Thursday, October 6, 2022
HomeFictionThe living and the dead

The living and the dead

By Rouina Figueroa

“Monkeys aren’t supposed to be tied up like that. Just imagine if it were you, dangling around that post all day! They should be left in the wild!” Abner exclaimed as he stared at the small, shrieking monkey chained to a rotten post in front of Mahmoud’s Bazaar, a popular tourist shop. We’ve been to this store several times before, and whenever he saw the chained-up monkey, Abner always said the same thing. One look at the squealing primate and I can hardly commiserate, as it gamely gobbled up a banana handed by a little girl. Before long, it resumed its hopping and prancing to the cheers of the lively crowd—every bit the eager entertainer. As far as Abner was concerned, all animals outside his beloved Maldives were somehow being abused. So here I was for the time being, aide de camp to the global animal welfare ambassador.

“I gather you treat animals really well, in your country?” I asked—the prelude to a conversation we’ve had many times before.

“Not just well, but in the best possible way my friend, like family! Poor as we are!” He gave an awkward laugh as if to dispel my doubts whether the poor still cared to make animals a priority over more pressing concerns.

“How about you, in your place, do you treat them like family too?” My friend asked, his dark skin gleaming under the midday sun.

“Uh mostly, we don’t give them that much attention though. Most couldn’t care less about them, but some at least try.” I answered and Abner looked disappointed as if hearing this for the first time.

“But my kids when they were small, they adored them, dogs, cats, fishes too.” I added with a shrug. Then the urge to annoy him got the better of me. “Hey, do you by any chance, find dog meat tasty?” I asked.

“You! Why do I allow myself to get stuck with you!” Abner said in his haughty British accent as he hurried ahead of me in consternation. I chuckled heartily. It was always fun to piss him off.

We wandered around Sali Pazari in between our shifts whenever we docked here in Istanbul. The last time was six months ago, when the wind wasn’t as warm, the stalls weren’t as crowded and everything, living and non-living—was covered in freezing rain and sleet. Now long past winter, the market was bustling with life and bursting in color. A sprawling bazaar filled with the exotic riches of the east and sophistication of the west– the Sali Pazari was a shopper’s paradise. From watches, badges, antiques, old coins, silk scarves to medieval spices, pita and sausages –name it and you’ll find it. We just bought kaftans for Abner’s sister, and I was contemplating buying an antique pipe for an old friend.

There were countless alleys here, and we avoided them if we could. But whenever navigating the market became a challenge, my fluent Arabic always came in handy. A skill I learned from a hotel in Dammam and before that, Riyadh. It just came to my mind that I spent more of my life in the Middle East than in my own country. I left the Philippines when I was only 23. Now pushing fifty, I have an aggregate total of 27 years of overseas experience. First I was a cleaner, then a busboy, waiter, a cook, and finally, a chef. But before all that, back home, I used to be an Army private. After starting a family at a very young age, I discovered that the scant amount of pesos consisting my monthly wage was barely enough to cover the rent. So I tried my luck elsewhere and here I was.

Abner was a dining area supervisor, who also scraped and scrubbed and waitered his way from the bottom like me. Abner, our resident Mr. Congeniality–managed just fine, even when handling the employees’ ever-shifting and conflicting allegiances. He was one of those fellows you cannot help but like no matter how terribly annoying he could be.

I was trying to catch up with him when the commotion began. The crowd ahead of us abruptly cleared around an old man chasing after a vegetable-laden cart. The screams grew louder as the heavy cart hurtled down the sloping street, the old Turk running after it in vain. It took us a moment to see the small child wedged under its wheels. Abner and I dashed towards the cart, reaching the opposite ends of the rear at the same time and pulling against the force of gravity with all our might. The cart came to a sudden halt. Together we raised the handles and saw the small girl, around two years old, pinned underneath. How she came to be under that cart, only God knew! To our relief, the little girl moved her head and began to cry. A hysterical old woman, clearly the grandmother, rushed to retrieve her. Then the child’s mother arrived and tearfully thanked us in Turkish. She embraced Abner and I before heading off towards an oncoming ambulance.

Dusk fell and a crowd began to form in our midst. Before me, a group of smiling Chinese teenagers kowtowed playfully. I never heard ‘thank you’ before, spoken in so many different languages. I’d like to think they were simply in awe of their burly brown heroes. A young blonde woman in the crowd gave us a thumbs-up sign and said, “You guys are so strong!” before giving me a wink. Everywhere, people clapped and exclaimed “Alhamdullilah!” Before I could savor the moment though, Abner announced to the crowd, we were leaving to go back to our ship.

“You didn’t have to announce to them we’d come from a ship!” I said, following after him.

“Why, for what? It’s the truth.” Abner said.

“For security reasons! Hello?!” Borrowing my youngest daughter’s expression, I saw her exasperated look in my mind.

“You’re paranoid!” Abner declared as we followed the stream of shopping trolleys, past the makeshift open-air cafes and sewing section, towards the huge open-air space at the boundary of the flea market leading to the port area.

The unfortunate incident however, caused the closure of the main road going to the port and we had to take an alternate route consisting of wholly unruly passageways.

Dark shadows flickered in the alleys as the lights turned on one by one. You could get lost in the miles and miles of circuitous passageways and not find your way back, as I’ve warned not a few newbies in our ship. For us it was easy, since we’ve been to these parts many times before. Midway to the ship, Abner who was walking ahead of me, came to a sudden halt and pulled me to the side. He put a finger to his lips and pointed to a man standing by the door on the side of an alley, talking to an eastern-european looking man. The man handed him a small package wrapped in a brown Manila paper.

It was Marco, our boss.

“So he’s the one?” Abner whispered.

One look at him and I saw the truth creep into his eyes like the python that somehow slithered its way under my bunk in our quarters once, in Africa.

“Should we approach him?” He asked.

“What? Why?!”

“Just to be sure, ask him what it’s about.”

“Goodness no! Why should you do that! Are you stupid?” I asked.

I got back to the cruise ship as fast as I could after that, Abner following hesitantly behind me. We traversed the dingy alleys as fast as we could, unwilling witnesses to a developing catastrophe.

We never spoke again of what we saw that night in the alley, until a week later. It was my day off and we were docked somewhere in the Carribean, I was just wrapping up my third client’s haircut when Abner quietly entered the room.

“Business is good, huh?” he asked.

“Yup, gotta earn those extra dollars…” I replied, recognizing his voice.

“Hey Efren, but what are you saving up for by the way, you’ve got no family!” Brian, the feeble-brained oaf from the Bronx currently sitting in my barber’s chair interjected. His fat index finger pointed at my chin.

“I need a haircut a-sap,” Abner insisted. I turned around only to find him looking as meticulously proper as always.   He always got a haircut ahead of anybody in the crew, even before needed it. The ship’s resident barber, happened to be his good friend. On my end, I couldn’t for the life of me, decipher why I always had to stand in line for my turn with that barber. Good thing there was now ‘secondary’ barber here, the crew said, referring to me. Because the real one had his favorites!

It was obvious Abner did not yet need a haircut. I could tell there was something on his mind and I bet it was very the same thing bugging me for a week. Knowing Abner, I knew he could not just let it pass. When Brian finally left, he blurted it out.

“I just informed the Captain about what we saw in the alley that night.”

My palms turned cold. “How can you do that without even consulting me? That’s a decision that you shouldn’t have made on your own!”

“You don’t have to worry about it. That’s why I’m telling you about it now. I didn’t tell him I was with you.” Typical Abner the incorruptible. Abner, and his inviolable conscience.

“Which made it all the more stupid Abner! Who could corroborate your story now, ha? Do you have any proof of it aside from your bare accusation?!” I could feel my nape throbbing with the thickness of my blood.

“Well, the Captain believed me. That I can assure you.” He said with absolute certainty. I always feared the limitless naivete of this overgrown little boy would someday lead to his epic downfall. That day, by all indications, now seem to have arrived.

“You should have discussed it with me first Abner! We don’t even know if there were others involved, or who they were dealing with. It could be an entire syndicate, with links from even outside our ship! Besides, we don’t have any proof aside from what we saw.”

“You don’t but I do. I heard them talking in the kitchen you know, Rafa is building his third house, could you believe that? And Alonso just bought another car for his mistress. Aren’t they Marco’s men? And here we are, scrambling to make ends meet. You with all your sidelines, and me, with a family buried in debt.”

“So you had to rat on your mates who happened to be small-time drug peddlers? C’mon Abner! Why can’t you just let them be, they’re nothing to you. They’ve done nothing wrong against you. In Pinas, we happen to think very little of squealers, if you should know!” The salty stench of sea wafting through the open window was disconcerting. My palms were becoming sweaty.

Abner looked genuinely offended now, and unsure. He looked up to me for support, but I couldn’t offer him any stronghold. I wanted to tell him to his face, you shouldn’t expect anything from me. But I stayed silent.

“Well, at least I did the right thing…by the way squealers, what’s that? Is that even a word?” Give it to Abner to include a little insult of my Filipino-English before leaving and banging the door on his way out. I sat on my makeshift barber’s bench seething with fury, it was just his like him to over-think and act impulsively without telling me about it because he knew I would not agree to it. Come to think of it, this short-cut of his was purely intentional as it was his only way of getting me involved.

That same afternoon, the Captain called for a general meeting of all the employees of the dining department, including Marco, our immediate boss.

“A few months ago, I would like to believe, evil had entered this ship. This ship, where we spend almost all our waking days and some of us, our entire life’s work.” The Captain paused meaningfully. His eyes scanned the room. Among the attendees, I saw Danny fidgeting with a table napkin, Nestor the Bangladeshi was bowed down, perhaps engrossed in texting and Anton just looked at me back with one eyebrow raised. Anton was an elegant gay man who handled the ship’s marketing department. Most of them had their thoughts elsewhere and struggled to relate with the Captain’s words. The afternoon light glazed the marble floors with a luminescent sheen. Through the windows, the azure waters gleamed as leisure ships and yachts lingered in the pier. The sea breeze wafted through the ventilation. It was hard to think of any evil lurking inside the ship at this moment.

Beaming with confidence, the Captain announced that he was pleased to finally receive a reliable insider report confirming the existence of drug peddlers among the crew. I recall it has been months ago since he first asked our cooperation about this after a passenger had unwittingly picked up a sachet of cocaine just outside her bedroom door. He said although it has taken all this time for someone to come forward, he appreciated it. He asked for the cooperation of anyone else that has reliable information. Abner, who was standing near the buffet area, looked in my direction. To my relief, the Captain declined to name the person who contacted him about the so-called drug peddlers in the staff. He assured us of absolute confidentiality in handling this matter.

“I will give anyone 48 hours to come forward lest we will subject everyone into a mandatory drug test and anyone failing the same will be automatically fired. This is pursuant to the provisions of our employment contract as this is a breach of your obligations as employees.” The Captain concluded his speech.

For the next 48 hours I reminded myself to steer clear of Abner. I’m sure that with his dogged persistence, he would follow up his request for me to corroborate his claim. That night I got off the ship and met with some old friends. We decided to meet at the plaza, for a change. The Plaza was a former Dutch colonial palace now a three star hotel, frequented by tourists. It was always a place to have fun and not be noticed, owing to the sheer number of people. Where allegiances were sealed, loyalties were affirmed and connections were born. A lot of young people, probably my kids’ age, were dancing the night away without a care in the world. Susmaryosep, how old were they now? For the life of me, I couldn’t recall. And I was reminded again of how I had wasted my youth. It’s some perverted truth isn’t it? How wasting your youth, could mess up your entire life? There’s must be some connection there. And that was why, old as I was now, I’ve been trying to make the best of it. For my own sake at least.

Two a.m. Nearly fell off the plank in my drunken state. Fred, my very young kababayan, was there as usual, mopping the floors and the night away. The tip of his tall spindle frame tossing along to the direction of his arms. Felt nauseous just by looking at him. Maybe it was due to the movement of the ship? I hardly felt the floor underneath my feet. He set down his mop and half-carried me to my quarters.

“You’re drunk Mang Efren!”

“Keep your strength my boy! I was like you when I was your age, but I couldn’t stand the nausea…and the lack of sleep punyeta…I kept mopping and mopping those endless floors and blood kept pouring down my nose, those damn nosebleeds! I never slept on time…”

“Good night Mang Efren.” Fred locked my door and went back to his mopping. I fell right asleep.

I woke up to the news that Marco, our boss and dining manager, had passed away. Apparently, he died from a drug overdose with the injection still sticking straight up his arm. Anton, head of marketing, made the announcement as we were eating breakfast in the pantry. Abner looked shocked. The rest of the crew however, looked strangely relieved. An eerie calm settled in the kitchen like the morning light. Everyone ate their food quietly. Then suddenly Abner spoke to no one in particular.

“Well that settles it then. What coincidence that Marco died today! Marco the resident drug dealer. Now all your problems are over.” Abner glared at his colleagues contemptously. He tossed his plate into the sink with such noise the people in the room trembled.

“You arrogant prick. You want us to lose our jobs, huh? It’s dang if you do, dang if you don’t, you talk or not, you lose your job. That’s what you want!” It was Brian the giant mulatto from the Bronx standing up to Abner.

“Don’t talk to me like that you, you oaf! I’m your friggin’ boss!” Abner retorted.

“You’re not the boss. You’re nothing but a snitch so shut your fuckin’ trap!” The oaf growled as he approached Abner.

“Why you! Just wait for my memo—“

I shoved Abner away from the room and out the door. His cover was blown. Now everybody knew he was the one who told the Captain.

And like Marco, his days were numbered.

I kept my eye on Abner as often as I could.

It was toxic as toxic went for the luxury cruise industry that week. It was the week right before the Fourth of July. Our shifts were extended beyond the usual to cater to the influx of more customers. Friday night, I had a short breather for two hours. Went to the smoking area of the upper deck to light a cigarette.

“Hey, smoking’s not allowed here.” It was a smiling Abner, emerging from the shadows.

“Hey, thought you were home in the Maldives already? What are you still doing here?” I asked.

“Well couldn’t book an earlier flight. Still got two days to kill before home.”

“Hey listen Efren, I know you’re not one to listen to unsolicited advice or anything, but why don’t you find yourself someone new in your life? It’s been a long time since you’ve gone home.”

“Can’t. Got kids to support.” I puffed my cigarette and my lungs sighed in ecstacy.

“Kids who never call or write you…You’re still young, find someone! That bitch didn’t deserve you!” said Abner.

“Abner, don’t you have any more productive things to do, like chase after drug dealers?” I asked coldly.

He kept silent for a while then said.

“There’s something happening to you Efren. I can’t point my finger at it. But just so you know, you’re not the same person I knew before. Don’t let hatred eat you up.”

“You’re just saying that ‘coz you thought I’d support you in your stupid crusade, but I didn’t.”

“You’re right, the old Efren I knew would have.”

“Easy for you to say. You haven’t been cheated on by your wife and your children taken away from you. What would you do if you were me, Abner?” I wanted to know.

“Go on living.” He answered.

“Well sometimes, you have to do what you have to do, so you could go on living.” I shrugged.

“And by that you mean?” Was there a challenge hidden there? Or a hint of suspicion?

“That sometimes living can hardly be an option, coz one can go on and on, even without living.”

Abner looked at me, shook his head and walked away. But midway to the stairs he stopped and said:

“By the way, saw the police report on Marco’s death. He didn’t die by his own hand. He was murdered.”

They came for him the following morning and found two heat sealed plastic sachets of methamphetamine powder hidden inside the bamboo case where he kept his shaving razor, toothbrush and other personal effects. He was immediately arrested. It was the day before his flight home.

Abner was inconsolable, alternately bawling like a child and screaming at the officers that he was innocent. He was led by the police in handcuffs to a side exit, accessible only to the crew and staff to avoid any commotion. Just as he was being led outside, the Captain and crew watched him go by. He stopped the officers when he came to where I was standing.

“Help me, Efren. You know I am innocent.” He pleaded.

I tried to open my mouth but no words came. I can only stare at him, my old friend.

“How can you just stand there? Help me please, tell them I’m innocent.” Abner begged me.

But I just stood there.

“When you saved that child’s life, did you not feel anything? Nothing.” Abner searched my face desperately for a solution to his predicament and found none. On its place, was a revelation so ugly, he almost fainted.

“Oh yes how I forgot, you gotta do what you gotta do Efren. May God forgive your wretched soul!”

The police car sped away from the dock and one by one, the crew went back to work. Brian the giant mulatto, who was standing by my side asked,

“Where to, for the holidays, boss? Vancouver or Santorini?”

“Santorini.”

“Ah, lotsa lovely ladies in Santorini, can I come?” The oaf teased with a wink.

“Not this time. Got some renovations going on.”

“Good thing the police caught that piece of shit before we got to him!” I put a finger to my lips. Stupid oaf.

“But of course, it will still be up to you boss. Who would have thought it huh? Squeaky clean Abner was using!” Brian spit on the gutter and laughed hysterically. Then he wallowed back to his post.

You’re right my friend, you gotta do what you gotta do when you’re far too gone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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