• Somersaults (Part 4)

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    Continued from last week…

    The inner streets of the city had a life of its own and it was physically different compared to the avenue where our shop and other stores were located. As Clarisse and I walked and asked each other about morning rituals and our day-to-day activities, we had the back of the buildings as our backdrop, with those emergency exit ladders jutting out of the structures.

    On the sidewalk were garbage bins filled with black bags still uncollected by the metro cleaners. The new government claimed that even the pits of the district would be spic and span, even a fly would not dare plant its feet on a sanitized ground. But there were rodents bigger than Griswald, and even the stray cats had already ignored that the pests were just around them.

    Clarisse witnessed everything but she never said a word; she didn’t even ask me why we took a turn on the shorter but a decaying street. I was about to say that it didn’t look like this before but I when I looked at her, she seemed to have understood what I was about to say.

    Walking briskly and doing small talk in a city with cramped sidewalk proved difficult. But I should be contented. At least, this was a different morning.

    Past the narrow alley, we were pleased that we were walking again to the avenue extension. Here, the morning was sweet like those sugar cane juice sold in Chinatown nearby.

    One could feel the weather that was just right: not too hot, not too cold. There was fog on the steps leading to the chicken restaurant. Two old women were carrying a basket on their way to the market, a young man whose skin was as brown as horse manure clanged his bell and yelled, “hot bread in the morning!” while a young mother, still in her house duster, dragged her son to school, who opened his lunch box and inspected the juice in tetra pack and sandwich wrapped in a green transparent plastic.

    We ordered the fried chicken that arrived in a few minutes. It was nice to see spring chicken after so many years of selling black chicken.

    Clarisse eagerly dispatched every piece of chicken into her mouth. She admitted that she was very hungry. A decade of eating cheese and pan de sal for breakfast was just not right.

    “This is so embarrassing. I’m a good eater. There are so many things that you still don’t know about me,”
    Clarisse explained while she was halfway through the basket of fried chicken.

    “I think we have enough time for your stories,” I said.

    “I don’t think so. I’ve got to run after this meal,” she said.
    “Eat and run?” I commented.

    “So what do you do for a living aside from owning a grocery?” she asked.
    “It’s not really mine,” I replied.

    “What do you mean it’s not really yours? That’s conjugal property, right?” she asked.

    “My wife runs the place. I just help her,” I told her.

    “So what do you do aside from helping your wife?” Clarisse asked again.

    “I handle the marketing side,” I said.

    “More of a promotion for the store,” she added.

    “I also handle the inventory, logistics, and sometimes, the customer complaints. My wife handles the finances and store management,” I said.

    “You seem good at doing several tasks at the same time. You’re like an acrobat who can do various stunts. I can imagine your body rolling forward or backward, your knees bent and your feet going over your head,” Clarisse said.

    “I can perform acrobatic stunts to promote our store!” I said.

    “And it will be more fun if you’re holding a chicken while doing the stunt! May I ask why you do all sorts of things?” she asked.

    “I do it for Alice, for the store, and for the customers,” I muttered.

    “How about you? What do you do for yourself?” she asked.

    I look at the ceiling and cupped my mouth with the palm of my hand. I asked her more questions instead.
    The chicken basket was almost empty when Clarisse realized that we have already been in the restaurant for almost an hour. We left the store and she suggested that we take the street parallel to the avenue and walk all the way to University Avenue. She told me that most of the stray cats roaming the city retreated there because the sunlight receded behind the three-story accessorias thus making the sidewalks cooler and comfortable resting place for lost and homeless animals. I told her that we can walk on any street that she wanted.
    “The cat might be sleeping in one of those alleys,” Clarisse said.

    “Or Griswald’s innards have already been cooked for siopao,” I blurted out.

    “Don’t say that. We will find your cat,” she said.

    We also scouted another street but there was no trace of Griswald. There were dogs sniffing the garbage thrown just below the street sign at the corner but not a single cat in sight.

    We turned left to another street and asked the old woman tending the kitchenette if she had seen an overfed orange cat but she said that she had poor eyesight.

    On our way to a panciteria, I thought of making a poster, “Have you seen this cat?” with a photograph of Griswald going crazy over a purple yarn.

    Clarisse walked purposefully and with ease by strutting past the morning crowd. A young boy drinking soda told us that he saw an orange cat that was bloated from eating leftover food from restaurants on University Avenue.
    He pointed to an alley between a newspaper warehouse and a printing press.
    “Cat world,” exclaimed the small boy.

    “Are you sure, kid?” I asked.

    “Yes, Mister. He’s the biggest cat I’ve seen in that alley. His tail has an orange streak.”

    “I wish I had a boy as bright as him,” I said.

    We made our way to an alley shaded by two five-story buildings. The boy was right, it was a cat world. There were black and white cats, cats with gray and orange stripes, mother cats, and kittens. They were like rats squirming through the holes and trashcans.

    But I still can’t find Griswald. He rolled like a butterball so it was impossible to miss him in the swarm of felines.

    I walked behind Clarisse while she searched for Griswald. She had no idea what Griswald exactly looked like, but there she was, checking the stacks of boxes and old newspapers.

    “Have you seen him yet?” she asked.

    “No, not yet. We should check down the street,” I told her.

    The alley was always shaded by the back of the buildings and even the sunlight could not permeate through it.
    The roof trusses of the two structures that stood across each other met in the middle of the alley and covered this side street that was referred to by our neighbors as an alley for ants because only small things can pass through.

    We could hear the printing press machines being operated behind us and the smell of newspaper ink overpowered Clarisse’s smell of fresh baby powder that was like a sweet morning dew on a flower sprinkled with cold water. I walked behind her while opening the garbage bins along the way.

    When we heard a cat purring under the stacks of papers, Clarisse lurched forward to the end of the shaded alley. But after rummaging all the stacks of newspapers, Griswald was nowhere to be found.

    She walked past the elderly man with a walking stick and a woman looking at her grocery bag. I was already catching my breath as I followed her. She was taking Goliath steps while I was lagging a few steps behind her. I should have eaten Alice’s fried eggs this morning.

    As we approached the plaza, there was a group of people that surrounded the fountain, holding a placard and white towel tied around their head. One of them was the waiter who served my burger last night. When he turned around and saw me, he showed to me what was written on his placard: Halt the construction! Save the avenue!

    Clarisse stopped in a corner and scanned plaza already occupied by the protesters. When we walked a little more, we saw our neighbors in the crowd who were shouting “Stop the train!” all at the same time. The metro com in brown uniforms were already surrounding the group of about a hundred people composed of shop owners and employees tending the stores.
    “Are you joining?” Clarisse asked.

    For a moment, I thought about myself. Every day, for the past ten years or so, counting cans of sardines and other goods were the only things that I have ever accomplished. The daily routine had become my source of comfort. Two things came to my mind, Alice and saving the store. But where was I in the equation?

    Clarisse was left standing in one corner as I joined the crowd and started shouting “Stop the construction!” The rest of the community began to mill around the plaza. The bureau of public works across the fountain was closed. But we knew that there were people inside.

    When Clarisse was about to enter the church, the metro com started dispersing the crowd with a water hose.
    The people with placards were thrown by water pressure everywhere, and the rest of the protesters ran away and hid behind the arches of the buildings. I stood in the plaza and kept shouting that the giant was selfish and that his snake cannot pass through our avenue.

    Someone grabbed my collar from behind and dragged me to the middle of the plaza. While I was being taken away, I saw the sun perched atop the building with the three eagles watching me from their posts.

    I was punched several times on the face and my head slammed on the ground with every blow. The eagle in the middle was about to fly. Its claws were large enough to pick me up and take me uptown.

    I saw three or four of them, who kicked my gut and groin, lifted me up, and lagged me to the sidewalk. The skin of my arms and face scraped on the asphalt that was already warm from the midmorning sun.

    I felt that my skin was being rubbed away from my body, the abrasion of the second layer getting red, the blood gradually dripping out of it, and the friction of the packed dirt against my peeled skin was causing pain that made me think of anything like calmness and serenity, hospitals and nurses, hot soups and bed rest just to veer myself away from this dread.

    I was not able to see anymore and my head was constantly throbbing. I felt a shot of pain in my left eye. I can hear a woman’s voice begging the men to stop. Was it Alice or Clarrise? But the more that the woman pleaded them to lay off me, all the more that I got kicked and knocked until I spit blood.

    Finally, the hit me on the face, and I landed on the gutter and felt the impact of my fall on the pavement.

    The eagles on top of the building have left me. I tried to open my eyes to take a close look at the men but they were nowhere to be found. I searched for the woman’s voice but no one was around.

    When I tried to open my eyes, I saw Griswald approaching me. When all the men fled and left me lying on the plaza, Griswald moved closer to me and licked my face.

    “My blood isn’t milk,” I said in protest while I struggled away from the cat.

    But Griswald continued licking my face and it gradually lessened the pain. Clarisse had disappeared and the rest of the protesters have already left as well. My blood tasted sweet. Not bitter as I expected.

    I got up, picked up Griswald, and walked back to our store.

    The customers in our shop were spilling on the sidewalk. Nora was talking to one of our regulars while Alice was putting two trays of black chicken in the shop window. The “Sale! 50-percent off on all items!” banner in bold, red, and capitalized letters had been unveiled.

    Under the shadows of the train station construction, our black chicken took center stage, perhaps for the very
    last time.

    It was not yet high noon but the sun felt like midday on my wounds. I tried to wipe off the sweat on my face but
    I screamed in pain each time I dabbed the palm of my hand on my cheeks and forehead. Nora saw me and called Alice. But she was too busy counting the remaining chicken on the table.
    I walked up to her and handed Griswald.

    “Here’s your cat,” I said.

    “My God! Your face! What happened?” she asked.

    Left with no words to say, I let the blood drip on my face.

    Alice ran inside to get the first aid kit and I was left outside to sell chickens and explain to the customers that my bloodied face had nothing to do with the clearance sale. Clarisse said that I could be an acrobat who could do various stunts. As my body rolled forward and backward, with my knees bent and my feet over my head, I would shout, “Clearance Sale!” until I ran out of breath and the blood trickled on my forehead.

    Every shopper who passed by our store asked what happened to me and I told them to buy something first. Halfway through my narrative, the chickens were sold out, and Nora had to get a new batch of chicken from the freezer.

    Alice was taking so long. I might as well do something good for the community. “Free chicken for everyone! Get as many as you want!” I shouted. Everyone was getting hold of all the black chicken that they can get. In the swarm of the customer’s screaming and Alice’s nagging, I can see myself being carried away by the eagles from the pre-war building in the plaza.

    I opened my arms wide enough for me to be picked up by the eagles. I saw one of them slowly descending towards my direction. Upon reaching the ground, the bird opened its claws and clamped the back of my shirt to lift me up and take me to a new avenue where the python cannot conquer and would be killed by mere stones thrown by the people. It will be an avenue that is ours, and not under control by any power or state but ourselves.

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