TETHER by May M. Tobias

tetherIT didn’t feel like another day, for it was only six hours earlier that he had logged out. There he was, back at his post again. Efren’s oldest son was graduating from high school that day, and Mang Arthur took over the remaining twelve-to-six shift so his friend could attend the afternoon ceremonies. It wasn’t as if he minded. Mang Arthur barely had sleep that morning, anyway. Nor the morning before. Lately, Mang Arthur’s days have been like that—like little, floating, shapeless clouds that blended seamlessly into each other because of his lack of sleep.

“Whoa! You look so handsome today, Pards,” Mang Arthur said, pretending to be taken aback at seeing his young friend emerge from the men’s room. Efren had changed into a barong, and his security guard’s uniform had disappeared into his black nylon backpack that didn’t quite go with the barong. His naturally curly hair glistened as if wet, tamed and slicked back undoubtedly with hair gel. “So, what time’s the vista, attorney?” he teased, as Efren self-consciously smoothed down his hair.

“Mang Art…” Efren objected to the older man’s ribbing. He looked to see if any of the crew members heard; knowing them, he was so sure they wouldn’t let him hear the end of it.

“You’re a lucky man, Efren,” Mang Arthur said. “Only thirty-two but with a son about to graduate from high school already. You and Celina must be so proud.” Something pricked the back of his eyes.

It didn’t seem too long ago when Maring had the miscarriage. A boy. All of a sudden it dawned on Mang Arthur that had the baby lived, he would have been in college now. How time flies.

“Jun-jun’s very bright.” A little smile played at the corners of Efren’s mouth at the thought of his oldest son. “He’s hoping to go to U.P. on scholarship. He wants to be a lawyer someday.”

Mang Arthur tried to fight the sadness that was threatening to invade his thoughts. “Maring and I, we still haven’t given up trying,” he lied. It surprised him how effortlessly the words came out of his mouth. “We’re hoping to have at least one before all my teeth fall off,” he laughed heartily, “and I would really like to at least live to see him graduate from Grade Six.” Mang Arthur laughed so hard at his own joke that a tear came from the corner of an eye.

They must not have made love for—how long has it been?—probably a couple of years now. Since he started drinking, they had not so much as even kissed. But he had since kicked the habit; he gave it up almost as soon as he started it. Still, it hadn’t escaped him how Maring always seemed repulsed whenever he reached out to touch her, or even just when his arm brushed against her accidentally. Something had not felt right in their marriage lately. And it hung thickly in the air in the precious few minutes of daylight they saw each other, as he came home from his graveyard shift and she prepared to leave for the houses of the people whose laundry she washed. But there still was enough time, he thought, wasn’t there? He was so sure things would be all right again and they could try having a child once more. After all, his wife was too young for menopause, she would only be thirty-six in two weeks.

And it was all a pity, really. Lately Mang Arthur noticed how Maring had suddenly seemed to have a renewed interest in her looks. She had started to fix herself up again, and she had begun to look a lot younger than her years. Although she was not really beautiful, she had a face made childlike by a round nose and plump, pouty lips. The years had rounded her boyishly thin figure into soft, womanly curves; the days she had spent on her haunches washing kilos of laundry under the sun had rendered her limbs brown, muscular and lean. Mang Arthur could not tell when he first noticed it, but lately his wife had even started wearing baby cologne, too. And it lingered long after she had left mornings, mingling with the fresh, wet smell of her soap and shampoo, and always, as he tried to shut his eyes to sleep by burying his face in his pillow, never failed to leave him with a painful sense of longing.

“Mang Art, thanks for covering for me,” Efren said, playfully jabbing Mang Arthur on the shoulder. “I owe you one.”

“Don’t mention it, Attorney,” Mang Arthur gave his friend a mock salute. Efren good-naturedly pretended to grab for the gun in Mang Arthur’s holster. Both men laughed.

“Excuse me,” Rissa called out sternly from the counter and gave them a sharp look. There was a queue of six customers in front of her, all patiently waiting for their turn to be served. It always amazed Mang Arthur how Rissa always found the time to find fault with everybody else’s movements in the restaurant while minding the cash register.

“Gotta go now,” Efren said, adjusting his backpack straps. He looked so ill at ease in his borrowed barong. “I wouldn’t want to get caught in traffic and be late, or else Jun‑jun’s never going to forgive me.” It was obvious that he was nervous; sweat marks had already started to form in the armpits of the barong.

“Go, go, go,” Mang Arthur waved the younger man off and followed him with his eyes to the corner. Efren walked self-consciously down the block, his hands inside his trouser pockets. And then, as if remembering something, the young man suddenly took his hands out of his pockets and walked with them hanging stiffly down his sides. He turned to glance back at Mang Arthur to wave and mouth Thanks! before he flagged down a jeepney bound for Quiapo.

Had they only more time and not alternated shifts, he was so sure that he and Efren would hit it off as very good friends despite their age difference. Mang Arthur sighed. Friendships were an unaffordable luxury in his job.

AS Mang Arthur stood at his post by the store entrance, weariness spread over him and weighed him down like a heavy leaden blanket. Lately, he had become painfully conscious of the monotony of his job: he would open the door and greet every customer, and in spite of all the attention they paid him he might as well be invisible. He thought that the very least they could do was look him in the eye.

He hadn’t always felt like that. When he first got the job, Mang Arthur thought he was lucky, the job seemed to have just been there, waiting for him. He had applied for the job of security guard as a last resort—he really had no choice. He must have seen the sign every day the past week every time he got down from the jeepney at the corner of Sta Monica and Adriatico streets and walked to the overseas placement agency where he had been applying for a job for three weeks before it made sense to him. “Security Guard Wanted Immediately,” it said in big letters on the whiteboard outside Lawin Security Agency. One day, in all clarity it came to him, the realization that he should apply for it instead.

At forty-four, and after weeks of futilely queuing up at the overseas placement office, it dawned on him that they preferred healthier, younger men—men like Efren—for the construction sites. That day, as he got off the jeepney, he went straight to Lawin Security instead of the overseas placement office and inquired about the job. An hour later, he emerged from Lawin Security Agency a changed man. Mang Arthur, the ex-overseas contract worker, presently ampalaya/talong/pechay grower, was to report for training the very next morning as a Lawin security guard.

It wasn’t that he was a weakling for his age. He had a sturdy build—the squat, brawny build of a farmer, having descended from a long line of them. The day their family carabao gored his father to death—the same carabao he took to pasture early every morning as a little boy—the young Arturo Libiran Rosales decided that working the fields was not for him. He had a premonition, he knew that the goring was an accident waiting to happen. He never failed to be conscious of the tautness of the rope in his hands as the animal tugged from the other end. He thought he saw it in the beast’s eyes, too: as if it asked, what right do you humans have to curtail my movement and use me as your beast of burden? The boy Arturo never told anybody, but he had a secret fear of the carabao one day turning wild and chasing someone with its horns, as it one day eventually did, killing his father. As soon as he turned fourteen, he slipped on a cargo ship bound for Manila, hiding in a cramped position amid sacks of sugar for two days with just a bag of pan de sal and a bottle of water for provisions.

DAY after day, for almost three weeks before he got the job at the security agency, he had gone to Bernardo’s Overseas Placement, and noticed his papers were taking an impossibly long time to process. Every day under the hot sun, with his bio-data, ID pictures and all other requirements in order, neatly filed in a plastic envelope, he patiently took his place in the queue with a new set of people mainly because those who lined up with him got assignments ahead of him, leaving the queue to him and newer applicants.

He hadn’t really wanted to start working in another country again, especially now that he had been home these past five years. Slaving away in a foreign land was the most cruel thing a man could ever voluntarily do to himself, he thought. And to make things worse, in the end he had nothing to show at all for the fifteen years he had worked abroad—first in Dubai, and then Jeddah. In return for his backbreaking work at his very first construction site (they built a road through the desert), he was paid a pittance—just enough to afford him little luxuries like cigarettes and the fortnightly cinema to help stave off homesickness. But although he got better-paying contracts after that, his earnings the years thereafter he had to divide between his wife Maring and his widowed mother who took care his nine younger siblings who were still in school back then in Iloilo.

When his last overseas contract expired, he thought of trying his luck in Manila. But construction work was hard to come by if you didn’t know any contractors. And five years of growing vegetables in vacant lots—in between jobs in construction sites that came few and far between—hardly gave him the face to show his wife who earned most of their livelihood from washing clothes. Several times, seeing Maring hunched over her mountainloads of laundry, he had been tempted to tell her to stop. But he was helpless to do anything about it. Poor Maring had not uttered a word of complaint to him during the nearly twenty years they had been married although he knew she seethed inside. He could tell, just from the looks she gave him sometimes.

He couldn’t tell what was going on in his wife’s mind, what she really thought of him—they had been like strangers ever since he came back from Jeddah five years ago. Looking back, he realized that maybe he’d never known his wife after all. She was practically a child when he they first met—she used to sell cigarettes by the entrance of the paper factory where he used to work, and she was hardly a woman yet when he left for Dubai. He imagined it would be an uphill climb to really get to know her, and so he sought to gain her respect by trying to go overseas again.

Instead, he landed the job at Lawin Security Agency. At least, he thought, a low-paying stable job was better than nothing.

Even the security agency had hesitated in hiring him. For somebody without previous security work experience, they found him too old. He had not even finished the second year of high school the agency required. But it seemed that they were in dire need of a guard when he applied—a rush requirement from one of their old, valued clients—and they had to hire him the day he applied even if it meant they had to tweak his bio-data a bit (it wasn’t as if they had not done it before), speed up his training, and fake his license (they assured him they would get him a real one in no time), or lose a client. He couldn’t believe his luck; everything happened so fast. It had seemed to good to be true, like puzzle pieces all fitting neatly into place. Mang Arthur knew that luck was further on his side when he found out that the old client of the agency’s he was going to be assigned was an outlet of the popular fastfood chain, Porky’s. What had been his greatest fear was to be assigned to a bank or pawnshop, which were vulnerable to holdups, and had made him view the job initially with trepidation.

At the end of his training, when he was issued the service revolver by the agency, he was awed by the fact that what they were giving him was a real gun, designed to kill. Only then did he realize that it did not make too much sense for it to be otherwise. Before he became one of them, he must have dismissed security guards’ guns as mere props, like the fancy ones actors used in action movies. For the first few weeks at his new job, he was morbidly conscious of its heavy weight against his thigh, but more than that, he was conscious of its potential to kill. Tracing the cold, unyielding grooves on the barrel and fingering the trigger was enough to make the hair on his neck stand on end. As he held the grip, he thought he felt a sense of a pre-ordained fate: he was awed at how it fit snugly in the palm of his hand.

AT Porky’s, which stays open till 11:00 PM, he was assigned the night shift—he didn’t mind, although it needed getting used to working at night and sleeping in the day. Every afternoon before he left for work, Maring made him three cups of strong, black barako coffee in his thermos flask which effectively kept him awake all night.

The hamburger joint was sandwiched between a department store and a long row of shoe stores that stretched half the length of the block. After nine, when all the stores had closed, nothing much really happened in that part of Cubao. Mang Arthur’s shift started at 6:00 PM, and ended at 6:00 AM the following day. His salary, which had been delayed for almost a month now, wasn’t much, but thankfully, his meals were free—he had a choice of any item on the fastfood’s menu provided he didn’t go over his weekly meal allowance: Porky’s Chorizoburger, Porky’s Cheeseburger, Porky’s Coleslaw Burger, Porky’s Hawaiian Burger, Porky’s Teriyaki Burger, Porky’s Double with Cheese, and Porky’s Hamburger Steak (his favorite, the most expensive item on the menu, which his allowance allowed him to have thrice a week) and two heaping cups of rice.

And he had a smart uniform—crisp white short-sleeved polo with a dark blue tie, matching dark blue pants, and a dark blue cap. He had joked with Maring that his folks back in Iloilo surely won’t recognize him, dapper as he was in his uniform—insignia, name patch, shiny belt buckle (which he polished religiously with Glo) and all—like the navy man he had dreamed to be as a child. He also liked to brag good-humoredly to his wife that he’d eaten so much Porky’s that it’s already coming out of his ears—now, how many of their relatives can claim that, he asked, much less know how to knot a tie smartly.

“Good evening, ma’am. Good evening, sir.” “Thank you, ma’am. Thank you, sir.” Coming or going, he made sure he greeted each and every one of the customers who walked past the outlet’s entrance, no matter how many they were. He had developed a style, (he had practiced this, as well as his smile, countless times in front of the mirror on Maring’s aparador) and he made sure he didn’t stammer. He prided himself on his pronunciation which he personally thought was not bad for a poor, under-educated Visayan boy like him who had only finished one year of high school. He never scrimped on enunciating clearly. “Good eve-ning”, he said—taking time with each syllable whenever he can—although no matter how he tried, it frustrated him because it always came out as “Gudevneng”.

Another thing he took personal pride in was the amazing speed with which he could greet each and every customer who walked past him. He even varied his tempo, depending on his mood. “Good evening, sir. Good evening, ma’am… Goodeveningma’amgoodeveningsirgood eveningma’am!” He even thought that the customers secretly appreciated this music in his delivery, never mind that sometimes they appeared indifferent as they stared blankly ahead as they passed him.

Once, an androgynous group with uniformly cut hair walked past, and there was an instant he almost faltered but quickly recovered. That night, he surprised even himself with the ease and efficiency with which he greeted every one in the group: “Good evening sir-Good evening ma’am-Good evening ma’am-Good evening m-sir… Good evening ma’am!” At the end of it, he was confident that he had greeted everybody in the group properly. Several minutes later, as they stepped out into the street, thanking them was a breeze for him.

BUT today, Mang Arthur was feeling a little out of sorts. Yesterday, when he went to the security agency to collect his pay, he was told that it was going to be delayed again—the third time in his fifth month as a security guard. The secretary told him that Porky’s still hadn’t paid them that fortnight, and that he might just want to make another loan instead. In two weeks Maring was celebrating her thirty-sixth birthday. He had wanted to surprise her with a washing machine.

“That’s what you always tell me,” he told the secretary. “How do I know whether you’re telling the truth and not merely holding on to my pay, just to convince me to get a loan?” Blood pounded in his ears as he struggled to stop himself from hitting the secretary with the black lipstick who simply raised an eyebrow at his outburst.

“Well, I can’t do anything about it, can I? I’m just a secretary here,” she said, rolling her eyes as she spoke. Without waiting for him to make up his mind about the loan, she pushed towards him a promissory note for him to sign. She knew he was going to sign it anyway.

“I’ll wait for Colonel Lawin, “ he said, taking out his folded Balita from his back pocket and sitting on the bench in front of the secretary. The woman let out an audible, exasperated sigh.

THE Colonel did not come to work. In the end, after waiting six hours without even leaving for lunch, Mang Arthur got a loan, knowing too well that the agency was going to deduct the 40% interest again from his next salary. But he had no choice; he couldn’t go home to Maring without money when she knew that he had a job. He never told her that the money he had been taking home had been loans for the most part. She would only think he was lying; she would even probably think he had started drinking again. Besides, he couldn’t afford to, especially now that he felt he was well on his way to regaining his wife’s respect. And he had wanted so much to impress her with the washing machine.

On the jeepney on his way to Porky’s for his night shift, the patronizing tone in the secretary’s voice kept ringing in his ears and it made him feel small. The late afternoon heat from the streets of Manila rose and traced patterns in his face with light, tiny fingers but he couldn’t tell for certain whether it was the heat or his being flustered that warmed his cheeks. It was as if he had gone begging, when in fact he had only come to collect what he rightly deserved for a full month’s worth of work. He had to forego sleep just to be able to collect his pay during their office hours only to be told after six hours of waiting for Ret. Col. Manuel J. Lawin for an explanation that all they could offer him was another loan.

When he got his lunch at the counter, he was about to protest about the way the boy Louie had dumped his rice just so, his Hamburger Steak (for it was his Hamburger Steak day) slapped on top of the rice, the gravy poured carelessly in runny rivulets all over his tray lined with the wax paper they use to wrap Porky’s hamburgers with. But he decided against it and kept silent as he watched the mascot Porky’s multiple images on the wrapper grin and slowly soak up the gravy. Mang Arthur was sure Louie had done it deliberately—there was a wide-eyed innocuous look about him that looked suspicious; somehow the way the boy’s childish lips curved upwards at the corners hinted of something wicked. He believed that there was a conspiracy between Louie and the other boy, Mark—the one who worked evening shifts and who usually prepared his food. I’m going to tell Ma’am Lorna about this, he said to himself, putting his complete faith in the manager who was out that afternoon on a Porky’s TQM seminar. Ma’am Lorna’s going to tell these boys to do better than treat a person like a pig.

And so he kept his thoughts to himself and quietly ate his lunch by the window.

“Mang Arthur,” Rissa called from the counter. “After you’re done eating, will you wipe those tables over there? They’re so dirty,” she said with a grimace. “And you’re supposed to take the trays from the tables and empty them into the trash bin—Efren does that without being told, you know.”

Mang Arthur knew better than argue with Rissa. He was lucky he didn’t have to deal with her much because her shift ended at 7:00 PM, an hour after he started his regular shift. He wondered how the boy Efren found Rissa. It was effortless for her to reduce anyone to humiliation; she seemed to have a gift for it. With the confident manner she asserted herself—the others said that she was studying to be a lawyer—it was always difficult to get into an argument with her because she always insisted that she was right. She was a girl as haughty as she was big, perhaps because she was a scholar in a big-time private university, although Mang Arthur knew she was as poor as the other students who worked the shifts at Porky’s.

“Mang Arthur,” she hollered again from the counter. Porky’s at 2:00 PM was a sleepy place. It was when most of the crew members took their late lunch and naps.

“Did you hear me? Will you at least nod if you heard me?” Rissa’s features scrunched in the middle of her face.

Mang Arthur frowned as he chewed his food slowly, as if pondering a problem. A nerve twitched in his right temple. The harsh mid-afternoon sun washed the small, square interior of Porky’s with a glaring light. Porky’s owners had thought of unifying all their stores with a design scheme reminiscent of grilled, Spanish-type adobe houses; now the fancy grills threw long vertical shadows on the white tables, fiberglass seats and vinyl flooring, and it reminded Mang Arthur forlornly of a cage.

“I am waiting, Mang Arthur.” Rissa drummed her thick, stubby fingers on the counter top. Outside, the noise of the jeepneys had receded to a distant, hypnotic din; inside Porky’s, the coffeemaker and the juice dispensers droned steadily.

Mang Arthur finished the remainder of his food without saying a word and got up to the trash bin to empty his tray. After that, he gathered the trays as well from the other tables and ditched the contents into the trash bin.

“Thank you,” Rissa said, the sarcasm in her tone heavily emphasized. “Now if you will kindly wipe the tables, too,” she said, throwing a damp rag at him, almost hitting him in the face. The other crew members resting at the unoccupied tables suppressed their giggles, and hid their faces in their arms, pretending to sleep. “Shut up,” Rissa said crossly, addressing her lazy co-workers. “I’ll tell Ma’am Lorna about you guys when she comes, you’ll see.”

“Sipsip!” the one named Tere shouted at Rissa, and tossed her long curly tresses from her face. She was very pretty and also seemed well aware of it. She had very good skin which she emphasized with the very red lipsticks she wore to work. When he first saw her, Mang Arthur found it incredible that somebody like her would work in a place like Porky’s and not be a movie star. She had movie star looks, and Mang Arthur thought she could easily get into the movies if she wanted.

As he quietly wiped the tables with broad, swift strokes, Mang Arthur threw his oppressor a furtive glance. He observed how Rissa’s small, pig-like eyes narrowed into even tinier slits as she talked, and how her mouth moved obliviously of the heavy cheeks that fell on either side of it, the nostrils that flared amply over the meager nose above it, the thick jowl that trembled beneath it that almost totally hid a neck. Mang Arthur realized how he felt sorry for her, really; he thought it pathetic that such discordant elements could find themselves in one face.

Tere’s features, on the other hand were different. She was as blessed with looks as Rissa was cursed. “Miss Beautiful,” he called her. He thought it would flatter her. Good afternoon, Miss Beautiful. Good night, Miss Beautiful, he always bid her, which Tere always returned pointedly with a raised eyebrow and a full-lipped pout as she passed him. She probably thought that a dirty old man was in love with her.

IT was about four-thirty in the afternoon when Ma’am Lorna’s brown box-type Lancer pulled up into the reserved parking slot of Porky’s. Mang Arthur ran to hold open the door for her; Ma’am Lorna stiffly smiled her thanks. Mang Arthur planned to tell her just then—about the delay in his salary and the lousy way the crew members served his meals— but Ma’am Lorna looked a bit cross. He thought that maybe it would be better to wait a little.

“HOY,” a burly teen-aged boy with short, spiky hair called Mang Arthur. He was in a group of seven, all similarly attired in black. “Hoy, you there,” he indicated with his puckered lips. He cocked his head to motion Mang Arthur over to their table. They had walked in almost half an hour ago and still had not ordered anything. Their books and bags were strewn over three tables. Mang Arthur had been meaning to tell them that they were taking up too much space.

“What’s the problem?” Mang Arthur asked. He meant to sound authoritative, meant for his voice to indicate that he was in charge.

“You’re the problem, boss,” the boy had a nose-ring. His face was dense with acne. “You remember my friend here?” Mang Arthur remembered the tall, lanky boy from three nights ago; he had come to Porky’s alone, obviously intoxicated. He had reeked of alcohol which he was sipping from a large plastic cup of Coke. Mang Arthur did not let him in. The boy did not insist and quietly swaggered drunkenly away; Mang Arthur thought it was the end of that.

“He was drunk…” Mang Arthur said. Outside, the late December afternoon sun quickly gave way to dusk; the traffic had slowed as jeepneys crowded the narrow street with impatient office workers and tired shoppers rushing home.

“Were you?” the fat boy asked his gangly friend. The thin wide-eyed boy shook his head. Although the other boy was a head taller than the fat boy, the fat boy was obviously the leader of the group. He looked at Mang Arthur again. He was about an inch taller than the security guard. “He says he wasn’t,” he snarled. “So why’d you throw him out?”

“He’s lying,” Mang Arthur simply said.

“Hey-hey-hey, easy! Why’re you calling my friend a liar? Who d’ya think you are—hey, old man?” the fat boy let out his words in slurred bursts, poking a finger at Mang Arthur’s chest. His lower jaw angrily jutted out, his eyebrows were knitted tightly as if to help him keep his focus; he breathed heavily. He was obviously high on drugs. Then he burped loudly. His friends laughed. The other diners at Porky’s started to notice the commotion. On the sidewalk, through the glass wall, Mang Arthur and the fat boy drew curious stares from the passersby as well.

“Super lolo.” The fat boy let out a loud snort. His friends guffawed uncontrollably. “How’re the knees, ’lo?” Obviously, the fat boy was showing off to his friends.

Mang Arthur wanted to swing a fist and hit the boy in the face; he couldn’t take any more of his taunts. It was surprising how he didn’t feel sleepy at all despite his sleeplessness. Every nerve in his body seemed taut, alert, awake. He breathed deeply and deliberately, and concentrated on controlling his temper. The fat boy couldn’t be more than fifteen, he thought; if Maring’s baby had survived the miscarriage, the child would even have been older than him.

Ma’am Lorna broke the small crowd that had gathered around Mang Arthur and the fat boy. “What’s the matter here?” she asked. The fat boy’s friends grew nervous and uneasy; some had already begun to gather their things from their table.

“Your security guard here, he threw out my friend three nights ago,” the fat boy drew himself to his full height before the petite store manager.

“He was drunk,” Mang Arthur explained.

But Ma’am Lorna didn’t seem to hear him. She didn’t even look at him for an explanation. She asked the fat boy, “So what do you want?”

“An apology from him,” the fat boy said.

“Please apologize, Mang Arthur…” Ma’am Lorna said in a carefully measured tone. “You will apologize to this young man here and his friend.”

Mang Arthur couldn’t believe what he was hearing. Of all people, he had expected her to understand. “But…”

“Well?…” Ma’am Lorna let out a deep breath; she was impatient to settle the problem and go back to the paperwork at her office. “Please, Mang Arthur,” her girlish voice—cracking—was slowly losing the controlled, authoritative effect she had intended. “Please don’t make us all wait unnecessarily —I’ve got so much to do. Will you just do what this boy wants?”

There was triumph in the fat boy’s eyes; his friends snickered behind their backpacks.

“Mang Arthur, please.” Ma’am Lorna was firm. Mang Arthur felt all eyes inside and outside Porky’s fastened on him.

Mang Arthur frowned; for a long time he had difficulty finding the right way to open his mouth to utter the words—it was as though he were just learning to speak for the first time: “I-I’m sorry.”

“Yeah!” The fat boy said; his friends hooted and made wolf whistles and they gave each other high fives. The fat boy smiled smugly at Mang Arthur.

“Now that you’ve got your apology,” Ma’am Lorna said sharply, “will you now all please step out and promise to keep out of this place? I don’t ever want to see your faces here again, understand?”

Mang Arthur stared dumbly at Ma’am Lorna. At the fat boy and his friends. He turned to look at Rissa, Tere and the other crew members at the counter. All eyes were on him. Mang Arthur moved his eyes repeatedly back and forth among them till all their faces melded into a blurred, shapeless mass. Beads of perspiration formed on his brow despite the air conditioning. The piped-in music, the loudness of which had always bothered him, suddenly seemed to come from so far away, hovering lightly on the outer fringes of his hearing.

Just then, he remembered the weight that rested heavily on his right thigh. He became conscious of his hands that had been hanging stiffly down his sides for what had seemed an eternity, the fingertips had gone numb; for a moment he had a fleeting feel of coarse rope tugging in his palms—itching, rasping, persistent. In his heart, he felt the gnawing, familiar fear he thought he had left in the past—in his long-ago childhood—having travelled miles and years to distance himself from it. He gagged; there was a funny metallic taste in his mouth that made him want to throw up. All over his body he felt hot, yet his hands curiously felt cold. A dull pain throbbed in his temples, blocking out the sights and sounds of that early evening in the half-filled restaurant. Then, his troubled heart realizing it was nearing home was filled with a great calm. All of a sudden Mang Arthur’s hand jerked to life; his palm sought the immutable coldness of steel. Ω

©2002 by May M. Tobias

This story is a BPSS original.