A fly landed on his head but I never dared to shoo it away. The blowfly’s legs seemed to have been stuck by contact cement and its wings struggled to take flight, away from the scalp that missed a day of shampooing. He was rumored to bathe only every other day, and to prove this, his secretary asked me to check out the yellow stains on his white shirt each time he vigorously raised his arms when trying to make a point. But I never looked at him in that way or long enough to affirm talks about him in the workplace. I was more concerned with the fly whose wings had already given up and died on his shaved head that made him look a bit like Charlie Brown.
The road leading to the hotel was a series of inclines that snaked upward, planned with a lot of indecisiveness from a non-native engineer who solely followed direct orders from a fellow non-native who wanted a rest house surrounded by pines and enveloped by the piercing cold weather of the mountains. The builders were of course successful but unmindful—there were too much winding and sudden turns on the road, and my intolerance for long trips caused me to dream of moments when I would just sit or stand, whichever was possible, while scooping a cup of taho glistening in caramelized syrup and tapioca. The dizziness was so consistent that the leaves and branches of the pine trees appeared to have been inflated and their green hues too sharp that a spoonful of sour broth had already spilled from my mouth and stained my shirt. My handkerchief was in my knapsack and buried underneath his three suit bags. But the vanilla scent of the car’s freshener caused me to throw up again, and that dog décor on the dashboard with a bobble head that kept wobbling aggravated the light-headedness.
He asked for the total population of this city and said that he had been here before when he volunteered to donate books as part of their mission. Our Benny was stepping hard on the accelerator, and the car was struggling on its way up. My head felt like it was burdened with a hundred boxes of peanut brittle. Half a million, I answered nonchalantly, as I felt like someone was hammering my head. He asked again with a question mark partnered with an exclamation point. Yes, I’m sure. Half a million. Take a look at that mountain, I told him. All of its slopes, sides, and spaces had already been built over by two-story houses with unpainted walls and roof. He checked his mobile phone for directions. This application was invented by my country, he told me. In 500 meters, turn left. Then turn right. The woman’s voice in the application couldn’t pronounce Magsaysay Avenue well.
The hotel was in the horizon, floating in the fog and surrounded by the flickering lights from the lamp posts that lined the street. I inhaled and exhaled—or was it called panting? The world was still swirling and the five-hour ride was deprived of per diem for provisions. He said that we would arrive in the hotel in time for cocktails and the stomach could wait for an equivalent of two skipped meals before it wailed in hunger.
In a span of five months, I was able to gauge the daily task of this position. The project for this week alone overlapped with another project that should be immediately started the next day upon arrival to the office. I brought three sets of DVD copies of the film that we were about to screen for the opening night. These on top of the copies sent via courier and through email. Art house, as it was popularly known. I saw posters of the film on the wooden door of the in-house theater next to the hotel. He asked me when I mailed the posters and if I sent it rolled up and stored in an elongated can for maps and architectural plans.
The posters were sent in diplomatic pouches, folded six times, and it saved the office from spending a single cent. I was about to iron the posters but its matte finish might stick on the hot iron.
Arriving at the hotel also meant carrying his three suit bags, his overnight bag, my knapsack with a blazer that I threw in that morning, and the rest of the papers faxed by the local government to our office with three calling cards stapled to it and notes on each card: not so VIP, VIP, and VVIP. The yellow Post-it note taped on my planner stated that we were on schedule. Arriving an hour before the opening gave me ample time to run to the front desk and ask if the two rooms I reserved were ready, especially his room—the honey room—which, according to the staff, was their best because it had a tub and air-conditioning while the other rooms only had a fan and shower head. The keys were handed to me with the breakfast stubs. Never lose it, the lady reminded with an icy grin followed by typing something on the reservation system. He walked behind me as we headed to the corridor of wood panels, wooden floors, and ceiling. Raise your arms a little bit, I was reminded not to crease his suits for later. What is my itinerary for tomorrow? Make sure there’s no pork in the cocktails. Check and check. The USB of the film was in my front pocket. He reminded me never to remove it in case the copies of the projector staff lost the rest; all three copies of the film?
Minister in the Woods was part of this year’s theme, “Laughter from the Middle East,” for which we chose about six titles from five hundred films that the ministry of culture sent in a pouch along with a web link that never worked even in five different laptops. Choose films that we don’t have to pay or worry about rights, I was reminded. The film is about the minister who needs to raise two million dollars in one night to rescue his mother who’s been kidnapped by a gang claiming the church owes them money. Where and how to steal that amount? And this was supposed to be comic. I was reminded that the films chosen were the following: recent and free from rights, accessible, and, well, funny but not slapstick.
In the middle of trying to convince Benny that he should not sleep on the floor since the bed could fit two, he barged in and asked for the name of the town mayor. It’s Lawrence Sanchez and he will bring his tourism officer and a guest from the local media. From local TV? We don’t need him, he said. Print, online. Did you invite the blogger? I didn’t because she watches everything including the formulaic mainstream films and tries to make sense out of it. Still, she’s media mileage, a click bait. Get her, use your phone and get Wi-Fi to message and call her.
We have haloes on our heads, he said. And the public’s perception of his country leaned towards being the chosen one. He wore the suit and asked me to get the lint brush and remove the small white fibers on his back.
There were some visible at first glance but would guests care if his suit had a few fibers? Have you removed them? Not yet. Get rid of them. I glided the rolling brush and thought about the number of guests. Fifty-five of them said yes but the guy from the theater said there might be last-minute additions of twenty or more from the university. Students would look good online especially when they surrounded him like an ornament for their selfies.
Off he went to the cocktails and I was left with a lint brush on my hand. Benny was holding my blazer, profusely
apologizing that he had already opened my bag. I gave a thumbs up and signaled him to throw the blazer to me.
The cocktails next to the theater were three steps from the in-house bookstore. Everything was compact that the guests coming produced an odor in the shape of a yarn ball of cold mist from outside that smelled like a winter jacket used the entire day. The sounds of clack clack from the shoes emerged one by one until the room was filled with people not talking but eating cakes. He wanted fluffy cakes, that kind which one had to eat ten slices to feel full. There were bite-sized pieces of it carried by the waiters and the guests would peer at the tray. Only cakes? At 7:30? Yes, just because. I would answer.
The town mayor couldn’t make it, whispered the film projectionist who was also in charge of registration. And the executive director of the film council was still an hour away. He asked and asked. Who will represent the mayor? Invite the vice mayor and tell him to bring in the councilors. This town, where it only takes one person to spread a month’s worth of rumor has only two councilors, I told him. The three were dead? No, just two. But someone from another paper will be coming, I said in consolation.
To be continued