by Sophia Alicia Bonoan
He saluted the car as it drove past him into the village, fiddling with the driver’s license in his hand and clipping a number onto it before dropping it into the box with the others.
Pushing the metal gate back into place, he settled into the plastic chair perched next to it, stifling a yawn and covering his nose with a handkerchief as a jeepney passing by belched black smoke that drifted toward him. He watched the cars move idly along EDSA, frustrated honks permeating the warm, late afternoon air. He remembered how, as a young boy, people getting angry and frustrated on the Lord’s day bothered him. He was taught it was a day of rest, and he couldn’t quite wrap his head around the thought that people didn’t care much about His rule. But as he grew older and began working 6 days a week in Manila, including on Sundays like this one, he learned that one couldn’t afford to lose time, even for God.
He shifted his thoughts and turned his head towards the village behind him. The birds that lived among the branches of the massive trees on either side of the road chirped in the relative silence. A buddy of his once told him that trees could block out noise pollution, their branches and leaves acting like barricades. Neither of them knew how this worked, but he believed it whenever he patrolled the streets on his bike, the quiet close to that of the seaside province he grew up in. He thought of how, if he walked just a little further away from the gate, the sounds of the metro would practically vanish. This was how some city people lived.
He looked down at the watch on his wrist, remembering the time. He grabbed a small, worn bible and the plastic chair from the desk in the guardhouse, placing the latter beneath a narra tree nearest his station. As he was about to settle down, the lengthy blare of a car horn and the crunching of steel beyond the gate grabbed his attention. Peering through the metal bars, he saw that a van had bumped into a smaller car that appeared to have been turning toward the village. Both drivers got out of their vehicles immediately. The driver of the smaller car, wearing a barong tagalog and rubbing his temples, slammed his door and began screaming expletives as he observed the damage that had been done. The other driver, wearing a worn shirt and basketball shorts, began yelling too. The traffic began to pile up behind them.
Church bells tolled somewhere beyond the houses, and he let out an exasperated breath. He placed the bible onto the seat of the chair before walking out onto the highway, preparing to mediate. He hoped the Lord would see this as a good deed.
Her hands fiddled with the fabric of her skirt, bunching the cloth up in her fist and letting it go. She didn’t realize how rapidly she had been shaking her leg until her boyfriend moved a hand from the steering wheel and placed it on her knee, his eyes still focused on the road in front of them. She laced her fingers with his and looked out the passenger-side window. Beneath the gray sky, shanties made of mismatched wood and discarded tin squeezed together beside the road, their inhabitants standing in doorways or leaning out of windows. People spilled over the uneven and narrow sidewalk, making their way to wherever. She watched a little girl in a dirty uniform and slippers skip past the pedestrians, the fraying pink bag on her back too big for her. The makeshift houses and the people seemed to go on forever. Leaning against the headrest and feeling her eyelids get heavy, she closed her eyes.
The muffled sound of several cars honking in unison roused her. In front of them was a small accident, as usual. Her boyfriend maneuvered around it, turning past the scene of two angry strangers with a guard standing between them. She thought it looked like a referee keeping two fuming soccer players apart; she was amused by the image.
The guard saw their car and hesitated for a moment before backing away and running toward the subdivision’s gate to open it for them. He gave a quick salute as they drove in, and she turned around to see him running back to the accident. As they moved further and further away from the gate, she didn’t notice much change in the temperaments of either driver.
She sat straight in her seat, looking now at the marvel in front of her. The houses here were massive, with their open garages housing shiny sports cars and manicured lawns leading to large front doors.They passed by one she particularly liked, a house more simple and classic compared to the other modern structures. It was still a large house, but it had vines trailing over its walls and balconies, the pink flowers in bloom. A bench swing on the porch swayed with the wind. She could imagine the two of them growing old and raising a family in a house just like that. Only a quick left turn later, the car slowed to a stop by a pristinely white home with no front gate to protect it. The first thing she saw was a giant window that showed the empty dining room, a large abstract painting hanging on the wall above a massive wooden table covered with porcelain ornaments. It looked like a mall display for a furniture store that sold things she couldn’t afford. Her heart began to pound when her boyfriend turned to her and asked if she was ready to go in. Thunder rumbled, and rain began to patter on the windshield.
The little girl mumbled a curse as her foot sank into the mud. She tried to wiggle it out, only to find that she had submerged herself even deeper. The rain was getting stronger, and she blinked away the water in her eyes. The backpack on her shoulders was getting heavier as water seeped into its cloth. She felt her slipper slide off her foot and disappear into the earth.
Finally, she managed to pull herself out of the mud. She was missing a slipper, and her uniform was soaked through and caked in dirt. The weight on her shoulders disappeared; she turned around to find her textbooks and pencils splayed out on the ground, slowly sinking into the earth to join her slipper. The crowd of people that she had been slivering past moments ago were now looping around her and her fallen things, one of them stepping on her math book and digging it further into the ground as he ran to find shelter from the downpour. She looked up, her eyes meeting with those of a woman dressed in a blazer and pencil skirt, dry beneath her umbrella. The girl wanted to ask for help, but the woman drew her eyes to her feet and walked briskly by before she could even open her mouth. She bent down and grabbed everything she could carry in her arms. A Good Job! stamp on a page of her homework bled ink down the paper. She let go of a whimper as she watched the proof needed to show her mother that she was doing well dissolve under the rain.
Finding shelter on the covered steps of a bank, she saw herself in its glass walls. She looked like a ghost, her uniform soaked through and wet hair plastered to the sides of her face. Her reflection stood among people sitting in rows of chairs inside. A man leaned forward in his seat, his head merging with hers. At the corner of her eye, she could see the guard standing by the doors, standing straight with a large gun across his chest but his eyes fluttering open and closed. She fixed her hair and straightened out her uniform before sitting on the steps to organize her things. The rain continued to pour heavily, pattering on the ground and on umbrellas. As she flattened out the pages of her notebook, she wondered if her mother was already looking for her.
He rubbed his hands together and cupped them over his mouth, blowing into them. The air conditioning was pointed directly at his seat in the line. His upper half was only slightly damp from the rain, his legs and feet having gotten the worst of it. Every time the line moved, everyone migrating from one seat to the next, he flinched with every squelching step, the sound echoing throughout the large, mostly silent room. He could feel a slight throbbing at the back of his head, which he attributed to the drastic change in temperature. He could feel himself shivering, and he wished he hadn’t left his jacket in the backseat of his car. He cursed the unpredictable weather and early evening traffic. His only errand for the day was to deposit a check for his father, and this took up half of his afternoon, driving from his home across the business district to this particular branch in hopes of finding a shorter line. The line was shorter as he had hoped, but it wasn’t, by any means, short. The rows of chairs only accommodated a fair few, while the rest stood in a messier line in the back waiting for a seat. He scooted over to the next chair as the line moved forward again.
A clap of thunder echoed outside, rattling the glass panels. The day had been mostly sunny and humid, allowing him to believe that he didn’t need to bring an umbrella along with him. He pressed his feet into the floor, feeling water come up from the insoles of his shoes like a wrung sponge. He had faith that the rain would cease or simmer down to a drizzle by the time he cashed the check in, as he didn’t want to run to the outdoor parking lot and step into puddles that were much deeper than they appeared on the uneven pavement. The line moved three seats forward, and he was finally in the front row. Sunlight entering the room began to blind him, and he squinted to look outside. Behind the tall glass building and shining convenience store across the street, the sun was setting. The mostly monochrome interior of the bank was cast in a fiery orange and shadows. He could almost feel the sun’s warmth. The guard standing outside pushed the door open, and he did feel a second of warmth before it shut. The guard rolled down the curtains over the panels, hiding the sunlight and allowing fluorescent lights to take over the room again.
The items moved lazily across the counter, the beeps of the scanner echoing across the room. She rolled her shoulders back and straightened herself, catching a glimpse of the wall clock across the room as the customer handed her his payment. 10:46 pm. It had only been four hours since she started. She opened the cash register and took out his change, mumbling its amount knowing that he wasn’t listening to a word. She smelled the alcohol on him the moment he passed by the register. He walked along each aisle slowly, swaying slightly as he did, eyes concentrated yet glossed over at the same time. This was her regular customer: inebriated and squinty-eyed, the odor of smoke lingering in their wake.
The boy took the change and plastic bag from her hands. “Thank you,” they said simultaneously. He pushed the heavy glass door open, the sound of cars along the avenue outside filling the room for a brief moment. The door shut behind him, the chime above it clanking against its glass. It was quiet, the whirring of the air-conditioning now the only sound, again. Her eyes scanned the store, which was nearly deserted save for a regular from the call center down the street standing in front of the chilled beverages. A gray color trailing across the tiled floor caught her attention. Leaning over the counter, she saw several footprints. The chime over the door notified her of another customer. The man haphazardly dragged his feet across the mat at the entrance before walking in, dirty prints following him. She walked to the back of the store and grabbed a mop and a Caution! Wet floor sign. Going out, she saw that there were suddenly a few more people shuffling along the aisles. She dumped the mop on the floor and heaved it from side to side, revealing a pristine floor once again. Then, as if they knew, most of the customers began to flock to the counter lining up behind each other, stepping on her work. She leaned the mop on the counter and ran to the cash register to attend to them all.
Once the store was empty again, she went back to cleaning the floor, doubting that it would remain spotless for even at least a few minutes. When she was done, she squatted down onto a crate of beer that she placed behind the register, rubbing her eyes. When she opened them, she saw a picture of her grinning daughter taped against the cabinet door.
He sat on the dimly lit sidewalk, gulping down the last of the canned coffee in his hand. His eyes travelled down the pavement dotted with his co-workers, in groups or alone like himself, all of them taking drags from cigarettes and huddling beneath the yellow beams of street lamps that lined the empty road. He felt the itch again as he watched them all, one of them lighting a fresh one between her lips right beside him. She was the girl at the corner of his floor with the blue hair and bubbly voice who had talked to him once during their office Christmas party months ago. She was tipsy then and laughed at all his jokes. They went down for a smoke and talked for a long time; but he couldn’t recall anything either of them had said, remembering only the packet of cigarettes they had finished between the two of them in the span of the conversation. They hadn’t talked since, only smiling politely when they passed each other in the hallway. He thought about joining her, bumming a cigarette and a light off of her and asking if she wanted to catch up over breakfast some time.
He cracked his neck and stood up, leaving the empty can in the gutter, and walked past her back into the building. In the elevator, he stared at his reflection in the metal doors. The tattoos that covered his arms were concealed by his jacket sleeves, only the ones on his hands and wrists peeking through. The elevator stopped at a lower floor and one of the guys that sat near his desk entered. They high-fived and talked about having drinks in the new bar a few streets away when the week ended. This was the only conversation they ever had with each other in the office, aside from who they were hitting on or who hooked up with who after the last office drinking session. The doors opened and they parted ways when they reached their respective stations. He sat down and put his headset on, praying for the sun to rise soon.
He didn’t notice the escalation of his voice until his wife put a hand on his arm and gave him a stern look, like a warning. He cupped his hand over his mouth and the phone, his voice softer but exasperated still. Despite his protests, the voice on the other end had put him on hold again, the pop song he had been subjected to resounding in his ear once more. He and his wife sat upright in their bed, the static displayed on the screen of the television flooding the whole room with a shadow that never stopped moving. He loosened his grip on the phone, letting it drop onto the mattress with a soft thud, the song faint but still audible. His wife sighed and grabbed her cellphone from her bedside table while he bore his eyes into the TV static, watching figures form in the grains.
They had been watching their favorite show when one of them sat on the remote and caused the static. They couldn’t bring it back to the channel they had been watching, and they both grew irritated as time went by and they couldn’t figure it out. Neither one of them admitted to sitting on the remote, and he continued to ask her if she did even if he knew he was the culprit.
His wife muttered under her breathe that they had probably already missed the whole show and stepped out of the room. He decided to switch the TV off, thinking that maybe getting rid of the static in front of their eyes would diminish her annoyance. She came back in with a glass of wine in hand, talking over her shoulder to tell the maid that she was done for the day and could go home, before shutting the door behind her. He didn’t realize he was mouthing the words to the song on the phone until it was cut off by the sound of a female voice. He reached for it and brought it back to his ear, asking, for the nth time, how to bring the channels back to the television. The voice on the other end sounded nervous, like it was her first day on the job. He didn’t doubt that it was. He stood up and stretched, deciding to take the phone call onto the balcony that overlooked the shining Mandaluyong skyline. At least it was something to look at, he considered.
She walked briskly down the dark alleyway, covering her nose as she passed by the heaping pile of garbage that leaned against the side of the apartment building’s wall and that seemed to only grow bigger as she passed it every night. The same child as every other day in a t-shirt much too big for him walked up to her with his hand outstretched, asking for change. Not stopping, she pulled out a sandwich in a ziplock bag from her purse and handed it to him, watching him rip it open and devour its contents. She kept the same pace, only barely slowing down when she reached Shaw Boulevard.
The road was engulfed in traffic, people piling along its edges. It was apparent to her that the pedestrians constantly crept their way further and further into the highway, creating a bottleneck and forcing cars to cram together to pass through. Making it worse were the jeepneys they stood there waiting for. She stepped down from the sidewalk, walking into the crowd, spotting a jeep in the distance with the colored roof signaling her way home. She navigated her way through the crowd, walking past a man in a ratty basketball jersey asking her to have sex with him. She kept her head down and held her purse closer to her chest. At the front of the horde, where the cars were only inches away, she grabbed the handrail of the jeep she had spotted before it could even come to a full stop. She scurried in, crouching past faceless people. Stepping on someone’s foot, she apologized quickly to his hands. She nestled herself between a man with his head bobbing up and down in a vain attempt to stay awake and an older woman with a bag of vegetables in her lap. She counted the coins in her palm before passing it to the driver. Grabbing the metal bar above her head, she let herself close her eyes and rest, the horn of a truck ringing in her ears.
She carried her wailing baby brother out of his crib and into her arms, moving up and down gently to calm him. Her father was still at work and her mother was too deep in sleep to wake up, so she went into the nursery to pacify the crying toddler by herself, not for the first time. She had done it a few times before and decided that she was quite good at it, getting the baby to stop wailing only moments after she picked him up. It was easy to tell whether he had soiled himself or was just hungry; the former would immediately give itself away when she entered the room. That night, he was just hungry. She put him down on the floor and moved to the corner of the nursery where her mother had arranged a baby-feeding area; there was a small refrigerator that contained water and some of his food, while atop it sat a can of baby formula and a few clean bottles. She began the process of making the milk, having watched her mother do it several times. She felt grown up doing it.
When she was done, she picked up her brother, who had already stopped crying, distracted by a toy alarm clock that was once hers when she was his age. She picked him up and sat down on a rocking chair by the window, placing him on her lap. She nestled him in her arms and fed him the bottle, which he happily received, holding it with his small and chubby hands. Yawning, she stared out the barred window, a common feature among the houses in her village. Their house was on the village’s edge, the second floor they were on looking out over a section of the wall that enclosed the neighborhood. Just outside was a road filled with restaurants, some with their lights still on and with a few people inside, but most of them shuttered and dark. On Sundays after mass, her parents would take them to that street to eat at any one of the restaurants they felt like eating at. Earlier in the day, they had burgers and milkshakes as wide and tall as her head. Her stomach grumbled as she thought about it. She leaned her head against the glass and looked at the streets beyond. It was full of dilapidated houses, their lights dim in comparison to the road in front of her. She saw a large cloud of smoke and saw that it was rising from a fire in a field full of garbage, two men standing next to it and throwing things in.
She watched as several people walked along the restaurant road, most of them in uniforms. She spotted two women wearing Chinese dresses, slippers on their feet and holding high heels in their hands. One of them unraveled her long hair from a tight bun atop her head, while the other hailed a tricycle. A large group of men in ratty, paint-splattered clothes passed by them, a few of them turning their heads and puckering their lips. Several others who seemed to be alone walked in the same direction, backpacks placed in front of them making them look like they had large bellies, or arms gripping tightly onto shoulder bags. Her brother burped and threw the empty milk bottle to the floor. She picked it up and stood from the rocking chair, her eyes still looking outside. She wondered where and who they all went home to.
Sophia Alicia Bonoan is her third year at the Ateneo de Manila University, where is working on a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing. She currently serves as the English Editor of HEIGHTS Ateneo, the university’s official literary and artistic publication, and she was a fellow in the 23rd Ateneo Heights Writers’ Workshop earlier this year.