I wrote this story for the 2019 Palanca Awards in the Philippines. It came out quite bad. In my defense I didn’t have much time to write it before the deadline, because of exams. My original idea was a man walking out in the middle of Black Friday services from a church because he was bored. And then waiting outside he meets the suffering Christ and is struck by the beauty of him. The ending came out atrocious and the Christ-figure, the jeepney driver, was incoherent. My writing is still rusty.
What did it for him was the singing of the Gospel, the entire Passion of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ according to Luke, by no less than three priests to play out the parts. He clenched his fists and gritted his jaw and he could take no more. What peeved him wasn’t the fact that they would have to stand the whole time so much as the grandiose and therefore exasperating liturgical excessiveness of it all. He walked out. He didn’t care — that his wife looked at him with her jaw slack and her eyebrows crumpled in an expression of horrified and religious outrage as he brushed past her and the kids in the pew — that his own three children would probably be scandalized by such an irreverent gesture on the part of their father — that the pious old women giving him pharisaical side-glances as he walked down the church aisle could probably glean from his defiant movements his profane and protestant intents — that the priests, now chanting vindictive and mystic the last words of that God-messiah sentenced to crucifixion, contemplated in that departing, sulking figure an outright act of betrayal among their flock, perhaps just as the apostle Peter had walked out on his Lord on the very night of his death, a Friday just like this one.
He stood outside on the patio of the church under the shade of the portico. It was a quarter past three in the afternoon, the late April sun beat down fiercely. The usually traffic-clogged Manila streets were empty save for a few passing cars. As happens every year, Wednesday to Friday of this week had been declared a holiday. To facilitate the spiritual needs of the working class, supposedly — although in practice, most families had probably flown off to some beach resort in some southern region of the Philippines or, if they could afford it, some other country.
Lucky them, he thought. They were wiser.
He brought out a packet of cigarettes and put one in his mouth and lit it. From the corner of his eye he could see a beggar, hunched and ragged old woman, crawl out from the shadows and hold up a quivering hand to him. Without saying a word he waved his hand to shoo her and she retreated back to the shade cast by the church facade, like some excommunicated gargoyle lurking in the shadows there. He was in no mood for charity now.
As he smoked he thought about what his wife would say when they’d get home. “You should be ashamed of yourself!” she’d say, or some similar sanctimonious phrase pulled out of the Old Testament perhaps. “Woe to you, modern day Judas. Abandoning the Lord Jesus there crucified… and right in front of the kids.”
“What crucified?” he’d say. “It’s already over. It’s just a goddamn commemoration.”
She’d open her jaw wide, sucking in a scandalized mouthful of air. “Watch that language,” she’d say, her upturned, pontifical index finger quivering now in front of his face as it always did when she got angry and wanted to prove a point. “And how dare you say that. Jesus becomes present in every Mass. That’s basic Christian doctrine, Nico. What are you, a heathen?”
“God help me, it’s not even a holy day of obligation,” he’d say. “You should know that then, having read the Catechism. We didn’t have to go Mass on this day. And I’m sure there’s a reason for that, too.”
He imagined her at the point of exploding now, and then, suppressing herself almost heroically, superhumanly, asking the children in a calm, motherly voice to get out of the room, as she always did when “mama and papa are going to have a serious and adult discussion”. He hated when she did that.
He finished his cigarette. He threw the butt to the ground and stubbed it with his toe and kicked it to the sidewalk. He heard the singing from within the church cease and after a brief pause and the bustling sound of the congregation taking a seat he heard the soft and monotone voice of one of the priests — he reckoned it was the oldest one; you could hear the advanced age just from the voice — engaging in a solemn, grave, and thereby dreary homily. He lit himself another cigarette.
He didn’t see the man approach him. He turned his head to exhale the smoke and when he turned back to take another puff the man was simply there, standing in front of him.
“Excuse me, sir,” the man said. “Sorry, sir.”
His posture was meek, obsequious, his shoulders hunched, seeming to contract even more with each breath. He wore a shabby blue collared shirt dappled with gray smears of grease and over his shoulder hung a filthy white face towel. He was old and his face was very wrinkled and dotted with myriad miniature moles such that his skin looked like the surface of a badly mixed dark powdered beverage. He was shorter than Nico — you couldn’t tell for sure because of his posture — his head not going past the latter’s eyelevel, and when he’d look up at Nico it was as though he could not sustain eye contact for more than a few seconds; he’d always look down in between glances as though intimidated.
The first time he saw it Nico thought that the man just had something in his eye. But he did it again … and again: every ten seconds or so, the man would suddenly jerk his head to the left and raise his left shoulder violently and wink his left eye like some ocular hiccup. Nico found this subtly unsettling.
“I seem to have lost my lighter, see,” the man said. He brought up his hand and showed a crumpled and crooked, stale-looking cigarette grasped between his thumb and forefinger. “I was wondering if you could help me light my little ciggy.” He twitched his face to the left as he said this.
“Yes,” Nico said. “Yes of course.”
“Very nice of you, sir.”
Nico inserted his cigarette in his lips and started to fish around in his pockets for his lighter.
Then the man did something quite strange.
Before Nico could do anything the man walked up to him and stood on tiptoe. He brought his face to Nico’s until their faces were a little more than an inch apart, as if they were about to kiss. Nico could smell him: the stale smell of dried sweat and a curious combination of tobacco and cheap hermetic fishmeat. The man tightened his lips to hold out the cigarette straight and with unreal body control pressed the end of his cigarette to Nico’s, dangling from his own lips, such as the two cigarettes met end to end, the unlit against the lit. The man breathed in so that the glowing ember would pass on to his own cigarette.
Nico stood dumbstruck — it all happened too fast for him to entertain any feeling of displeasure or disgust. Beside Nico the man now leaned against the wall, the smoking cigarette dangling with a lugubrious ease from his mouth, his legs stretched out, his head and shoulder and eye twitching at intervals. It seemed to give you a small jolt of surprise, this twitching, each time it happened, despite the fact that you already knew it was going to.
“Thank you again, sir,” the man said.
“Don’t mention it.”
Neither of them talked for a while. Nico couldn’t help but notice from the corner of his eye that the man when he smoked left a wet dark saliva stain on the butt of the cigarette, such that after two or three draws the butt had started crumple up from the sogginess.
Nico hoped that the man would leave soon but he didn’t. Instead he said: “Manila isn’t so bad without all the traffic, eh?” and Nico knew that this would grow into a full-fledged and inescapable conversation.
“Yeah,” he replied.
“It would make my work much much easier if it were always like this.”
The man looked at Nico. Nico raised the cigarette to his mouth and drew in and exhaled.
“I’m a jeepney driver, see,” the man said.
“Ah,” said Nico.
“Yessir. I’ve been at it for almost thirty-three years now.”
“So jeepney drivers take holidays too.”
“Pardon my ignorance. It just never occurred to me that jeepney drivers took the Holy Week off, too. For holidays, I mean. Just like the rest of us … I didn’t mean to be insensitive. Pardon my ignorance.”
The man chuckled and waved his hand. “Well,” he said. “I’d avoid them if I could. But that’s the nature of our job, see. If everyone is on holiday then we too have to be on holiday.”
“Ah,” Nico said.
“Anyway, I’m gonna have to make up for it in the coming days. Drive some extra hours. It’s not easy raising a family. Especially for a humble man such as myself.”
Nico said nothing for a while but the man wouldn’t stop looking at him, eyes expectant. So Nico said: “No, it isn’t.”
“Got any kids?” the man said.
“Oh. I have eight myself.”
Nico coughed on the smoke. “Eight?” he said.
The man chuckled. “Eight.”
“And sometimes I think to myself that I’ve made three too many.”
Nico looked at the man in expectation of response to his agile and comic wit but the man laughed not. Instead he became serious, thoughtful, the grey-blue cigarette smoke clouding his wrinkled face mysteriously, his twitchy eyes glazed in a deep tobacco trance. And then he spoke.
“Well sir,” he said. “I’m not going to lie, sir. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking the same as you. You’d be surprised. There’s lots and lots of time to think, sir, for one who has to sit and drive an old jeepney in hours of Manila traffic.
“More than five years ago, my oldest son, he finished college. Not far from here. Yes, some rundown public college in the third and fourth floors of a single ramshackle building at the intersection of some ghettolike Manila alleyway. But a college, nevertheless. Business administration or something of that sort — ”
“Congratulations,” Nico said.
“Thank you, sir. We saved up for it good, my wife and I. Ever since we’d married we knew — she and I agreed — that we were in for a bitter, bitter life of monastic self-sacrifice. We were so convinced that once we got at least the first kid through college, that that would somehow relieve us from our poverty, our misery. From that curse that seemed to haunt both our families down generations and generations much like baldness or bad eyes. That at least if she and I wouldn’t live long enough to enjoy such relief, our children would never know the pain of having to sit long senseless backbreaking hours inside a derelict chassis of rattling metal without the comfort of so much as a fan or radio.
“And then one night he approached me. This was the day after his graduation. I’d just come home from work and everyone was asleep save he, sitting there outside on the front steps, grim brooding shadow against the dull fluorescent light of the house. He stood up and he held my arm, his grip firm and his face iron and solemn, and he told me. He said that he wanted — no, that God wanted him — to be a priest.”
“I … it was a surprise for me, sir. It was like the shattering of something within me — the innermost facet on which I’d built and founded the meager but entire meaning of my sad and sorry existence. As if the very blood and sweat spent in patient and determined agony day by day had somehow been spat back in my face in a cruel and retroactive clown joke.
“Yessir. It was a surprise for me. There was no forewarning, no precedent. He had been altar-server at the parish, sure — but like all the other young idle boys of our small neighborhood. I’d never been a man of religion myself. I went to Mass on Sundays as best as I could but not from any devotion let alone love for some abstract being but from the sheer force of duty and the underlying fear of karma, superstition. I would have been less surprised if he’d told me he liked men. That at least would have been no obstacle to the well-earned culmination of my wife’s and my lifelong sacrifice.
“And at that point I thought to myself … well sir. I thought to myself: God could not exist. Because if He did, then what kind of God waits for His poor writhing creature to live a life of woe and self-abnegation and, at the very moment when it is reduced to a hopeless puny worm, without so much as an apology or explanation, pluck for His own already redundant relish the single, feeble fruit of such suffering? Why. That sounds to me like no God but a Demon. Better to act as if no such God existed at all — uproot Him from all my consciousness like a putrid hurting tooth.”
“But your son,” said Nico. “Did you let him go?”
“Did I have a choice, sir? What could I — in my old age — have done, sir?”
“Well. None. Nothing.”
“Yessir. None. Nothing. Such that that night — the last night I would ever see him, as he spoke to me with eyes cold and iron and firm despite the warm humid tropical air, such eyes I’d never seen before despite the fact that they were my very own — that night he was not asking for permission nor even making a filial consultation. No, sir. It was a factual, declarative goodbye.”
“And yet,” Nico said. “And yet up to now you continue to work. Despite everything. Why … oh yes. Never mind. Because you have no choice. Because you could do nothing else.”
The man smiled and then twitched and then resumed his smile.
“You could say so, sir,” he said. “I’ve said to myself the same thing. But it seemed not to suffice.”
“After my son left for the seminary I … I thought that there was nothing left for me. I thought that one day I’d just not wake up. But no. To my surprise I continued waking up at the same time — stepping into that jeepney and, despite everything, reengaging with those same self-effacing hours in the Manila traffic under the Manila sun.
“People might say it is mere routine. The old unflagging memory forever etched in the unthinking muscle and flesh. Perhaps they are right. But tell me: is the force of routine strong enough to withhold the minute but unfailing accretion of time and toil, without meaning, without the will to live?”
“So you had lost the will to live,” Nico said.
“That’s what I thought, sir. And surely I did, too, at one point at least.”
“What made you regain it?”
“I don’t know. But it may have something to do with my other children, sir. I know: you might say I had failed them. Maybe I did. After the first one had left for the seminary and I look at myself and see that there isn’t much time nor strength left in me to salvage them from that familial curse of poverty — maybe I really did fail them for good.
“When the second one got married — a girl, sir, no chance of becoming a priest this time around; and she never was able to finish high school either — and gave birth to a baby girl in our very home … why, sir. There was something in those newborn infant’s eyes — my very own eyes, too, sir — and its smile almost as though it recognized me … I don’t know. It got me thinking.
“And then it occurred to me. That where God had picked the paltry first fruit He — in His forgetfulness or pickiness, perhaps, or maybe even providence? — He had left behind the flowers. Flowers which once ignored and in themselves having no particular use or purpose contain within a startling and strange beauty, a latent and inexplicable joy. Flowers which in themselves contain the promise of unknown fruits the identity of which perhaps only time will tell, the surprise inherent in the delight — Your cigarette is out, sir.”
Nico had indeed finished his cigarette in the middle of the conversation. The man put his own cigarette to his lips and put his hand in his pocket and pulled out a crumpled and shiny softpack. He took one fresh cigarette out and offered it to Nico.
“No, thank you,” said Nico, demurring with his hands.
“I am alright.”
“Please, sir. It’s the only way I can repay you for your kindness.”
“Well. Alright. Thank you.”
“Don’t mention it, sir.”
Nico put the cigarette to his lips and lit it and took a drag. He held back a sharp, dry cough in his throat. The cigarette tasted more like wood glue than tobacco.
“How do you find it, sir?” said the man. He twitched and you would have thought he’d played some practical joke were it not for the sincerity of his submissive eyes.
“It’s alright,” said Nico.
The man smiled. “I am glad you like it, sir. It’s not much. It’s all I can afford but you grow into it.” He took a drag from his own cigarette and exhaled with pleasure.
A small frisky girl not more than five years old came waddling up from the sidewalk and onto the church portico. When he saw her face Nico had to turn back and give a careful look at the face of the old man. She was his splitting image. Despite this fact, and despite the fine coat of grime that covered her features, she was pretty, her features mysteriously fine and attractive whereas on the twitchy old man they looked just the opposite.
“Maria,” said the man to her. “Aren’t you supposed to be taking a nap?”
“Grandpa,” she said. “Mama told me to tell you to please go home. She has to go out and buy food for tonight.”
“Ah,” the man said. He looked at Nico apologetically and then said, “Well, sir, it was a pleasure.”
“Likewise,” Nico said.
The man stubbed his cigarette and then bent down to pick up his granddaughter. He turned around to raise a hand to Nico in farewell and Nico watched as they walked away. The granddaughter had fallen asleep on the old man’s shoulder.
Nico threw the cigarette to the ground. He was about to kick it to the sidewalk gutter but he thought better and bent down to pick it up. He stood and stared at it blankly. From the church all seemed to be in silence save for the rolling of wheels. He carefully placed the unfinished cigarette in his back pocket.