On a Friday afternoon, Lazaro Corpuz, 38, businessman and head of a corporation that engaged in heavy machinery, emerged from the coolness of his office on the sixth floor of a building in downtown Manila; while the elevator carried his body to the ground floor, or while the building was going up against the stability of the elevator, his mind was flying somewhere else. Ernie was saying as he dropped ice cubes into his glass of scotch that it was better for Garmel, Limited – plunk to chuck their deal with them if they would not honor their contract of two years ago, and – plunk! – anyway that lousy president of theirs was no better at golf than a crippled midget.
Lazaro had smiled to himself then, thinking of Ernie’s peculiar manner of stringing illogical facts together whenever he wanted, out of envy or sheer malice, to downgrade someone. In this case, the president of Garmel, Limited, who was a friend of theirs both, having failed to deliver contracted items, became the object of his displeasure. The morning, however, ended well for him and Ernie and the absent president because Ernie took his suggestion of freezing the matter for at least two days until they had heard from the erring company. Lazaro brushed away a bit of white string from the lapel of his dark coat tailored from Italian wool – how the devil it had got there he did not know, his office being air-conditioned and kept clean by a man he had hired to do nothing but vacuum its carpeted floor and dust the bookshelves and the mahogany table – thus he brushed the string away with a little annoyance creasing his forehead. In his expensive suit he felt big and important.
Though his friends had ribbed for his western habit, he did not feel compelled to wear the barong tagalog that Ernie and the rest of his staff favored. What they did not realize was that it was not a habit for him – it was his way of wrapping himself with the prestige that his office, he insisted, called upon him to uphold. Inside his air-conditioned [sic] room he enjoyed the aura of superiority his suit gave him, but when walking outside the building, and this he had to admit to himself, he sweated a lot. His physiognomy was such that he sweated a lot, even in the mild season before summer. But then, so what? That was a small sacrifice he had to face, that was a reality he had to face because he, Lazaro Corpuz, had been chosen, out of so many men in the business world, to head a big corporation. He could not let the image of this corporation tarnish because he sweated a lot. Satisfied by this justification, he looked up at the numerals blinking at the top of the elevator door. Damn, they should make elevators go faster.
Suppose I have an appointment to fulfill (and he was glad that at the moment he did not have any), the way this box is running I’d surely be late for it. He gazed at his patent leather black shoes shining against the polished wall of the elevator and again a feeling of satisfaction filled him. Just last night at a cocktail party, a man, he had forgotten whom – and so he was sure it was nobody important – remarked that he knew how to carry his clothes, and though it had elated him no end, he did not allow his elation to show, he merely nodded at the man as though what he had said was an incontrovertible fact, and therefore needed no commentary.
Well, he thought, stroking his gray silk tie – cravat, he always referred to it, for he found a secret joy in referring to it thus – he could give any man a run for his money when it came to good grooming. Not only was he handsome – that was another fact – but he could also afford to indulge his delicate taste. There was nothing theologically erroneous about it. He flicked a strand of hair off the cuff of his shirt with a snap of his thumb and forefinger. He worked hard for his money, and it was not his fault that he was a bachelor – and would probably be to the end – and not saddled with a wife and kids.
No one could grudge him his pursuit of the finer things in life. It was as though an emblem of some mysterious heraldric origin had appeared before him, golden with some strange inscriptions that said follow me, and he had followed and was still following. Along the way he had to shed off the naivete, the crudeness in words and mannerisms, to be worthy of this singular calling. It was a devotion whose outward manifestation took the forms of expensive clothes, the proper residence, the correct circle of acquaintances, the right women. And all his waking hours he had stepped to the silent music which accompanied that emblem, ardor and uprightness his cul-de-sac, ready to joust with any intruder that would deign to break his vigilance. There was a slow, soft sound, and when he raised his eyes from his shoes, he saw the elevator door opening.
“Sir!”There was a voice somewhere near his elbow as he walked along the corridor. He turned around and saw Romero holding several sheets of white paper.
“Oy, Romero,” Lazaro said with a slight irritation in his voice.“What is it?”He could not imagine what the office messenger wanted with him.
“I’m sorry to bother you, Sir, but these invoice slips I have –“
“Go see Reyes. He’s in charge of those things.”
His irritation was growing.
“I have seen Mr. Reyes already, Sir – he told me these needed your signature.”Invisibly, Romero was shaking in his shoes. Obviously, he did not want to get in Lazaro’s way, but he did not want to displease Reyes either, Reyes being his immediate superior. He realized, however, that Lazaro was the final being whose decisions and orders made the corporation move, and survive.The wretched man, thus noticing Lazaro’s irritation, had the mind to flee before Lazaro could say another word, and before he aggravated the situation, when Lazaro snatched the sheets from his hand and, after glancing at them, said, “Tell Reyes to see em first thing tomorrow,” and with a wave of his hand dismissed the messenger. By God, he said to himself as he resumed walking, what sense has this Reyes got? He should know better than to send a messenger after me. The time I have, my schedule. Again he rejoiced with the knowledge that he had no appointment to meet, at least for that afternoon.
The automatic door hissed ecstatically as he stepped out of the building. Momentarily he shut his eyes against the glaring sun that struck him like a giant machete, then he glanced at his gold wristwatch. Four o’clock.Time enough for a drink.God, how he needed one in this hot sticky place. He was beginning to sweat inside his coat, but with the perseverance of a martyr buttoned it up, saw to it that his tie was straight, and slowly crossed the street a man was mugged, by mistake, by a group of thugs trailing a businessman who had just withdrawn a great amount from a bank; the peso’s devaluation, beautifully illustrated by a graph, showed its purchasing power declining in a world market; a man was hacked to death while sleeping by his wife who had discovered his affair with her sister.
From this last item – literally accompanied by photographs of the bleeding man in bed and of his contrite wife crying in the police station – Lazaro averted his eyes. He had never had the stomach for such bloody things, that was why he never bought those papers if he could help it, for they seemed to feature nothing but bloodshed; nevertheless, he had not totally outgrown his habit of browsing over their front pages spread out by the windows of the newsstands. Four-fifteen. He refused the offer of a sweepstakes ticket by a thin, almost cadaverous woman who hung by his side for a few hopeful seconds, then, seeing no encouraging signs on his face, turned around to try her luck with another passerby. He must tell Reyes not to bother him with those little matters of invoice slips. Anyway, that was what he was paid for. He could always see the accountant in case of some difficulties. But God, to send a messenger to him, and just when he was about to go home – He dropped a twenty-five-centavo coin in the metal box of a beggar who, by all appearance, was no less healthy than he was, and the clink of the coin was like the sound of heavenly approval of his generosity. As it were, all that was lacking was the blare of clarions or a dance of pyrotechnics to announce his brotherly concern for his fellowmen. As far as he could remember, he had always patronized that beggar. Probably because the beggar stood in front of the hotel where Lazaro usually took his afternoon drink, and the beggar always acknowledges this patronage with a slight inclination of his head which to Lazaro meant, “Much obliged.”
At four-twenty, Lazaro touched his tie involuntarily. He returned the doorman’s smile and strode across the hotel lobby, two Americans in their middle fifties, obviously tourists, were signing the hotel book. Their luggage stood beside the registry table. Turning left, Lazaro caught a glimpse of his image in the giant mirror standing near a door marked “Cocktail Lounge.”He passed his hand over his hair, pushed the door, stood awhile by the doorway to familiarize himself with the dimly lit room, and moved across the carpet to the bar on his right.“Scotch on the rocks,” he said to the barman and took one of the stools lining the counter. It was here, secure and comfortable in this cozy room that caressed him like a womb, where he could sink into the luxury of fanciful cogitation, removed from the pressure of office work.
Papers. Papers. Papers. He had examined and signed mountains of them. Well, he could not deny that he relished his work, but a man needed respite now and then. The ice cubes tinkled in the glass as the barman handed him his drink. He took a sip and the coolness and the heat of the liquid snaked down his throat, leaving him with a sensation of seductive warmth. How would he tell Emma that everything was over between them? A charming girl, but a bit on the aggressive side. They had dinner together yesterday – one of those private expensive restaurants – and he had noticed the signs. She frequently spoke of “our friends,” “our summer vacation,” “our life”. Our. He did not like being spoken of in such possessive terms, no, even though the speaker was one whose company and beauty he had greatly enjoyed. He took another sip. No. The barman was shaking a concoction in a chilled glass, his face serious and impassive. No. He must tell her he hated to belong, to be possessed; he had plans which did not include – and this was what he read in Emma’s recent actions – marriage. He could write to her.
Dear Emma – I have told you how much I enjoy your company. I always look forward to meeting you for you – and he smiled to himself at this – are on the oasis that redeems me from the ennui of my uneventful days. He could imagine her sitting on the iron swing in her garden, a tall glass of iced lemonade on the table by her feet, reading his letter that would be sent by private courier. He knew that garden, he had been there several times before: there was a small fishpond by the brick wall covered by overhanging morning glories. She had told him the yellow and blue angelfish had come directly from [sic] Hong Kong, and indeed he has been captivated by the tiny fish that seemed merely to float, so light and delicate they were in water.
A pair of sculpted swans stood near the pond, to its left, while to its right was an invitation, almost life-size, of the Venus of Milo. Yes, he could imagine her now going over the unseen letter, I’ve noted your – he did not know how to put it without sounding offensive – predilection for speaking of our affairs seriously. I made it perfectly clear from the start that our friendship would be just that – friendship, and I believe you understood that. She would crease her brows at this point, but what could he do? So, much as I hate it, I have to say goodbye. I know this would pain you, but, believe me, it would pain me more.
I must confess it would take me some time to get over the memories of the sweet time we spent together, your smile, your peculiar gestures, your love, yet I have a life to lead, and must not object to such a sacrifice. He signaled the barman for a fresh drink and crossed his legs. Well, that was that.No used stretching the point. She would understand. He could even send her a bunch of red roses, her favorite, with the letter, to indicate that he was a gentleman [sic] through and through. Not a bad idea. Satisfied, he sipped his second drink with concentration. A voice at his side said, “May I join you?”He turned and recognized Pete.
“Sure,” he said.
Pete dropped his heavy bulk on the nearby stool.
“I say, nothing better to smoothen a day that a cool drink, eh?” [sic] he said.
“How’s business?”Lazaro said. Pete occupied a room in Lazaro’s building where his name, with its proper title, in bold letters printed on the door, proclaimed his existence: Pedro Salgado, Attorney-at-law.
”I can’t complain a lot of people still get robbed, or embezzled, and I have my hands full settling their problems.”
“Glad to hear that.”
“As a matter of fact, I even get divorce cases.”
“Divorce cases, in this country? Let’s drink to that. Come one, let’s have another round. This one’s on me.”Lazaro gave the order to the barman and when their drinks came they drank in silence, each momentarily absorbed in his own thoughts. Lazaro saw Emma again in the garden. Poor girl, but he had to do it. He remembered they had taken a stroll after dinner. When they came upon a jewelry store. Emma had stopped and looked at the display window she pointed out a gold wedding band to him.“Wouldn’t that make a perfect wedding ring?” she said. Lazaro knew he was right. That was another sign. Poor girl. He finished his drink. Pete was still nursing his, with his big hand almost hiding his glass. Lazaro checked his watch. Five-fifteen.
“Well, I must go,” he said. He stood up.
“No. Home, see you tomorrow.”
“Same time, same place,” Pete said [sic] smiling.
THE DOORMAN opened the glass door and flashed another smile as Lazaro got out of the lobby the air had grown oppressively hot, and he began to sweat again.the liquor was working in his system already, no doubt about that, for he felt heady, the flesh of his cheeks was taut in reddishness, his lips dry. After reaching almost the end of the block he remembered his car was at the serviceman’s. With a sigh of resignation, he walked back to the hotel, trying to ignore the progressive heaviness of his coat that now was like a sheet of copper embracing his trunk. He hurried to the telephone in the lobby. He fumbled [sic] for a coin in his pocket, found it, inserted it into the slot, and waited for a voice on the other end of the line. He was shaking his head as he put down the phone.dAmn it, just when he needed the car it was not ready.
He walked out of the hotel, this time not noticing the doorman’s smile, and cursed under his breath. He did not enjoy the prospect of a five-minute walk to the jeepney stop and jostling for a seat in one of those infernal machines. He was still cursing as he climbed up the cement steps of the overpass. The neon lights of the tall buildings near the pass cast shadows of diverse patterns on the people who rushed up and down, their faces commonly haggard and unsmiling, for it was the end of the day for them who had just emerged from struggling with time to earn a living.
Typists, seamstresses, vendors, teachers, waiters, writers – a little scrutiny of the arms, the hair, the movement of their bodies, would reveal they were there, but Lazaro did not scrutinize: for him, they were all the same, a faceless tide of humanity that went by him in a kind of blurred procession, hardly distinguishable each from the other, confounding in their continued motion. He
slowed his pace to catch his breath. He took out his silk handkerchief and wiped off the perspiration that dotted his forehead, damn this heat. Paris, or New York – ah, that was something else. It would be spring at this time in New York with those pleasant smiling people enjoying the air and the oakleaves and the elm leaves putting on their sheen of green, and in Paris, those fascinating ladies in short skirts greeting everyone, their pretty faces lending a touch of beauty to the already intoxicating beauty of the day, would be letting their hair go in the wind – ah, Paris, why had he not stayed there, why did he have to come back to this heat and this dirt and this smog that was Maila? Shaking his head in mournful regret he quickened his pace. Well, there was hoe to anticipate, or what passed for his home, he being a bachelor – his apartment in New Ermita, with its air-conditioning and record player and refrigerator, always stocked with the necessary provisions. He licked his lips thinking of the drink he would have right after arriving home ah, the feel of a soft couch under his tired bones…
Occupied by these thoughts he barely realized that he had already reached the jeepney stop. With dismay, he eyed the long line of people waiting for a ride. Again he cursed under his breath. He hardly had the strength to fight for a seat with that number of people around, and the number, he noticed, increased rapidly. They were spouted out, as it were, but his cavernous mouth of the underground pass near the church and it seemed to him that all of them headed for the same jeepney stop. Damn it. He stood elbow to elbow with a man on his left and an old woman carrying a basket of cabbages and fish on his right. Well, nothing to do but sweat it out and wait. Lazaro dipped his hand into his pocket for the twenty-five-centavo coin that he would need for his fare; but when his fingers encountered no round, small, serrated object, he searched more carefully; still there was no coin. It took him a while to remember that he had used his last coin in making that call to the servicemen.
Grinning to himself in secret shame at this momentary lapse of memory, he took out his wallet. He hoped the driver would have no objection to breaking a five-peso bill – that was the smallest amount he always carried. He looked into the bill compartment of his wallet, and for the first time he felt a shiver that was like a cold knife against his spine: there was nothing there. No, it could not be. Just this morning he had fifty pesos there, he could not have spent all of it… In growing panic he explored his wallet meticulously, inch by inch. First, he removed the various cards – credit cards, calling cards, identification cards, and a small plastic calendar – ad transferred them to his left shirt pocket; then he went over the secret bill folder covered by a false flap, brought out some more cards, a few airmail stamps, folded pieces of paper where he had jotted down important phone numbers and addresses – still he could not find any peso bill. Once more, although he knew there would be nothing there, he turned to the coin pocket, inserted his forefingers there, hoping by some miracle to touch a coin – God, even just a single ten-centavo coin – but, God, there was nothing there. No, it could not be. How come… In his mind, he reviewed his activities that day in order to find out just how his money had gone. There was that drink – those drinks – in the bar, and before that, lunch, taxi fare to the office – no, he could not have spent fifty pesos for those things. There must be…
…Damn it, yes lunch. That’s what it went. He had three guests for lunch- prospective buyers-and he had brought then to the Shanghai. He had forgotten exactly how much he spent there, but he knew the place was not exactly a poor man’s restaurant. Yes. That was why-and this he recalled vividly –the last peso bill he drew from his wallet was the one he gave to the cashier in the bar, and it seemed there was no change for that, no, none. He was fooled into thinking that some more bills remained in his wallet by those folded sheets of paper. His panic subsided into fear, but even then he tried to get hold of himself. He must not be put off by this. There must be some way-
Well, he could get into a jeepney, just the same, and alight nonchalantly later as though he paid for his fare. If the driver demanded his fare, he could put on an aggrieved face and say the driver must be mistaken, he had already a pain, then he could stride off with a show of indignation. Perhaps, the driver would even apologize to him…but how could he really attempt it? Suppose he bungled it, suppose he could not act convincingly, suppose the driver insisted that he has not paid? No, it was dangerous. He could not do it. He could take a taxi and pay the driver at home, but this was out of the question. Taxis in this place, and at this time of the evening were as rare as pearls in a bucket of oysters. No, he had to take a jeep. If only, his hand holding his handkerchief stopped midway to his perspiring forehead, He experienced a surge of hope. Yes, why did he not think of it before? Pete. He must still be in the bar. He had to be. He would not object to a loan of, say, one peso.
Lazaro turned around abruptly, almost knocking down a small boy, and pushed his way out of the crowd. Pete, he had to be there. Running, in spite of his drenched coat that stuck to his back, and in spite of the slight, dizziness caused by the liquor he had taken earlier, his legs covered the cement steps of the overpass three at the time, so that when he reached the top of the steps he was puffing. Still, he ran getting down the last flight of steps, he ran down the sidewalk, barely aware of the newsboys and newsstands and the ticket seller, he ran past the record shop and the blare of a phonograph player exuding the sounds of the latest pop song, he ran and ran and ran. The doorman had barely the time to open the hotel door for him and bring out his customary smile. He watched in puzzlement as Lazaro barged in and crossed the lobby for the cocktail lounge. The doorman shook his head. Lazaro was shaking in excitement and fear, or in a fearful excitement, running along the corridor and avoiding looking at himself in the giant mirror.
Reaching the door of the lounge, he stopped and tried to get hold of himself. He passed his fingers over his hair, arranged a lock of hair that had fallen over his forehead, adjusted his coat, wipe his face with his handkerchief. After achieving a semblance of composure thus, he entered the room. He gave the interior a careful survey; there were more people now occupying the stools of the counter; a man and a woman sat in animated conversation near the right wall where the tables were lighted by the subdued discreet glow of small electric lamps; the clinking of glasses punctuated the formal atmosphere. But his eyes encountered no human form that belonged to Pete. His heart beating fast, he strode to the counter. ‘the usual, sir?’ the barman said. ‘Not this time, Joe.’ Lazaro said. ‘But tell me, is Pete still around?’ ‘Pete?’
The barman raised his brows ‘I mean Mr. Salgado. Attorney Salgado.’ ‘Ah, I’m afraid not, Sir. He left a few minutes after you did’ ‘Damn it,’ Lazaro said under his breath.
‘No, nothing, thanks jus the same.’
Slowly, crestfallen, he moved out of the room. His legs were lead, and the heaviness spread up to his lungs and head. He could not believe this was happening to him. It was preposterous. He- Lazaro Corpus…He gave the doorman a forced smile as the latter opened the door for him. Outside, he paused by the hotel steps and stared absent-mindedly at the neon lights blazing their messages on top of the opposite buildings. On the top of his building, the image of a beverage bottle changed colors-now red, now blue, announcing in unmistakable terms that it was a nation’s number one drink.
Lazaro sighed, put his hands deep in his pockets, gazed at the sidewalk. He was about to walk uncertainly into the night when a glint of metal caught his eyes. The thin hand holding the metal box was familiar to him. Lazaro thought for a while and a smile flitted across his face. He approached the beggar who extended his box to him. The box was already half-filled with coins, Lazaro noticed.
‘You remember me, don’t you?’ Lazaro said.
The beggar smiled ‘Im glad you do. You see- ‘ Lazaro did not know how to put it. ; You see…you know I always drop something in your box whenever I pass by, always.’ The beggar continued to smile. ‘Damn it, can’t you talk?’ Lazaro almost shouted. The beggar’s eyes widened in fear, but he managed to open his mouth and point out his tongue, at the same time shaking his head. ‘Oh, so you can’ speak. Well, as I was saying, I’ve always been kind to you.
This afternoon, I-well-I didn’t know it but I-we; -I spent all my money-‘ Lazaro felt uneasy talking to the beggar. He quickly looked around to see if anyone was watching him. A few people passed by hardly glancing at them.‘You see,’ Lazaro said turning to the man again. The beggar stood pressed against the wall of the hotel and stared with uncomprehending eyes at Lazaro. The beggar had ceased smiling. ‘You see, I’ve spent all my money and discovered it too late that I have none left to get home. That can happen to anyone, can’t it? Sometimes no forgets, no?’
The beggar held his box close to his chest. He kept staring at Lazaro. ‘It can happen to anyone.’ Lazaro continued. ‘Damn it, it happened to me today. You realize I’m in a fix. Pete-Pete, my friend- has gone home and there’s no one I could-‘ Lazaro winced, embarrassed at having to explain such personal details to this unknown creature before him. ‘ What I mean is, could you – could you give me back the twenty-five centavos I dropped in your box this afternoon?’
There was a blanked expression on the beggar’s face. ‘Just twenty-five centavos, man, that’s all I’m asking of you. Surely you won’t refuse me that? Just twenty-five centavos.’
The beggar hugged his metal box and pressed closer to the wall. It was absurd, surely this gentleman was trying to play a joke on him- this gentleman was drunk. With pleading eyes he looked at Lazaro. Please, the eyes, said, please leave me alone. I’m just a poor man, I can’t understand. Lazaro became irritated at the beggar’s reluctance. ‘Look.’ he said, trying to conceal his annoyance, ‘ let’s consider this a loan, see? Give me twenty-five centavos and first thing tomorrow I’ll give fifty, even a peso, all right?’
The beggar shrank against the wall. The joke was going too far. If only a policeman would come around…
‘Damn it, man,’ Lazaro finally shouted, and the beggar shrank further in fear, ‘can’t you understand? I need twenty-five centavos. Do you want me to rob you out of it?’
The beggar’s eyes shone in terror and his lips quivered as though he wanted to say something. Confused by Lazaro’s anger, and wanting to avoid another outburst from the man, with shaking hands the beggar extended his box to Lazaro. Lazaro smiled and picked up the twenty-five centavos coin from the box. Then he walked away as fast as he could, grasping the coin firmly in his palm. He climbed up the overpass and did not look back, for he was afraid he would see the beggar following him with his eyes. Lazaro slipped the coin into his coat pocket and reaching the top of the overpass, he suddenly felt file laughing out loud; and he did, but the sound came out in short muffled ejaculations, staring strong from the stomach and weakening at the throat, much like a sob.