked for siopao,” I blurted out.
“Don’t say that. We will find your cat,” she said.
We scouted another street but there was no trace of Griswald. Dogs sniffed the garbage thrown just below the street sign at the corner but there was not a single cat in sight. We turned left to another street and asked the old woman tending the kitchenette if she had seen an overfed orange cat but she said that her eyesight was poor. On our way to a panciteria, I thought of making a poster, “Have you seen this cat?” with a photograph of Griswald going crazy over a purple yarn. Clarisse walked purposefully and with ease, strutting past the morning crowd.
A young boy drinking soda told us that he had seen an orange cat that was bloated from eating leftover food from restaurants on University Avenue. He pointed to an alley between a newspaper warehouse and a printing press.
“Cat world,” exclaimed the small boy.
“Are you sure, kid?” I asked.
“Yes, Mister. He’s the biggest cat I’ve seen in that alley. His tail has an orange streak.”
“I wish I had a boy as bright as him,” I said.
We made our way to an alley shaded by two five-story buildings. The boy was right, it was a cat world. There were black and white cats, cats with gray and orange stripes, mother cats, and kittens. They were like rats squirming through the holes and trashcans.
But I still couldn’t find Griswald. He was rolled like a ball-shaped butter candy.so it was impossible to miss him in the swarm of felines.
I walked behind Clarisse while she searched for Griswald. She had no idea what Griswald exactly looked like, but there she was, checking the stacks of boxes and old newspapers.
“Have you seen him yet?” she asked.
“No, not yet. We should check down the street,” I told her.
The alley was always shaded by the back of the buildings and even the sunlight could not permeate through it. The roof trusses of the two structures that stood across each other met in the middle of the alley and covered this side street that was referred to by our neighbors as an alley for ants because only small things could pass through. We could hear the printing press machines being operated behind us and the smell of newspaper ink overpowered Clarisse’s smell of fresh baby powder which was like sweet morning dew on a flower sprinkled with cold water. I walked behind her while opening the garbage bins along the way. When we heard a cat purring under the stacks of papers, Clarisse lurched forward to the end of the shaded alley. But after rummaging through all the stacks of newspapers, Griswald was nowhere to be found.
She walked past the elderly man with a walking stick and a woman looking at her grocery bag. I was already catching my breath as I followed her. She was taking Goliath steps while I lagged a few steps behind her. I should have eaten Alice’s fried eggs this morning.
As we approached the plaza, there was a group of people that surrounded the fountain, holding placards and with white towels tied around their heads. One of them was the waiter who had served my burger last night. When he turned around and saw me, he showed me what was written on his placard: Halt the construction! Save the avenue!
Clarisse stopped in a corner and scanned the plaza already occupied by the protesters. When we walked a little more, we saw our neighbours in the crowd shouting “Stop the train!” all at the same time. The metro com in brown uniforms were already surrounding the group of about a hundred people composed of shop owners and their employees.
“Are you joining?” Clarisse asked.
For a moment, I thought about myself. Every day, for the past ten years or so, counting cans of sardines and other goods was the only thing I had really accomplished. The daily routine had become my source of comfort. Two things came to my mind, Alice and saving the store. But where was I in the equation?
Clarisse was left standing in one corner as I joined the crowd and started shouting “Stop the construction!” The rest of the community began to mill around the plaza. The bureau of public works across the fountain was closed. But we knew that there were people inside.
When Clarisse was about to enter the church, the metro com started dispersing the crowd with a water hose. The people with placards were thrown everywhere by water pressure and the rest of the protesters ran away and hid behind the arches of the buildings. I stood in the plaza and kept shouting that the giant was selfish and that his snake could not pass through our avenue.
Someone grabbed my collar from behind and dragged me into the middle of the plaza. While I was being taken away, I saw the sun perched atop the building with the three eagles watching me from their posts.
I was punched several times in the face. My head slammed against the ground with every blow. The eagle in the middle was about to fly. Its claws were large enough to pick me up and take me uptown.
I saw three or four of them, who had been kicking my gut and groin, lift me up and drag me to the sidewalk. The skin of my arms and face scraped on the asphalt that was already warm from the midmorning sun. I felt that my skin was being rubbed away from my body, the abrasion of the second layer getting red, the blood gradually dripping out of it. The friction of the packed dirt against my peeled skin was causing me pain. I tried to think of calmness and serenity, hospitals and nurses, hot soups and bed rest, just to veer myself away from this dread.
I was not able to see anymore and my head was constantly throbbing. I felt a shot of pain in my left eye. I could hear a woman’s voice begging the men to stop. Was it Alice or Clarisse? The more that the woman pleaded them to lay off me, all the more I got kicked and knocked until I spat blood. Finally I landed on the gutter and felt the impact of my fall on the pavement.
The eagles on top of the building had left me. I tried to open my eyes to take a close look at the men but they were nowhere to be found. I searched for the woman’s voice but no one was around.
When I tried to open my eyes, I saw Griswald approaching me. When all the men fled and left me lying on the plaza, Griswald moved closer to me and licked my face. “My blood isn’t milk,” I said in protest while I struggled away from the cat. But Griswald continued licking my face and it gradually lessened the pain. Clarisse had disappeared and the rest of the protesters have left as well. My blood tasted sweet. Not bitter as I expected. I got up, picked up Griswald, and walked back to our store.
The customers in our shop were spilling on the sidewalk. Nora was talking to one of our regulars while Alice was putting two trays of black chicken in the shop window. The ‘SALE! 50 % OFF ON ALL ITEMS!’ banner in bold, red, and capitalized letters had been unveiled. Under the shadows of the train station construction, our black chicken took center stage, perhaps for the very last time.
It was not yet high noon but the sun felt like midday on my wounds. I tried to wipe off the sweat on my face but I screamed in pain each time I dabbed the palm of my hand on my cheeks and forehead. Nora saw me and called Alice. But she was too busy counting the remaining chicken on the table. I walked up to her and handed Griswald.
“Here’s your cat,” I said.
“My God! Your face! What happened?” she asked.
Left with no words to say, I let the blood drip on my face. Alice ran inside to get the first aid kit and I was left outside to sell chickens and explain to the customers that my bloodied face had nothing to do with the clearance sale. Clarisse said that I could be an acrobat doing various stunts. As my body rolled forward and backward, with my knees bent and my feet over my head, I would shout, “Clearance Sale!” until I ran out of breath and the blood trickled on my forehead.
Every shopper who passed by our store asked what happened to me and I told them to buy something first. Halfway through my narrative, the chickens were sold out, and Nora had to get a new batch of chicken from the freezer.
Alice was taking so long. I might as well do something good for the community. “Free chicken for everyone! Get as many as you want!” I shouted. Everyone was getting hold of all the black chicken that they can get. In the swarm of the customer’s screaming and Alice’s nagging, I could see myself being carried away by the eagles from the prewar building in the plaza. I opened my arms wide enough for me to be picked up by the eagles. I saw one of them slowly descending towards me. Upon reaching the ground, the bird opened its claws and clamped the back of my shirt to lift me up and take me to a new avenue where the python could not conquer and would be killed by mere stones thrown by the people. It would be an avenue that is ours, and not under control by any power or state but ourselves.
Accessorias : An apartment-type house with common party walls shared by adjoining units with separate door each in front.
Anahaw : A round-leaf plant also called fountain palm or footstool palm.
Atsara : A pickle made from grated unripe papaya and served as a side dish for fried or grilled food.
Bibingka : A rice cake made from flour and eggs and topped with butter, sugar, and cheese.
Calamansi : A small, green and round citrus fruit found in the Philippines.
Capiz : An almost-flat shell of an oyster used as windowpane.
Katipunero : A member of the Katipunan, a Philippine revolutionary society founded by anti-Spanish Filipinos whose aim was to gain independence from Spain through revolution.
Loge : A raised section of a theater.
Merienda : A light mid-morning or mid-afternoon snack.
Pancit : A type of noodle introduced to the Philippines by Chinese settlers.
Panciteria : A small restaurant that serves pancit or Chinese noodles.
Pandesal : Spanish for “salt bread.” A popular bread roll in the Philippines.
Piña : Spanish word for pineapple.
Puto : A steamed rice cake.
Siopao : A Philippine version of the Chinese steamed bun.
Tinolang manok : A Filipino soup-based dish with chicken, papaya, and moringa leaves.