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PORTRAIT OF A GREAT MAN
by Manuel A. Viray

Great Man

 

DR. RUFINO T. Ventanilla knew this capricious mood of the city but he was too irritated to care. To the east, where the sun, intruder of sleep and stolen love, was slowly rising, he could see the black smoke spiraling above the shipyards. He and Serafin, his chauffeur, whose unkempt head and dirty nape annoyed him, had left the snarled traffic of Avenida Rizal. They were now speeding along the street leading to Mabini Avenue. It was a comparatively quiet street. All he could see were two or three employees from his bureau—hurrying, hurrying, because of the stern compulsion of the Bundy clock he himself had ordered installed according to civil service requirements. The employees had grumbled: but it did not matter.

As the sleek car moved slowly he wanted to ask Serafin what it was he had forgotten of the items Lita had asked to him to bring, but forcibly caught himself in time. How would Serafin know? What Lita wanted was strictly a matter between them. Let’s see, remembering the tyrannical, exciting lips of Lita, the fierce passionate hours at dawn. A case of evaporated milk, a sack of white sugar, and… He was baffled.

The car eased to a stop before the high, imposing structure housing his office. He heaved his heavy bulk from the front seat, yanking his bulging black portfolio, and told Serafin to send in the personnel clerk right away. As he turned right from the long flight of steps, he saw three figures. The thin, angular girl whom he had assigned to the research section smiled at him as she wiped her pink eyeglasses.

“Don’t be in a hurry, doctor, you are on time; it’s still five minutes to eight,” she said without apparent guile.

He managed a parody of a laugh and said, “Yes. Yes. That’s good.” Darn her, doesn’t she know I am the Deputy Commissioner? I will fire her yet. But he knew he never would; she was the protégée of Assemblyman Juan Tuviera y Sibulsibul.

He strode into his office and found himself barricaded by the hill of papers on his desk. If only I can sweep all this blasted correspondence aside. The refrigerator in the inner room to his right was purring softly.

He shouted at Zabala, his stenotypist and asked him if he had put in the bottle of Schenley in the frigidaire. When Zabala said yes, Dr. Ventanilla said: “What are you standing there for? Give it to me.” Silently, as he rested his bulk on the plush armchair, he drummed his fingers and was discomfited to find that the papers and bundles of previous records were scattered as far as the edge of the table. He tried to remember what the third item was that Lita wanted.

His stenotypist poured a thimbleful of whisky for him impassively, with a nonchalant, economical gesture. “Put it away,” he said. “And don’t touch it.”

“I never do, sir,” was the reply.

When he looked up he saw the personnel clerk saying, “Good morning, sir,” with a crooked smile.

“Here. Come here.” For the life of him he could never recall the man’s name. “I want you to order from the Republic Rehabilita­tion Center some rice (for the real Mrs. Ventanilla), a case of evapo­rated milk and a bag—no, make it two bags of white sugar.”

“But, sir, we ordered only last week.”

“Our supplies have run out, so I want these tomorrow. Make a special request.”

The clerk stared at him.

“What are you standing there for?” he said testily. “Well, pass a circular among the employees. Find out who wants sugar and milk and rice.” He could not remember the third item Lita wanted.

The telephone rang, its sound jarring him. Picking it up with his pudgy hands, he said: “Yes. Who? Oh, yes, Colonel. What? All right, I’ll see you at nine-thirty.” He put the phone down on its cradle.

He picked up the paper on top of the middle hill of correspondence—and peered at it through his eyeglasses. Rapidly he skimmed over the fine print, noting typographical errors—a period which should have been a semicolon, a comma which had been misplaced. The bundle of previous records was on top of the pile. He saw that some pages were folded. Time and again, with meticulous care, he riffled through the other file, comparing the legal clauses. He was thankful it was Adriano Perez who had prepared the treatise for his signature. Good man, Perez was, he thought. This would look fine to the Commissioner.

In the next thirty minutes, he signed a memorandum, the text of a cablegram, a letter, a four-page instruction to some chairman of a committee, and the voucher for partial salary of Marcos Montalbo II, special assistant.

There was a knock at the door. “Good morning, boss,” Perez, tall, his mop of hair falling over his forehead burst in cheerily.

“Say, Perez, that treatise was well done,” he said.

“Thanks, chief. That was my first draft,” Perez said. He sat down and filled his Kaywoodie, thinking that it was a pity the doctor could not plow through all the correspondence in one day. Poor farmer, he thought impulsively making comparisons while sucking in the fragrant smoke with satisfaction. If only he delegated the work in the office properly, instead of bothering himself with every word and comma that went in the papers, the office would run more efficiently. Why, when he was editorial writer on Humanidad…

“But your stenographer missed a semicolon,” Dr. Ventanilla shoved the paper forward unceremoniously. Perez suppressing a smile, placated his superior and said it would be changed right away.

“Hurry it up. The Commissioner may call for it this morning.”

He watched Perez’ well-formed back disappear.

As Perez closed the door, the doctor removed his eyeglasses and rested his head before picking up the next bunch of papers. This had to do with the appointment of an assistant chief in the administrative division. The memorandum below was signed by the Commissioner himself. Two pages beneath the memorandum were the letters of Assemblyman Tuviera, chairman of the finance committee of the Assembly, urging the appointment of a certain Eduardo Botelho, a topnotcher in the 1930 bar examination. “No doubt, he can’t make enough money outside,” he muttered, “if I refuse it, but I must.” He had not heard of the name before.

Edrosa was the man he wanted. Self-made man. Graduate of Harvard. Good-looking, brilliant. Law partner of Ozamis, Ozamis and Ozamis. A keen analyst. “This fellow Botelho… he’s just like the rest of the fellows forced upon me… only wants a big salary… maybe he’s too lazy to make a living. I won’t appoint him.”

He pressed the buzzer. The messenger came in with alacrity. Dr Ventanilla asked him to send in Del Mundo and Estabillo, the assistants on mechanization. When Del Mundo and Estabillo entered he told them to wait for the Colonel.

Just then the Colonel entered, preceded by the messenger.

“I got your call. Sit down. There, there at the long table.”

They did. “Now, then, in this estimate of the exports of the Hindus, I see a discrepancy. It’s too high. Silver is getting out of the country.”

“A greater figure can be found in the estimate of American investors,” Del Mundo interposed.

“No matter, the Americans are our allies. Don’t be an ungrateful pup.”

Del Mundo reddened. The telephone jingled.

Zabala, the typist, said it was for the doctor. He sat down again, pounding his typewriter with machinegun precision, but never missing the dialogue over the wire. “Yes, sir,” the doctor was saying, “right away, sir. The treatise is ready. I’ll take it over myself.” He could see the figures of his fellow employees reflected in the doctor’s alert but fawning look, the strained and fidgety intonation, and the bobbing Adam’s apple. Zabala stopped typing and looked at the paper he was copying with pretended industry while Dr. Ventanilla stood up and went over to the trio huddled around the long table and told them to finish the draft of the trade contract. He would be right back. Za­bala could not help smiling a little as the doctor went to the rest room—the “House of Commons,” everyone called it—possibly to allay his nervousness. The doctor always did that, every time the Commission­er’s call came in.

Ten minutes after Dr. Ventanilla had gone, the door opened again and Dr. Adriano Perez y Tiron and Marcos Montalbo II asked Zabala where the Deputy Commissioner was. He told them. “When he returns and wants me, tell him Mr. Montalbo and I are at the restaurant,” Dr. Perez said and the stenographer nodded.

 

MARCOS Montalbo II lighted Perez’ cigarette while the waiter hovered over them. The two had finished their coffee and Marcos was saying, “But seriously, chico,” striking a match, “if the deputy commissionership were offered you, would you turn it down?”

“I don’t know,” Perez leaned forward, his restless eyes subdued for a moment. “It’s too much of a responsibility.” He recited the story of the semicolon.

Marcos laughed. “Sometimes I think. Dr. Ventanilla has an unhappy home life.”

“Maybe. Or perhaps, he has been given too big a bite to chew. You, you’re an accessory to the fact. Your lawyers’ guild urged his appointment on the Secretary.”

“I’m disappointed. It’s a pity. He was forcibly yanked out of the foundation. Now there is some talk he might be appointed Director of Internal Affairs.”

“I don’t have a grudge against him, you know. It’s just that all the routine appalls him. Maybe. What the office needs is more integration, proper distribution of work, and greater trust in the abilities of subordinates. Day after day, the office becomes more entangled. Papers that should be signed in two days do not get signed until after one week.”

“The word is bureaucracy. Red tape.”

‘That’s right. You know, the other day the Commissioner objected to a clause in the contract with the British engineers. But since Dr. Ventanilla wrote the clause himself, he insisted that it be retained. What he got was a ‘the trouble with you, Ventanilla, you are not a lawyer,’ accompanied by a laugh.”

“I heard about that. And Ventanilla naively said: ‘But I am, Commissioner, I am.’”

Dr. Perez and Montalbo decried the tragic implication of the incident. They knew that Dr. Ventanilla was a graduate of the Escuela de Derecho, and had gone to Oxford for his master’s and doctor’s degrees in jurisprudence.

“There’s plenty of talent in our office, you know, even discounting the lame ducks and political protégées.”

“You are the best.”

“Don’t pull my leg,” said Perez, putting his pipe on the ashtray. “If the work were systematized and coordinated, Dr. Ventanilla would not have to yell and tear his hair as he usually does.”

“Tear his hair? But the man is baldheaded.”

“There should be a course given for young men anxious to enter the public service. Once in, after graduation, they should be given a chance to go to the top of the ladder.”

“Not in this country. The ladder is incessantly pulled thither and yon by scheming politicians. For instance, the doctor should have acceded to Reyes’ appointment. After all, he is the heir, though only a nephew of Secretary Reyes. The Secretary is the President’s closest confidant. Besides he controls government accounts.”

“If I were Dr. Ventanilla I would have insisted on a free hand before accepting the deputy commissionership. He executes the pol­icies. It’s late. Let’s go.”

 

AFTER two weeks, Perez was appointed Deputy Commissioner to succeed Dr. Ventanilla.

Now he was relaxing luxuriously in the car as Serafin drove slowly towards Mabini Avenue. He ran his fingers delicately across the smooth cellophane box containing a corsage. Esperanza will like the orchids, he thought. He had met Esperanza at a musicale last night. He remembered her face at the furioso, and how she threw back her head at the finish. He read the card again as the car slowly rolled in front of the tall, imposing building.

He gave Serafin the address and told him to take the flowers up right away and return. “There will he no answer,” he said. “And come back after you have delivered it. I have an appointment with the chairman of the Planning Commission.”

Swiftly, Perez ran up the long flight of steps, looking neither right nor left.

He asked Zabala to send Mr. Montalbo in at once.

Marcos strode in. “We made it,” he said, as he sat down with ease. “Smoke?”

Perez waved away the offer. “Look. Marcos,” he said. “Help me in this. Sort out the urgent papers. By God, by tomorrow I expect to clear this mess.”

“All right. Now our good friend, the doctor, is already sweating it out in the Bureau of Internal Affairs.”

“Uh-huh,” Perez bent down.

“Look, can I give you a good-looking stenographer?”

Perez looked up with interest. “Why not?” He did not see the alarm on Zabala’s face.

The door opened. Del Mundo came in.

“What do you want?”

“I would like to see you about the trade agreement.”

Marcos went out, obviously pleased with himself, noting Del Mundo’s discomfiture, for he knew Perez and Del Mundo were classmates in college.

“That’s right. You made a terrible mistake in the last paragraph. Wrong figures. Luckily I saw it. What’s the matter with you? Do you want the Commissioner to howl? Type it yourself if you have to.”

Del Mundo tried to open his mouth in protest.

“That’s all. On your way out, send Villalva to me.”

The door creaked.

“Villalva,” he said, “why did you write that atrocious memorandum regarding Botelho’s appointment? Don’t you realize Botelho is a protégée of Assemblyman Tuviera?”

“I thought you were against political lame ducks,” Villalva was amazed.

“Not when appropriations are at stake. He will put the squeeze on us and where would you be? You want a promotion, don’t you?”

Villalva scowled darkly and strode out without making a reply. The telephone rang. He picked it up. “Yes, yes, Commissioner, I’ll be right over.”

There was a knock at the door.

Perez strode to the “House of Commons.” As he came out the personnel clerk stood at the doorway.

“What do you want?”

“I would like to have this voucher signed, sir.”

“Don’t bother me. I have an appointment.”

“It’s for a partial salary, sir. My wife is sick, terribly sick. I have to take her to the hospital at once.”

“Don’t bother me,” Perez said curtly and walked past him. Ω

The author is not too well-known in RP because he spent the better part of his life in overseas assignments.

 

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