By Erwin Cabucos
This short story first appeared in Bayanihan News and was included in the author’s out-of-print book The Beach Spirit and Other Stories.
“Renato,” Rebecca whispered, tapping me on my shoulder.
“Yeah.” Half asleep, I opened my eyes slowly, squinting. “What?”
“Look.” She was pointing out the window of our taxi.
“Look what?” My brows knitted together. I shook my head a little, trying to figure out where we were. We were on our way to the hotel we had booked for a night before travelling on to my parents’ place in the province. I looked around at the queues of cabs, buses, and jeepneys waiting for the traffic to move. The clock in the taxi said six o’clock.
“There’s a child outside, singing. He’s been there for a while. He seems to be waiting for something. He’s following us. I thought you heard him.”
“No, I was half asleep.”
“What are those things clipped to the tip of his thumbs and fingers? Castanets, that’s it! He’s hitting them as he sings.” Rebecca turned to the boy. “Look at him. I don’t think he’s going to stop.”
“He wants some money for his Christmas carols.”
She dug into her jeans’ pocket. “I have a peso here. This’ll do, won’t it?”
“One peso?” I snorted. “You have to give him more than that. Don’t you feel sorry for him?”
“How much, then?”
“Give him a hundred-peso note.”
“What!” Her eyes popped. “That’s too much!”
“Why is it too much? It’s what you’d pay for a junior burger in McDonalds in Sydney.”
“But compared to the cost of living here, it’s a lot, isn’t it? You told me a meal here might only cost fifteen pesos.”
“It’s all right.” I bent my head towards her and smiled.
She took out the hundred-peso bill from her wallet, wound the window down, and handed the note over to the boy. The child ran to the woman selling cigarettes and candies further along the street and passed the note to her. She waved at us, smiled, and caressed the little boy’s head.
The taxi slowly crawled along with the other vehicles. The traffic cleared gradually and we crept towards the open wide road. We heard the car accelerate and saw the child leaning on the lady, who was sitting on a stool beside the road. As we drove further, their image blurred and was slowly replaced by the blinking lights of billboard ads. The car stereo was on, tuned in to Cebu Mellow Station playing Jose Marie Chan’s “Christmas in our Hearts.”
I broke the silence. “I used to do that when I was young.”
“Really.” She faced me. “Did you get lots of money?”
We had agreed to meet at the front of Mrs. Villegas’ general store. We thought it was the perfect rendezvous because the light there was bright thanks to the fluorescent tube that hung on the top of the post. The light was a public display of Mr. Villegas’ ingenuity. He had climbed the post the previous week, spliced the live electrical wire that ran through our whole street, attached the thin wire of the fluorescent tube, and his store’s front yard became what looked like the center of our little community. He was a hero to us for bringing us light after the town’s only power company rejected our request.
The fluorescent light attracted a lot of mosquitoes, and several kinds of moths were hovering around it. The light lifted the energy of young men in our street in the afternoon, as they played basketball into the iron ring attached to the trunk of the dying santol tree. The crowd, composed of younger women, mothers with their toddlers, and grandparents minding their young grandchildren, settled around the playing teams, cheering.
Mrs. Villegas was inside her little shop, picking off tiny horseradish leaves for her fish soup dinner while keeping abreast with the competing scores of both teams. Her eyes moved between the leaves on the plate, the sweaty basketball players a few meters away, and me, her customer, muttering that I would like a pack of Marie biscuits. It cost me twenty-five centavos. I liked the nutty taste of the Marie biscuits. They would tide me over at night if we did not have anything for dinner, or if we only had rice, water, and salt.
I was waiting for Gideon, Ricky, and Darwin to arrive. They knew they had to come early so that we could cover a lot of houses that night.
The santol tree trunk was just about to collapse but no one seemed to worry about it. As long as it could still support the thuds of the ball, why worry? Poor tree. I used to climb it when it was still full of fruit. It was a nice variety of santol—a Bangkok one, they said. The fruit had had thicker flesh, thinner seeds, and was more flavorsome. Although we were told not to swallow the seeds, I did anyhow. It was the last school vacation, after we finished third grade. We climbed the trees in the school orchard. The seeds had slipped smoothly down my throat.
“What, you swallowed the seeds of Bangkok santol?” Gideon’s eyes had nearly popped.
“Renato, you can’t do that. They could grow inside you and you would die, you know,” he said warily.
“That sounds like Jack and the Beanstalk.” I simply lifted my eyebrows. “I’m still alive, though.”
“I’m serious,” he said.
The guys were still not here. They might still be having their dinner. I went back to Mrs. Villegas and spent another twenty-five centavos on some cold water. I tore the plastic with my front teeth and sucked the icy cold water from it. I could be luckier tonight if we came home with lots of coins. Then I could buy boiled eggs from the sidewalk vendors and munch them with rice on my way home. I wished my father earned lots of money again and was able to buy us nice food every night. I wished I had some toys like those of the kids in the movies. I wished that the santol tree would bear fruit again. I wished we also had a glittering and singing Christmas tree. I wished the airport would change its decision to remove all the porters from inside the building.
My four brothers, three sisters, and I used to know that my father had had a good day if he came home with boiled eggs or barbecued chicken. Usually, it was because lots of Filipino overseas contract workers had arrived in the airport that day. In ten years of lifting suitcases for these highly paid domestic helpers, seamen, and bar entertainers from abroad, my father, to attract tips, had mastered eye to eye contact, suitable gestures, and well-chosen words.
He had been doing it for so many years that it was a big shock when, one afternoon, he was told that he was no longer allowed to work inside the airport building. Only selected porters, the ones who knew someone in management, were allowed to work inside. My father did not know anyone in the office so he was stationed outside the gate, asking passengers if they needed cabs to go around Manila. He was disappointed, because the money was not as good. Everyone thought he was a con man. I did not know how to help my father. I wished I could. I now wore some of his porter work shirts, as he did not need them anymore. My two younger brothers wore them to school, too.
“Where is everyone?” Gideon asked as he came out of his mom’s shop, holding his ukulele in his right hand and a flashlight in his left.
“I’m the only one here,” I said.
He handed the flashlight over to me as he tried a few strums. I envied his ability to play an expensive instrument like that. I placed the flashlight under my arm and shook a piece of wood with flattened Coca Cola caps nailed in it as I tried to do a little jam with him. We saw Ricky coming with two spoons. Darwin was coming in the opposite direction with a triangle and a money tin.
We did not waste a moment. Our first house was the Santos’, who we knew had lots of money because they ran the only newspaper shop in town. We positioned ourselves on the leaning trunk of a jackfruit tree from where we could see Mr. and Mrs. Santos’ silhouettes behind their windowpanes, as he read and she knitted. The jackfruit tree was actually bearing fruit underground. We could see one fruit breaking the ground and smelling like heaven.
Before we started, we looked around to make sure that their dogs were not off the leash. It looked like everything was safe.
“Gregorio,” said the wife, “I think there are people outside. Can you check who it is?”
“It could just be kids from our block, caroling.”
“Just give them some money now so they can leave early. After all, that’s the only thing they want.”
“No, let them sing.”
“As if you really want to listen to them.”
“Let them sing, anyway.”
“But they’re just going to make a noise.”
“OK, give me the coin and I’ll give it to them later.”
We were happy when we heard the word “coin,” a guarantee that we would be getting something in the end. Gideon strummed the ukulele, Ricky banged the back of the spoons together, I shook the Coca Cola caps, we looked at each other, and together we sang, “Joy to the world, the Lord has come, let earth receive her King.” We looked at Darwin and his triangle and wondered why he was not hitting the instrument. He smiled, because he had forgotten the rod which he used to hit the triangle. We continued singing while he bent down, looking for a stone to use instead. Towards the middle of the song, we heard his triangle and we sang louder.
Suddenly, we were surprised to see two Dobermans racing towards us. The dogs must have broken loose from their leashes. The other three ran as quick as a flash. I was behind them, catching up. I had only one slipper on. For a moment, I thought I might leave it behind so that I could run as fast as possible, but I remembered it was the only one I would have until my mother could buy me another pair in a few days’ time. I was limping, when I saw the two vicious dogs right behind me. I still tried my best to push myself forward and I could feel my heart pounding hard. The dogs howled behind me. I closed my eyes and ran as fast as I could.
We reached the bright front yard of Villegas’ store, puffing. Gideon, Ricky, and Darwin were laughing at my pants nearly dropping, the elastic busted. My Coca Cola caps were no longer in my hands and my slipper had also disappeared from my foot. Oh well, at least I was safe.
We rested for a while until we were ready to go on to the next house.
We got to the Tolentinos’ front yard; it was covered with young guava trees. They were the new variety of guavas called guapple, a blend of the guava’s citric taste and the apple’s succulence. We knew the Tolentinos had lots of money, because he was a high school teacher and she was a midwife. We always saw their daughters at school eating delicious sandwiches at recess. Most of the time I had nothing. To pretend I wasn’t hungry, I used to play marbles and holes while my friends were munching banana cue and cheese snacks. When I got home, I used to get angry at my mother. Why did she not give me any money to buy food?
The Tolentinos’ living room was brightly lit. It had a nice maroon couch which blended with their exquisite hardwood furniture. In the corner stood a tall, fully decorated Christmas tree with statues of Jesus in the stable and Mary and Joseph and the Kings and the shepherds. The Tolentinos were having dinner. The strong aroma of chicken, soy sauce, and coconut vinegar made me hungrier.
Gideon started to play his ukulele. We all went, “O holy night, the stars are brightly shining. It is the night of our dear Savior’s birth.” Because I no longer had my Coca Cola caps, I picked up two small rocks from the ground and hit them together in time with the melody. We finished the song energetically and then we started another one. “Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright, round yon virgin mother and child.” We sang and sang until we were tired but no one came out to give us anything.
Suddenly, Mrs. Tolentino’s head poked out of their screen door: “Hoy, here’s a peso. Now go home and stop disturbing us. You were here last night, weren’t you?”
“No, that was a different group,” Darwin answered, stepping closer to her.
“Anyway, here’s your money,” she said quickly.
“It’s not enough, Mrs. Tolentino,” Darwin protested.
“You should be grateful that I’ve given you something.”
“OK, then,” Darwin conceded, scraping the two fifty-centavo coins off her palm.
She quickly turned her back and slammed the door.
We then sang the Merry Christmas tune with revised lyrics: “Thank you, thank you, tight-ass people are you, are you? Thank you, thank you, thrifty clan in hell will land.”
Darwin dropped the coins into our money tin; I heard them hitting the bottom. It would have been nicer to hear some jingling of pennies inside. We left that hideous family and continued walking towards the next house. We heard dogs barking—the Santos’ two Dobermans were still wandering free in our street. We screamed and ran back to the lit electrical post again, yelling, “Mr. Santos, your vicious dogs are out in our street. Mr. Santos!”
I stared at the decorated pine trees in the middle of the road and my mind returned to the face of that little boy, how his lips stretched and his cheeks lifted when he felt the paper money in his palm. I wished I had experienced the same feeling twenty years ago. I wished I could gather Gideon and the guys again to go caroling. We would sing enthusiastically once more but, this time, I would not be asking for people’s money.
“So, did you get lots of money?” She leaned her head over my shoulder.
“How cute.” She spoke softly. “We don’t have that in Sydney.”
“No, we don’t,” I sighed.