BY JEFFREY P. YAP
Continued from last week…
Walking out of the store had become my habit each time Alice and I argued. It was the most peaceful and least messy reaction that I can think of.
When Alice was deranged, especially now that the store was under threat of closing shop or worse, demolition, the best solution was to let her babble endlessly until her furor subsided.
Her anger, though tolerable at times, was something I had difficulty analyzing. It was difficult to figure out know where it was coming from. It could be the business because it have been under threat. Or it could be Griswald the cat. Yes, next to the grocery store, that cat was her source of joy.
Looking for Griswald in the midday sun was as fun as supervising the unloading of goods from the suppliers. Alice was right. The construction of the concourse and platform of the elevated train station was right in front of our store.
The station will be wide enough to cover the entire intersection of the avenue, thus turning the junction filled with natural light into a dark pathway with very limited space for pedestrians. There was no way that the construction can be transferred elsewhere because the purpose of the mass transport was for convenience. Indeed, the avenue will die.
A jeep zoomed in front of our store, almost crushing the bones of my toes. And Alice was hopeful that Griswald was still alive. Those jeepney drivers will not even think twice about running over my wife’s cat. So much for nine lives.
On the way to the plaza, it dawned on me that the search for Griswald was a perfect excuse to stay away from my responsibilities at the store. The inventories, stock orders, and replenishment of sold out items were just too mechanical, and allotting a whole day solely for work made me want to bite my nails.
Cruising downtown and its inner streets was much better than counting the boxes of canned milk. From hearing street peddlers shouting simultaneously, almost like a chorus, marveling at the charm of the pre-war buildings and two-story old houses with tiled roofs, smelling the hopia mongo fresh from the oven and put on the tray for free taste, and walking past fellow city dwellers, skin to skin, and making my way out of the side street onto the avenue were things that I actually enjoyed than the everyday routine of manning the store and staring at nothing.
The church near the plaza was drawing in people coming from the inner streets. There were green and white-striped nylon tents near the church door and a couple of vendors selling puto and bibingka.
It could be another fund-raising project for the reconstruction of the church convent. Alice mentioned that some choir members with a solicitation letter had been to the store singing their guts out. I doubt it if she gave them a decent amount of cash. She probably gave them a box of canned goods that were about to expire.
I checked out one of the stalls and peered at the bibingka that was tended by a young woman with a pony-tailed hair and wearing a plain white shirt and a jean skirt that was up to her shins.
Her skin was white but not the China white that was almost yellow and caught one’s eye at first glance. She was the type of woman who needed to smile in order to attract men. But the smell of melted butter and cheddar cheese on top of the bibingka made me turn around and give her a closer look.
“Would you like to sample our specialty?” she asked.
“Actually, I’m just looking for something,” I told her.
“Just one bite, Mister,” she asked me with all smiles. Her eyes brightened up when stared at.
“Jeric,” I said as she moved her hand to pop her bibingka into my mouth.
“You’re looking for something?”
“Our house cat has been missing for a week,” I replied while chewing her bibingka.
“What kind of cat?” she asked.
“A macho cat. A small monster with orange stripes reaching up to the end of its tail,” I replied.
“I’ve seen a lot of cats around here especially in the morning when I sweep the church’s front yard,” she said.
She told me that everyone in the church called her Miss Clarisse. She was a regular church person who volunteered at the parish church for two hours every day including holidays.
“I think I’ve seen your cat before,” Clarisse said.
“When did you see him?” I asked.
“I saw him on the church steps two days ago and he ran towards the plaza,” she said.
She pointed directly to the bank and told me that Griswald was on its steps and rubbed its head on one of the Carrara marble pillars that supported the building.
It could be one of those cats wandering the side streets with stomachs drooping on the asphalt because it was stuffed with food leftovers from the soda fountains. But I should believe Clarisse so I can tell Alice that someone had actually seen Griswald. Besides, it gave me free time out of the store to interact with people other than customers who complained that our black chicken was not fresh anymore.
“Thanks, Clarisse,” I said. “I will return tomorrow and look for him.”
“Why don’t you stay for a while? The parish community will be serving snacks for everyone. You can eat more bibingka if you want,” she said.
A couple of volunteers carried tables and chairs made of rattan and place them in the front yard of the church. As the late afternoon breeze cooled the surroundings, the food was already on the table, and the people at the plaza started coming in.
Some of the churchgoers also brought food in aluminum trays wrapped in transparent plastic. Had I known that I would be invited, I would have brought some steamed black chicken.
“Hello, sir. Hello, ma’am,” I said as I smile at people who nod at me. “I’m the owner of R.D. Lim Grocery!”
“Oh, the store that sells black chicken. Where exactly in the avenue again?” a woman asked.
Some people were still having difficulty figuring out the exact location of our store, so I told them that we were in front of the art deco theater near the plaza. I intentionally left out the information that our rival, The Emporium, was just across the street from us.
“But your business is in danger because of that construction, eh?” the woman said.
I had fallen silent so I left the woman. Clarisse ushered her somewhere else away from me, away from possible confrontation with gossipmongers like her who loved to talk about problems of other people but never provided solutions or suggestions.
I sat on the bench that faced the bank and watched the flock of pigeons descend on the roof but flew away when they saw the three sculptures of eagles just below the building’s trusses, with their wings spread like they were about to take a flight, and their eyes aimed at a destination far from the city.
“Naysayer,” I told Clarisse while pointing at the woman.
“Just ignore her. She thinks that she won’t be affected by the construction,” Clarisse said and sat beside me to eat her chicken sandwich.
“You know, I went to your store once,” Clarisse added.
“Really? What did you buy?” I asked.
“Just a few groceries–soap, shampoo, detergents, toiletries mostly,” she said.
“You never bought food from our store? You were just eager to buy cleaning aids I suppose,” I asked.
“Anyway, what are your plans? Are you going to file a complaint to stop the construction?”
“Alice is taking care of it,” I said.
“Is she your wife?” she asked.
“Yes,” I replied.
“I think I saw her when I went to your store that day. She looks like a Hong Kong actress,” she continued. “Her skin was glowing in your dimly-lit store.”
I nearly choked so I drank a soda to clear up my throat.
“Look for me next time you visit so I can assist you,” I said.
“I will. But I wouldn’t buy your store specialty,” Clarisse replied.
“Fr. Perez says that black chicken is bad for the soul.”
“That’s his opinion, what’s yours?” I asked.
“I don’t know. But don’t you think it makes sense?” Clarisse said.
“It’s just the color of its feathers. It’s actually sweeter than the traditional chicken,” I answered.
“Really? So how should I cook it?”
“You can roast or fry it. But it’s best if you stew it,” I said.
“Like tinolang manok?”
“Yeah, just like that,” I answered.
“Wouldn’t the broth look like squid ink?”
She laughed and covered her mouth with her hands. I told her that I will be back the next day and try to bring her a steamed black chicken.
The priest with his immaculate robe billowing against the wind finally arrived. The children ran to him while a couple of women shook his hand and guided him to his reserved seat. A plate of pancit had been prepared for him. When he was about to sit, another woman grabbed his arm and gave him an embrace that made him gasp for air.
“Are you talking about me?” asked a man whose voice was hoarse, yet audible.
“Father, this is Mr. Jeric. We’re talking about the merienda, and how grateful we are that you initiated this event,” Clarisse said.
Fr. Perez used a forceful grip on his handshake and looked at me steadily. I think it was over a minute. He looked at my full head of hair parted sideways, my eyes shaped like almond, my nose – not flat but not high bridged either, the shape of my face that’s just right for my body frame, my tallness of five foot and ten inches, and my brown skin that made me look like a katipunero.
How about his eyes? He was not cross-eyed, but they were too small that a mere smirk would make them disappear. The hair, receding from the top, but cut about an inch long, was an indication that he had already accepted the fact that he was losing his hair. He was fair, like a mestizo friar from that old medieval city across town. Tall? About the height of ten small soft drink bottles stacked on top of each other.
“I heard that you’re a shop owner in the avenue. To be honest, I’m in favor of building those tracks. More people will visit downtown,” the priest said.
“But our community is not in favor of it. We’re already losing customers who prefer shopping in the new commercial centers outside the city.”
“Why don’t we wait it out? Let’s allow the construction to roll. Then we take it from there,” he said.
The priest tapped my shoulders and walked away. The crowd was building up and I somehow felt that I was drowning in it. The more people who arrived, all the more that I felt the need to leave.
Clarisse sat beside the priest when I left the church. She was all prepared to serve her master–ready to pour water in his glass, squeeze calamansi on his pancit, and slice a bibingka.
To be continued…