Continued from last week…
Nora and Alice were putting up the banner “Sale! 50-percent off on all items!” in front of our store while the customers kept asking them questions about the upcoming sale.
“I looked everywhere. I’ll try again tomorrow morning,” I said.
“Are you serious? I need you here tomorrow. I’ll ask Nora to look for Griswald,” she said.
“Can I look for the cat myself?” I asked.
I should master the art of conversing with Alice. I should tell her, “No. I’ll look for Griswald tomorrow,” and that was it. Her interrogation should stop when I said no.
“Fine. Start looking for Griswald tomorrow, but you should come back early,” Alice said.
I started mimicking her as I entered the store. It had been a tedious day of looking for a cat that did nothing but eat tuna, walk the streets, and wiggle its tail all day with the hope that passersby will find his antic adorable.
Why are cats self-centred? I wished I can tell Griswald that it was not always about him. We were busy running a business and a pet was supposed to make things better. After a long day at the store, pets should entertain their masters.
I took off my shirt and went straight to bed. I felt the heat coming out of my body like steam. I smelled of cheese and butter bibingka that blends with the odor of the city that bathed whole day in the sun.
Time to rest, I told myself. I didn’t have to convince myself that I was tired, but I was still changing positions so I can sleep comfortably. I was thinking of taking a shower, but that will take up too much time. I tried closing my eyes again but still, I can’t sleep.
As I was about to doze off, Alice came in and said something that I couldn’t understand. I tried to read her lips through the haze and figure out if she was telling me to get up because it was still early for bed and we haven’t had dinner yet. Forget having dinner, forget about closing the shop. I was not hungry anymore and I was sure that the shop had already been closed for the day.
I felt that she slapped by face with a newspaper but I woke up to the smell of warm cheese and coconut shavings that was coming in from the window.
We had been smelling all sorts of things like a bunch of bananas, fish balls being deep fried in rancid oil, and even the soy noodles from the restaurant a few buildings away.
Alice told me to get up because some people from the city hall were downstairs and wanted to talk to us.
I grabbed my shirt and went down the stairs. The men from the city hall were in crisp white shirts and khakis and looking like tamed schoolboys. A letter was handed to us that was signed by the mayor. Alice read it first, her eyes squinting at the small texts. She frowned for the most part and didn’t finish it. She gave it to me and I read it quickly.
“As the president of the shop owners community, the mayor would like to seek your support and understanding on this project. It’s for the best and will benefit the public,” the officer said.
“But why the avenue? Of all places?” I asked.
The officer shrugged. Perhaps the question didn’t warrant an answer or he didn’t know how to respond to it.
“Why not put it underground? Just like in other countries?” Alice asked.
“Ma’am, our city is a swamp. If we start digging, it’ll flood and we’d all drown,” the other officer replied.
“How about rerouting where the train would pass?” Alice said.
“That’s not possible, Ma’am. Plans have already been made. And signed,” the man said.
“Can it be retracted?” I asked.
“No, sir. We’re very sorry,” the other man said.
“So there’s nothing you can do?” Alice asked.
The two officers bowed in defeat and left us standing and holding the letter.
I sighed and went outside the store. I squinted when the streetlight flickered outside the window. I looked at the signage of the theater with its green neon light peering through the darkness of our store only brightened by a number of light bulbs covered by cobwebs.
I thought of going to inner downtown, where the noodles houses and burger joints were still open until late evening. Bowls of broth were lined up on the table for the customers to see. I signaled Alice that I was going out, again, but this time, to let the air out because I was not longer able to sleep.
Across the street from our store were tailor and clothes shops tended by elders with tape measures around their necks. The swaths of fabric in the shades of ocean blue, blood red, and moss green were on display on the shop window. The store beside it had two mannequins. The man was in white trousers, vest, and blazer. A black tie completed the get up while the woman was in a blue polka dot dress accented by a large red ribbon on her neckline.
The neon signs were lit up and the theater lobbies began to smell of buttered popcorn and spilled soda on the marble floor. Couples were lining up on the ticket booth with signage that gave the moviegoers an option for orchestra, loge, and balcony. Volkswagens and jeeps were racing against each other on the avenue and the men hanging out outside the theaters were looking at the women still in their office uniform of short skirts.
I opted to have a sandwich in a diner past the two bookstores and shoe shops. When I arrived, I saw in the glass divider that the cooks were flipping burgers in the kitchen.
I sat in a bar stool and told the waiter that I wanted a cheeseburger and orange juice. The waiter was another elderly, with white hair half covered by his hat and face wrinkled through time that had probably witnessed how this avenue in its golden age, destroyed, flourished after the war, and about to go downhill again in the coming months.
I asked the waiter if he knew about the train construction. He said yes so I told him about the visit of the people from the city hall to our store.
His eyes had a hint of preparedness as I told him about the possibility of closing the avenue for the contractors what will be occupying the avenue to lay down their materials.
Each post that will be built will cover the frontage of every store and every theater, I said. By the time that the elevated railway will be finished, the entire area will be blighted, I told him, and that the shops might will start to lose its customers.
“Are you afraid?” he asked.
“Of what’s going to happen to our store? Yes, of course,” I replied.
“No, I mean if we hold a rally,” he said.
“How? Where? Well, yes, that I’ll be afraid of as well,” I told him.
He smiled and began wiping the counter. As I finished my juice and burger, I left my money on the table and waved him goodbye. When I stepped outside, there were parked jeeps on the street that caused gridlock all the way to the end of the plaza.
There was a sense of dread going back to the store, like the feeling of Sunday nights for an office worker and the first day of school for an incoming high school student.
Maybe it was because the impending rain that would flood the avenue knee deep or the uncertainty of what was going to happen in the coming months. I have anticipated the construction of the platform right in front of our store.
In the next few weeks, we will be covering our frontage with a huge plastic to prevent the dust from seeping into our grocery, and the heat of the mid-afternoon and the odor of steel and cement will be wafting through our bedroom. I was also prepared to accept the frustration of Alice over our failure to convince the mayor to stop the construction.
When I arrived at the shop, I saw the sign “Sorry, we’re closed.” It wasn’t even late evening yet so I took out my keys and opened the door. When I went upstairs, Alice threw a towel on my face.
“You stink of the afternoon sun. How about taking a shower first before going to bed?” she said while she was combing her hair in front of the mirror. The glare of the fluorescent light faintly illuminated her face. She seemed far away from me, like I can’t reach or touch her.
“I left the food on the table,” Alice said.
“I already ate at Sam’s. I’m tired,” I answered.
When I woke up the next day, I felt the sweet heat of the morning sun on my skin. I lacked sleep last night so I closed my eyes for a few minutes and looked out the window and gazed at the flock of pigeons flapping their wings and landing on the signage of the theater.
I wanted to put birdseeds on the smooth surface of our windowpane, but Alice didn’t want to see bird droppings on the glass window. While I offered to clean the windows every day using old newspapers, she said that selling chicken was more important than feeding pigeons.
I knew Alice was cooking fried eggs again. I heard the clink of the jar as she scooped out fetid lard and dropped it on the skillet, and the aroma of the heated oil and egg reached our bedroom.
I swear to God, if I ate another fried egg for breakfast, I will grow a beak and black feathers. She served pancakes with butter and maple syrup and crisped bacon only if she was in a good mood. But if she was cranky and foul, she reverted to cooking fried eggs.
“Breakfast!” she screamed from the kitchen.
“I’ll just take a shower!” I shouted back.
I didn’t hear more from her. She was probably downstairs, cleaning up and preparing for the store opening.
I couldn’t help but feel giddy for leaving the store that day while I shampooed my hair and played with the soapsuds. I splattered water all over the bathroom and Alice’s bathrobe and the stacks of tissue papers were already dripping wet so I grabbed the bath towel hanging behind the door and prepared to get dressed.
“Aren’t you joining me for breakfast?” Alice asked.
“Coffee’s fine,” I answered.
“Are you sick and tired of my fried eggs?”
“Not just the eggs,” I half whispered.
“I can cook bacon and pancakes if you want.”
I told her that I needed to check the inventory before I left the house to look for Griswald.
I was almost middle age so product control in our store was like brushing my teeth or parking the car on a side street. My main task made me yawn by midday but eventually, I would catch myself going ballistic over a missing can of meat loaf.
“It’s good that you’re constantly checking the inventory,” Alice said while she handed me a cup of coffee.
“I’ve been doing this every day. We have to make sure that all the items are in good condition,” I said.
“Take a closer look at the can of corned beef,” Alice said.
“What about the corned beef?” I asked.
“The label,” Alice answered. “I can draw a better-looking cow.”
“It’s easy to draw a cow,” I replied.
“You can’t even draw a spoon and fork,” she said.
“Well, what about the cow? What kind of cow do you plan to draw?”
“I will draw a strong cow. I want its mouth open and its body muscled and well contoured. That cow looks weak and somber,” Alice said.
“He’s sad,” I said.
“You think so?”
“He’s sick and tired of being a cow. That label reminds me of those pre-war photos of Filipinas that appears on the tobacco labels. They’re all beautiful but behind the make-up and the piña dress, they have no idea that their picture will be used for tobacco labels and sold everywhere.”
“So are you saying that they’re idiots?” Alice asked.
“They’re misled, not idiots. They probably think that it’s for an art exhibit. A picture perfect photograph is an image of a fine life that they long for. They just want to be happy.”
“Why the sudden interest in women?” she asked.
“I’m analyzing, not taking interest,” I replied.
I left the store and assured Alice that I’ll be back before lunchtime with or without Griswald. She nodded and kept staring at the corned beef label. I wondered if she was serious when she said that she was planning to call the manufacturer and send them a sketch of her healthy and happy-looking cow.
The street sweepers wearing yellow shirt and matching red pants and bandana cleaned the asphalted street. I strode towards the church while the morning fog sheathed the city and the mist coming from the hose damped on my face.
Since the parish was just a few meters away, I might as well pay Clarisse a visit and thank her again for a hearty meal and a good conversation yesterday.
The church door was open and I can see Clarisse sweeping the marble floor. I approached her while I parted my hair on the sides. It felt like approaching a college girl sitting on a cement bench under the shades of the mango tree during break time.
“The churchgoers will slip if you keep on scrubbing,” I told her.
She looked at me and wiped the trail of sweat on her face with her bare hands. She smiled. She looked away.
She looked at me again and smiled with her lips closed.
“So have you found Griswald?” she asked.
“Not yet,” I answered. “Perhaps you could help me.”
“I’d like to help you, but I’m very busy today.”
“That can wait,” I said. “May I invite you to breakfast?”
“I already ate,” she said. “Cheese and pan de sal.”
“How about a proper meal at Ramon Lee’s?”
“Chicken for breakfast?”
“A heavy meal. Just for today.”
Clarisse left the broom and dustpan in one corner and told me that she had to be back in an hour. Not a problem. The cook can prepare fried chicken, rice, and atsara in five minutes. I can eat fast, but I wasn’t sure if we have enough time to talk.
“What about your wife’s cat?” she asked.
“Let’s forget about the cat for now. Come on, let’s eat,” I told her.
I turned back and saw Fr. Perez peering at us through the capiz shell window of the convent. I didn’t know if I should tell Clarisse that the parish priest was looking at us.
I stretched my arm over her shoulders and looked at the priest, who was still staring at Clarisse. I tried to make eye contact, but his eyes were focused on Clarisse’s nape.
To be continued…