I HAD never been to a radio station before, and I was shocked that it looked so ordinary. Even the offices adjacent to the disc jockeys’ booths resembled those government agencies where you got your license or paid your taxes: a row of desks, clicking typewriters, worn-out, obsolete computers in a dirty beige color, a bunch of hardened secretaries, and a gaggle of people shuffling around and waiting in vague lines.
Off to one side, facing a corridor filled with people, were big square glass windows. Those were the disc jockey’s booths. From small speakers perched above the windows came the sound of a woman’s voice. Presumably that was what was on air at the time. Sure enough, in a corner of one of the windows was a little sign that said “On The Air”–just as I had expected it to be. The woman was weeping while speaking, and from where I stood, in the main office area, I thought I could see the figure of the woman in one of the booths, through the glare of reflections on the window.
The woman was calling for her missing mother. She was 68 years old, about five feet tall, with graying hair, and had worn a dress with blue flowers on the day she disappeared. They had gone to the zoo a week before. They had gone there because it was a Sunday and animals fascinated her. After separating ways with her daughter for a half an hour, the old woman failed to show up at a small rest area, which was their prescribed meeting place. A three-hour wait ended in a search involving a gaggle of security guards. When closing time came–
The woman’s voice was interrupted by the deep, booming voice of the announcer. His tone was kind and concerned. I was surprised that it didn’t sound tired, or hurried, or irritated, as I would most likely have been. It sounded just like that–exactly like that radio announcer we imagine in our head, a dislocated voice overriding everything, but a kind voice. With enough character so you could talk back to it, regard it, but with a kind of indifference that comes from authority. It sounded as if it came from another world.
The woman then resumed, explaining that her mother had Alzheimer’s disease. It was strange hearing the word Alzheimer’s within the tones and textures of that voice, because I could tell the woman wasn’t used to saying that word, and it sat in the middle of her sentences, perfectly enunciated, like a newly built landmark that divided the past and the present. The term had been taught to her by doctors, experts, but it had surely never arisen between mother and daughter.
As I joined the people huddled outside the booth I could see into it. The booth was small, and the acoustic boards that lined the walls were covered with posters of movies and singers and bands. There were old memos and announcements. Wires sprung out from a stack of equipment.
The announcer sat behind a panel decked with buttons and sliding switches. He was wearing headphones and moving some of the switches. After a few moments I recognized him as a television personality. He hosted his own afternoon show. In the show he sat on a couch and fielded a string of guests. That show had a little oval inset in the corner that showed a woman performing sign language. I realized now that the show was a public service program–a televised version of the radio program he was running now.
And just like that television show, his guests took their turn in front of him, entering the booth and speaking into the microphone. Their voices emerged from the speakers. After they spoke the host would speak. Then the booth door opened, a name would be called and someone from the hall would enter and sit in front of the announcer.
From time to time the sequence would be broken by a string of commercials advertising soap or insurance. Briefly, the sound would brighten and a jingle would play; after some minutes someone punched in the program ID, which was a short musical passage played on an organ that had the effect of a 1950’s horror or mystery show. That was because the radio show was all about unsolved cases. Then, the announcements would resume.
One of the staff in the main office area called out my last name and I approached the booth. Before I could reach it the door opened and a little girl came out, tears streaming from her cheeks.
In my hands I tightly held a little piece of paper. On it I had scribbled some things that I imagined would be important. I had written out a long list, fearing I would forget something that turned out to be crucial information.
Inside, the air smelled of cigarette smoke and damp air-conditioning. There was a little three-foot high Christmas tree in the corner, with light bulbs that blinked on and off and a little foil hanging that said “Happy Holidays.” The announcer looked at me briefly and squinted at a clipboard. He gestured to a chair and took a long drag from a cigarette.
He called my name and I nodded. He switched on the microphones and announced my name on the air. All through this I was turning the paper over and over in my hands until my hands and the paper had rubbed off on each other and shared the same color. I was folding and unfolding it, until I could barely read the pencil marks. I had written out phrases and underlined key words, listed details down to the minutiae, and now they were lost to grayness.
There was a microphone on a stand in front of me. I gripped the mike, adjusted its position and began to speak. I glanced down at the paper without looking, without reading, and spoke. My voice reverberated through the studio as I began relating all the details, stringing them together with prepositions, adjectives, words.
My father, last seen New Year’s eve, wearing a striped collared shirt, jeans and red slippers. Medium build. Black hair with white and silver streaks. 58 years old. Missing, lost, or kidnapped since New Year’s Eve, four days ago. I was looking at the announcer, guessing when he would interrupt me with his silky voice.
The announcer looked at me briefly, perhaps to see if I was done, and picked up the tail end of my fading announcement with a loud burst that was meant to add excitement to my case. The announcer looked at me as he spoke, and I recognized that he was giving me words of encouragement, telling me to leave his name and contact numbers on the master list outside. I felt, in that brief glance of his, that I found all comfort and solace. Then he switched his gaze to other matters: the control panel in front of him, the cue cards passed to him by an assistant. As he looked away he added that I would know in a few days. I stood up, afforded the announcer a nervous smile, but he had turned to his list and was calling for the next guest.
In the main office area there was another line of people, all waiting to sign the master list, which was merely a set of clipboards arranged in alphabetical order. There was a woman at the desk who acted officiously, reminding people to hurry up or fill in the proper blanks. After a while I noticed that the people respected her concern for order. After I filled in the blanks she offered me a Christmas greeting and reminded me that they would call me if there was any word. I stepped out of the office, past a fresh crowd that was gathering, and took a taxi to work.
Though it was the first day of work after the holidays, everybody knew that my father had gone missing. My wife and I had made sure to call every one of them over the past days. By New Year’s morning, we had gone through the list of friends and neighbors, people we knew to know my father; by the next day we had gone even through those who didn’t know him. It was quite an awkward thing, having to greet them for the holidays and then asking them if they had seen him, or heard from him. My father was a loud, gregarious man, and it was not unusual for him to call one of his friends, out of the blue, for a chat or a drink.
The office was still slumbering in the Holiday spirit when I timed in, with only a handful reporting to work. My cubicle, normally unadorned except for a wall calendar and an appointment book, was cluttered by Christmas gifts from co-workers. I turned on my computer, mindlessly sifted and reorganized files, looked at the time, and made a few tentative calls.
When lunchtime came around, someone came over to my cubicle and invited me to lunch. I could tell his tone was guarded and unsure. I accepted the invitation with a voice that I hoped would not be so tainted with grief and exhaustion. I realized that the last time I had heard my own voice, besides the small remarks I had made to the taxi driver, was in the radio announcer’s booth. Hearing my own voice now, exchanging pleasantries for the New Year’s and agreeing to have lunch, seemed a strange and dislocating experience.
Whether it was because the holidays had drained all our funds or because we were in a somber mood, we chose to have lunch at the company canteen, a few floors down. The company had set aside half an entire floor as a dining area, brightly lit and nondescript. A long stainless steel counter ran the length of the canteen, and although it was past noon, only a few people were lined up along the railing.
Over lunch they asked me what had happened. I heard my voice once again telling them, over the din and the soft music, with an accuracy that startled me, every detail of our separation.
After a small dinner, my father, my wife and my child went to bed to rest before the festivities. I sat in the living room, watching TV and drinking beer. An hour before midnight, my father appeared and sat with me. He said nothing, merely coughing a little now and then. Some minutes later my wife emerged with the baby. She frowned at the sight of us sitting there and immediately went into the kitchen to prepare.
We had all wanted to go somewhere else to spend the holidays. My wife had wanted to take our one-year-old child up to the beach in Ilocos, where her family would be staying, and Christmas and New Year’s would be light and cold. I had made hotel reservations for myself and possibly a few friends, where I could sit and stew through the season.
After a while, my father and I took four worn tires from our garage and rolled them out to the street, piled them carefully in the middle, sprinkled a little kerosene and set the whole thing on fire. By that time our entire street was studded with tire bonfires and lined with people who had come out to watch the explosions and count the minutes.
That New Year’s Eve was the millennium’s eve. If anything, it meant that the explosions would be louder and the fireworks bigger and brighter. A half-hour away from midnight, the night sky was lit up with swirls of color, and from time to time, the swirls would reach down and ignite the street like lightning. On CNN they had followed the millennium celebrations as the stroke of midnight crept across the world, jumping from country to country, showing an assortment of cultural celebrations and fireworks. They had been doing this since early evening, and by the time it was almost our time, the whole thing had begun to weigh heavily on me. My wife was still in the kitchen with the maid, preparing the New Year’s Eve dinner. There were only three of us living in the small apartment, but my father always had visitors–all old men–coming in after midnight, until the morning hours. By dawn our living room would be filled with old men, and the smell of old men, and the smell of cigars, cigarettes and liquor. I decided that after the midnight celebrations I would retire to my study and do some reading.
Because it was the millennium, we had stocked up on more fireworks than ever–and more than was necessary. By five minutes to midnight, the whole street was filled with fire and smoke. My ears were ringing and a thick fog of gunpowder smoke hung in the air. My father had changed from his pajamas into a striped, long-sleeved shirt and jeans. This was all protection–he always loved to stand close to the fire and toss in the fireworks, as though he were tossing garlic and onions into a frying pan. When the fire had reached its full height, we sat on either side of our pile of fireworks–worth a lot of money if you ask me, but still not worth much against the a sky that seemed like a sea of explosions. We tested our noise levels with a few firecrackers, and we were satisfied with the volley of small explosions they made, echoing back and forth against the high walls of our neighborhood fences.
As the firecrackers split open in the fire my father looked at me and said something I could not hear. By this time the explosions on the street had risen steadily into a continuous barrage. My father stood up and gathered an armful of big rockets. I was looking at my watch, counting down the seconds. I shouted for my wife to come out for the big bang, but she merely looked at me through the living room windows. The baby was crying hysterically from all the noise.
From the corner of my eye I thought I could see my father walking up the street, picking a path among the flare of fountains, the shockwaves of homemade bombs, and the sibilance of rockets shooting into the sky. I was seeing this from the corner of my eye; I didn’t bother to call out to him because, thinking harder about it, I had believed all along that it wasn’t him, it was someone else walking down the street. As the night turned to midnight and the sky and the street erupted into each other I looked around our bonfire for my father. When the next lull came, several minutes later, I realized that he had gone.
Is there any story that hasn’t been told? Any incident that can be told without anybody thinking, I haven’t heard anything like that before. Everything’s been told, and told better. At the radio station there was a man who was calling out to his older brother who had neglected to send money from Kuwait, where he worked as an engineer. There was an old woman who cried for justice for her son, who had been raped and beaten to an inch of his life, and whose pulverized jaw could not even accommodate a whisper of the name of his attacker. And there are other stories, other mysteries, wherever we go.
They had mysteries like this day in, day out, at the radio station, at the police precinct, at the barangay hall. In fact, all these places and cases so closely resembled one another that the pictures of the dead and missing, the telephone numbers to call and the people to ask for on the phone, these names and things all vibrated into each other and began to look the same. Every 68-year-old woman stood five-foot tall, had graying hair, and wore a flowery dress. Every old man looked the same.
In the taxis I rode, the radios were constantly tuned to the AM band, where the mystery show aired in the mornings and in the afternoons. Occasionally, breaking news came through the airwaves, involving phone calls from lawyers offering help or concerned citizens reporting the whereabouts of those lost and those who had run away. There were agencies and offices and even individuals out there who concerned themselves with the lost and the disappeared and the uncollected. I had earlier tried to solicit their help, but they told me the sheer volume of their clientele meant I might be attended to in many weeks’ time. At that I resolved to do my own searching. By the end of the second week my father was still missing and I had almost grown desperate, but decided that it would be too late to go back to the help agencies.
My wife had delayed her move to Ilocos for the meantime. Whenever I got home, often very late after long hours at work and a slow, thoughtful reconnaissance around our neighborhood streets, I would be mildly surprised to still find her in her room, sleeping with the baby in her arms. I would sit and watch TV in the living room and discover that the persevering presence of my family had a difficult, grating character. By that time I realized I had owed her more than I could ever hope to repay and repair.
During those moments I agonized over the unanswered questions. Was my father, in fact, dead, killed at midnight by an explosion? I imagined a stray bullet falling from the sky, or a rocket veering off course to strike my father’s slow-moving figure dead center. But I shrugged off these possibilities as too impossibly fantastic. Surely the key to my father’s disappearance lay in circumstances more spectacular.
I also reflected briefly on whether my father might have been the victim of a crime, such as an assassination or a kidnapping. I took to scouring the papers for any news of salvagings and unclaimed corpses. I was thankful for finding no such news, and decided that such a savage crime could not happen to my father. We were not exactly rich folk, and my father did not maintain a high position anywhere. If he was anything, he was simply and merely my father. It would have been a case of mistaken identity.
Still, I went to a newspaper to report it. A reporter asked me about the incident and, tired from the nth telling, I merely rattled off the details into his dictaphone. You forget the meaning of words the more you say them. But as I recited them I imagined the numbers and the details would bring my father from the void and contain him. I felt like a magician, a medicine man, uttering a spell composed of strange words, a litany of broken Latin that had to be repeated again and again, ad nauseum, until your familiar agreed to appear.
In a few days a small article appeared in the broadsheets, repeating my words, tucked under the bigger news of the current political expose. It also appeared in the tabloids, where it graced the pages where the small, sensational crimes of the day were reported.
More than once, the thought occurred to me that he might have faked his disappearance, that he might have walked away from our disintegrating life and marriage in order to save it. Or that he had turned an old pair of eyes upon himself and, seeing an old man growing older and unneeded in his son’s household, decided to skip town and join his old gang in a journey to points unknown. After all, I seemed to remember that he had a thoughtful look in his eyes on the night he disappeared. Such possibilities lay open and waiting before me as I sat in my living room, looking at the news on TV and pondering my next move. I knew that such possibilities were very clear to my wife. After all, she had known my father all these years and she had come to know everything he was, as much as she knew everything about his son.
It was becoming an unsolved case. I remembered the organ stinger from the radio show and the woman at the radio station who had lost her mother at the zoo. I remembered hearing of old men and women going missing for days, even weeks, and I could see these old folks wandering from bus stop to bus stop, sleeping at the foot of buildings and begging for food. I imagined that after a while, they would have to build an entirely new life for themselves, without previous memories, like babies born to a new world.
It was at that time that I thought of summoning other, metaphysical means. A friend of a friend knew of a medium who specialized in lost items, and, wondering whether my father would count as a lost item, I contacted him. This time I was asked to bring a personal item of the lost individual. I could not bring anything very substantial, since my father had brought his wallet, put on his only cap, worn the watch I had given him many years before, and taken his only pair of shoes with him. I only managed to present a very old pair of bathroom slippers to the medium, who seemed to cringe at the sight of them.
The medium himself was an old man who wore a dingy robe whenever he performed his “readings.” He clucked his tongue and declared that the item I had brought would certainly not do much, but added quickly that he would try, slapping down a worn down deck of Spanish cards on the table. He made reshufflings and rereadings and offered several vague guesses about my father. Then he glared at me and decided that the old man might not be in the realm he was searching, or that he could be eluding his third eye. For a fee he agreed to perform periodic searches in the ethereal plane and assured me that if my father wanted to contact me, he would find a way.
True enough, that night I dreamt of finding my father. I dreamt that it was a clear night, like the night he disappeared, except there were no fireworks, nothing in the sky, not even the moon or the stars. In my dream he wanted to return and to signal his intention he lit the fireworks he had brought with him. Each rocket burned perfectly and burst perfectly in the night sky, exploding cleanly, like five exclamation points.
In my dream world the phone rang: “We’ve found your missing relative.” I dressed quickly, feverishly, even forgoing my pants and socks. But when I arrived at the station to claim him, they showed me a different old man, sitting on a chair, sipping Coke from a small plastic bag. On the table beside him lay a half-eaten sandwich. In dreams, it seems, food is always half-eaten and everyone, most especially the dreamer, is almost always half-dressed. In dreams there are only half-discoveries. In dreams we expect to be tricked and are constantly jumpy, awaiting the strange twist or the inevitable fall. In the event of the latter, even a peaceful death is denied us, and we awake, sweaty and eyeballs still moving. As we spend the first waking moments trying desperately to remember our dream lives or wondering if a death in dreams provokes our real deaths, everything is soon forgotten and we move and live in the natural world.
The morning I awakened to was bright, oxygen-rich, with the sounds of my wife and child in the next room.
I had dinner with my wife on the eve of her departure for Ilocos. She had prepared a simple meal, spare but thoughtfully prepared and accompanied by wine, as we had always had in the beginning. We did not speak at first, but after a few minutes I stammered a few compliments about the meal and thanked her for her support during the whole affair. I didn’t know myself whether I was talking about my ordeal about my lost father, or the seven-year marriage. She smiled and as she spoke I could see in her eyes a new clarity and a great hope for her future and the future of the baby. Still, I was foolish enough to imagine that her pity for me and my continuing predicament would compel her to stay. Over coffee she gave me her contact numbers and e-mail addresses and offered an open invitation to visit. I returned her invitation.
Some weeks later I found myself at the radio station again, taking my place in the line across the booth. I looked at the announcer expectantly, to see if he remembered me. He didn’t, of course. When it was my turn to speak, I discovered that time had rubbed the details down to an old, dull, unremarkable list of descriptions that could have matched anyone’s. I might have been describing the old stranger I had dreamed of. I might have even been describing myself thirty, forty years later.
I imagined my own voice filtering through the mesh gate of the microphone in my hands, transported through the wires. I imagined it bursting through the overhead speakers like fireworks, bouncing off satellites, picked up by radios and skimming off the minds of listeners, sitting in their cars and their afternoon reveries.
©2001 by Angelo Rodriguez Lacuesta
This story is a BPSS original.