The Day the Dancers Came by Bienvenido N. Santos (An Excerpt)

As soon as Fil woke up, he noticed a whiteness outside, quite unusual for the November mornings they had been having. That fall, Chicago was sandman’s town, sleepy valley, drowsy, grey, slumberous mistiness from sunup till noon when the clouds drifted away in cauliflower clusters and suddenly it was evening. The lights shone on the avenues like soiled lamps centuries old and the skyscrapers became monsters with a thousand sore eyes.

Now there was a brightness in the air that landed. Fil knew what it was and he shouted, “Snow! It’s snowing!”

“What’s that?” Tony asked.

“It’s snowing,” Fil said, smiling to himself as if he had ordered this and was satisfied with the prompt delivery. “Oh, they’ll love this, they’ll love this.”

“Who’ll love that?” Tony asked, his voice raised in annoyance.

“The dancers, of course,” Fil answered. “They’re arriving today. Maybe they’ve already arrived. They’ll walk in the snow and love it. Their first snow, I’m sure.”

“How do you know it wasn’t snowing in New York while they were there?” Tony asked.

“Snow in New York in early November?” Fil said. “Are you crazy?”

“Who’s crazy?” Tony replied. “Ever since you heard of those dancers from the Philippines, you’ve been acting nuts. Loco. As if they’re coming here just for you.

Tony chuckled. Hearing him, Fil blushed, realizing that he had, indeed, been acting too eager, but Tony had said it. It felt that way—as if the dancers were coming here only for him.

Filemon Acayan, Filipino, was fifty, a U.S., citizen. He was a corporal in the U.S. Army, training at San Luis Obispo, on the day he was discharged honorably, in 1945. A few months later, he got his citizenship papers. Thousands of them, smart and small in their uniforms, stood at attention in drill formation, in the scalding sun, and pledged allegiance to the flag and the republic for which it stands. Soon after he got back to work. To a new citizen, work meant many places and many ways: factories and hotels, waiter and cook. A timeless drift-ing: once he tended a rose garden and took care of a hundred-year-old veteran of a border war. As a menial in a hospital in Cook Country, all day he handled filth and gore. He came home smelling of surgical soap and disinfectant. In the hospital, he took charge of row of bottles on a shelf, each bottle containing a stage of the human embryo in preservatives, from the lizard-like fetus of a few days, through the newly born infant, with its position unchanged, cold and cowering and afraid. He had nightmares through the years of himself inside a bottle. That was long ago. Now he had a more pleasant job as special policeman in the post office.

He was a few years younger than Tony-Antonio Bataller, a retired pullman porter but he looked older in spite of the fact that Tony had been bedridden most of the time for the last two years, suffering from a kind of wasting disease that had frustrated doctors. All over Tony’s body, a gradual peeling was taking place. At first, he thought it was merely tiniaflava, a skin disease common among adolescent in the Philippines. It had started around the neck and had spread to his extremities. His face looked as if it was healing from severe burns. Nevertheless, it was a young face much younger than Firs, which had never looked young.

“I’m becoming a white man,” Tony had said once, chuckling softly.

It was the same chuckle Fil seemed to have heard now, only this time it sounded derisive, insulting. Fil said, “I know who’s nuts. It’s the sick guy with the sick thoughts. You don’t care for nothing but your pain, your imaginary pain.”

“You’re the imagining fellow. I gOt the real thing,” Tony shouted from the room. He believed he had something worse than the whiteness spreading on his skin. There was a pain in his insides, like dull scissors scraping his intestines. Angrily he added,” What for I got retired?”

“You’re old, man, old, that’s what, and sick, yes, but not cancer,” Fil said turning towards the snow-filled sky. He pressed his face against the glass window. There’s about an inch now on the ground, he thought, maybe more.

Tony came out of his room looking as if he had not slept all night. “I know what I got,” he said, as if it were an honor and a privilege to die of cancer and Fil was trying to deprive him of it. “Never a pain like this. One day, I’m just gonna die.”

“Naturally. Who says you won’t?” Fil argued, thinking how wonderful it would be if he could join the company of dancers from the Philippines, show them around walk with them in the snow, watch their eyes as they stared about them, answer their questions, tell them everything they wanted to know about the changing seasons in this strange land. They would pick up fistfuls of snow, crunch it in their fingers or shove it into their mouths. He had done just that the first time, long, long ago, and it had reminded him of the grated ice the Chinese sold near the town plaza where he had played catching with an older brother who later drowned in a squall. How his mother had grieved over that death, she who has not cried too much when his father died, a broken man. Now they were all gone, quick death after a storm, or lingeringly, in a season of drought, all, all of them he had loved.

He continued, “All of us will die. One day. A.medium bomb marked Chicago and this whole dump is tapus, finished. Who’ll escape then?”

“Maybe your dancers will,” Tony answered, now watching the snow himself.

“Of course, they will! Fil retorted, his voice sounding like a big assurance that all the dancers would be safe in his care. “The bombs won’t be falling on this night. And when the dancers are back in the Philippines…”

He paused, as if he was no longer sure of what he was going to say.” But maybe, even in the Philippines the bombs gonna fall, no?” he said, gazing sadly at the falling snow.

“What’s that to you?” Tony replied. “You got no more folks over her right? I know it’s nothing to me. I’ll be dead before that.”

“Let’s talk about something nice,” Fil said, the sadness spreading on his face as he tried to smile. “Tell me, how will I talk, how am I gonna introduce myself?”

He would go ahead with his plans, introduce himself to the dancers and volunteer to take them sightseeing. His car was clean and ready for his guests. He had soaped the ashtrays, dusted off the floorboards and thrown away the old mats, replacing them with new plastic throw rugs. He had got himself soaking wet while spraying the car, humming, as he worked, faintly-remembered tunes from the old country.

Fil shook his head as he waited for Tony to say something. “Gosh, I wish I had your looks, even with those white spots, then I could face every one of them,” he said, “but this mug.”

“That’s the important thing, you mug. It’s your calling card. It says, Filipino. Countrymen,” Tony said.

“You’re not fooling me, friend,” Fil said. “This mug says, Ugly Filipino. It says, old-timer, muchacho. It says Pinoy, bejo.”

For Fil, time was the villain. In the beginning, the words he often heard were: too young, too young; but all of a sudden, too young became too old, too late. What happened in between, a mist covering all things. You don’t have to look at your face in a mirror to know that you are old, suddenly old, grown useless for a lot of things land too late for all the dreams you had wrapped up well against a day of need.

“It also says sucker,” Fil answered, “but who wants a palace when they can have the most delicious adobo here and the best stuffed chicken… yum…yum…”

Tony was angry, “Yum, yum, you’re nuts,” he said, “plain and simple loco. What for you want to spend? You’ve been living on loose change all your life and now on dancing kids who don’t know you and won’t even send you a card afterwards.”

“Never mind the cards,” Fil answered. “Who wants cards? But don’t you see, they’ll be happy; and then, you know what? I’m going to keep their voices, their words and their singing and their laughter in my magic sound mirror.”

He had a portable tape recorder and a stack of recordings, patiently labeled, songs and speeches. The songs were in English, but most of the speeches were in the dialect, debates between him and Tony. It was evident Tony was the better speaker of the two in English, but in the dialect, Fil showed greater mastery. His style, however, was florid, sentimental, poetic.

Without telling Tony, he had experimented on recording sounds, like the way a bed creaked, doors opening and closing, rain or sleet tapping on the window panes, footsteps through the corridor. He was beginning to think that they did. He was learning to identify each of the sounds with a particular mood or fact. Sometimes, like today, he wished that there was a way of keeping a record of silence because it was to him the richest sound, like snow falling. He wondered as he watched the snow blowing in the wind, what took care of that moment if memory didn’t. Like time, memory was often a villain, a betrayer.

“Fall, snow, fall,” he murmured and, turning to Tony, said, “As soon as they accept my invitation, I’ll call you up. No, you don’t have to do anything, but I’d want to be here to meet them.”

“I’m going out myself,” Tony said. “And I don’t know what time I’ll be back:’ Then he added.”You’re not working today. Are you on leave?”

“For two days. While the dancers are here.” Fil said.

“It still doesn’t make sense to me,” Tony said. “But good luck, anyway.”

“Aren’t you going to see them tonight? Our reserved seats are right out in front, you know.”

“I know. But I’m not sure I can come.”

“What? You’re not sure?”

Fil could not believe it. Tony was indifferent. Something must be wrong with him. He looked at him closely, saying nothing.

“I want to, but I’m sick Fil. I tell you, I’m not feeling so good. My doctor will know today. He’ll tell me.”Tony said.

“What will he tell you?”

“How do I know?”

“I mean, what’s he trying to find out?”

“If it’s cancer’ Tony said. Without saying another word, he went straight back to his room.

Fil remembered those times, at night, when Tony kept him awake with his moaning. When he called out to him, asking, “Tony, what’s the matter?” his sighs ceased for a while, but afterwards, Tony screamed, deadening his cries with a pillow against his mouth. When Fil rushed to his side, Tony dove him about the previous night, he would reply, “I was dying,” but it sounded more like disgust overt a nameless annoyance.

Fil has misgivings, too, about the whiteness spreading on Tony’s skin. He had heard of leprosy. Every time he thought of that dreaded disease, he felt tears in his eyes. In all the years he had been in America, he had not has a friend until he meet Tony whom he liked immediately and, in a way, worshipped, for all the things the man had which Fil knew he himself lacked.

They had shared a lot together. They made merry on Christmas, sometimes got drunk and became loud. Fil recited poems in the dialect and praised himself. Tony fell to giggling and cursed all the railroad companies of America. But last Christmas, they hadn’t gotten drunk. They hadn’t even talked to each other on Christmas day. Soon, it would be Christmas again.

The snow was still falling.

“Well, I’ll be seeing you,” Fil said, getting ready to leave. “Try to be home on time. I shall invite the dancers for luncheon or dinner maybe, tomorrow. But tonight, let’s go to the theatre together, ha?”

“I’ll try,” Tony answered. He didn’t need boots. He loved to walk in the snow.

The air outside felt good. Fil lifted his face to the sky and closed his eyes as the snow and a wet wind drench his face. He stood that way for some time, crying, more, more to himself, drunk with snow and coolness. His car was parked a block away. As he walked towards it, he ploughed into the snow with one foot and studied the scar he made, a hideous shape among perfect footmarks. He felt strong as his lungs filled with the cold air, as if just now it did not matter too much that he was the way he looked and his English way the way it was. But perhaps, he could talk to the dancers in his dialect. Why not?

A heavy frosting of snow covered his car and as he wiped it off with his bare hands, he felt light and young, like a child at play, and once again, he raised his face to the sky and licked the flakes, cold and tasteless on his tongue.

When Fil arrived at the Hamilton, it seemed to him the Philippine dancers had taken over the hotel. They were all over the lobby on the mezzanine, talking in groups animatedly, their teeth sparkling as they laughed, their eyes disappearing in mere slits of light. Some of the girls wore their black hair long. For a moment, the sight seemed too much for him who had but all forgotten how beautiful Philippine girls were. He wanted to look away, but their loveliness held him. He must do something, close his eyes perhaps. As he did so, their laughter came to him like a breeze murmurous with sounds native to his land.

Later, he tried to relax, to appear inconspicuous. True, they were all very young, but there were a few elderly men and women who must have been their chaperons or well-wishers like him. He would smile at everyone who happened to look his way. Most of them smiled back, or rather, seemed to smile, but it was quick, without recognition, and might not have been for him but for someone else near or behind him.

His lips formed the words he was trying to phrase in his mind: Ilocano ka? Bicol? Ano na, paisano? Komusta? Or should he introduce himself—How? For what he wanted to say, the words didn’t come too easily, they were unfamiliar, they stumbled and broke on his lips into a jumble of incoherence.

Suddenly, he felt as if he was in the center of a group where he was not welcome. All the things he had been trying to hide now showed: the age in his face, his horny hands. He knew it the instant he wanted to shake hands with the first boy who had drawn close to him, smiling and friendly. Fil put his hands in his pocket.

Now he wished Tony had been with him. Tony would know what to do. He would harm these young people with his smile and his learned words. Fil wanted to leave, but he seemed caught up in the tangle of moving bodies that merged and broke in a fluid stranglehold. Everybody was talking, mostly in English. Once in a while, he heard exclamations in the dialect right out of the past, conjuring up playtime, long shadows of the evening on the plaza, barrio fiestas, misa de gallo.

Time was passing and he had yet to talk to someone. Suppose he stood on a chair and addressed them in the manner of his flamboyant speeches recorded in his magic sound mirror?

“Beloved countrymen, lovely children of the Pearl of the Orient Seas, listen to me. I’m Fil Acayan. I’ve come to volunteer my services. I’m yours to command. Your servant. Tell me where you wish to go, what you want to see in Chicago. I know every foot of the lakeshore drive, all the gardens and the parks, the museums, the huge department stores, the planetarium. Let me be your guide. That’s what I’m offering you, a free tour of Chicago, and finally, dinner at my apartment on West Sheridan Road—pork adobo and chicken relleno, name your dish. How about it, paisanos?”

No. That would be a foolish thing to do. They would laugh at him. He felt a dryness in his throat. He was sweating. As he wiped his face with a handkerchief, he bumped against a slim, short girl who quite gracefully, stepped aside, and for a moment he thought he would swoon in the perfume that enveloped him. It was fragrance, essence of camia, of ilang-ilang, and dama de noche.

Two boys with sleek, pomaded hair were sitting near an empty chair. He sat down and said in the dialect,” May I invite you to my apartment? “The boys stood up, saying,” Excuse us, please,” and walked away. He mopped his brow, but instead of getting discouraged, he grew bolder as though he hand moved one step beyond shame. Approaching another group, he repeated his invitation, and a girl with a mole on her upper lip, said, “Thank you, but we have no time.” As he turned towards another group, he felt their eyes on his back. Another boy drifted towards him, but as soon as he began to speak, the boy said, “Pardon, please,” and moved away.

They were always moving away. As if by common consent, they had decided to avoid him, ignore his presence. Perhaps it was not their fault. They must have been, instructed to do so. Or was it his looks that kept them away? The thought was a sharpness inside him.

After a while, as he wandered about the mezzanine, among the dancers, but alone, he noticed that they had begun to leave. Some had crowded noisily into the two elevators. He followed the others going down the stairs. Through the glass doors, he saw them getting into a bus parked beside the subway entrance on Dearborn.

The snow had stopped falling; it was melting fast in the sun and turning into slush.

As he moved about aimlessly, he felt someone touch him on the sleeve. It was one of the dancers, a mere boy, tall and thin, who was saying, “Excuse, please!’ Fil realized he was in the way between another boy with a camera and a group posing in front of the hotel.

“Sorry,” Fil said, jumping away awkwardly.

The crowd burst out laughing.

Then everything became a blur in his eyes, a moving picture out of focus, but gradually, the figure cleared, there was mud on the pavement on which the dancers stood posing, and the sun throw shadows at their feet.

Let them have fun, he said to himself, they’re young and away from home. I have no business up their schedule, forcing my company on them.

He watched the dancers till the last of them was on the bus. The voices came to him, above the traffic sounds. They waved their hands and smiled towards him as the bus started. Fil raised his hand to wave back, but stopped quickly, aborting the gesture. He turned to look behind him at whomever the dancers were waving their hands to. There was no one there except his own reflection in the glass door, a double exposure of himself and a giant plant with its thorny branches around him like arms in a loving embrace.