The sky was bleeding its last light out onto the sky when I saw the man who lay face down on the pavement. A gaggle of onlookers was exchanging furious, if muted, conversation beyond a yellow picket-line.
My first thought, naturally, turned to how the police were getting bolder. I’d witnessed the same scene a year ago in Binondo. But that was at night, and on the outskirts of Chinatown, where people -that is, normal, respectable types, not the ragged ones—wouldn’t normally venture. I had simply wandered into the area because I got lost on the short walk from the Lucky Chinatown to Escolta.
I stopped awhile to light a cigarette. A man with a hairnet and worn red apron flecked with dust walked over to me, a cigarette hanging loose between the fore- and middle fingers of his right hand. With his left hand he gestured for a light. I handed over my lighter.
“What happened?” I asked.
He was fumbling with the lighter’s wheel. From up close I realized that what I thought was dust strewn all over his apron was flour. He gave off a faint and warm smell of bread mixed with sour sweat, beads of which clustered on his dark, shining forehead.
Finally succeeding in lighting his fag, he returns my lighter.
“Thank you. Tokhang siguro,” the man said.
“Ang tapang na, no?,” I mumbled. I had just taken a drag, so the words seemed to trail tufts of smoke as they left my mouth.
In reply the man grimaced a hesitant grin, which to me meant more than any words he could utter.
I looked back at the scene before us, then made to stub my barely-smoked cig at a felled tree that the city cleaners had failed to clear from the last typhoon a month ago.
“Akin na lang po, okay lang?” The man asked.
Abashed by the poverty that his tongue had betrayed as if on reflex, I took out two sticks from the packet I had just opened and gave the rest to him. I said goodbye without looking.
As I came nearer I saw that the man’s limbs were jutted at unnatural angles. So it hit me. A suicide. Overcome by curiosity (this was, after all, my building) I walked as close to the corpse as possible.
I was struck more by the man’s size than by the fact that he was dead. He was built like a boulder. A body-builder, obviously. It was only when I saw that he was missing a leg that I realized I knew who the deceased was.
He was my neighbor. Occupied unit 3721, right beside 3723, the one-bedroom unit I rented.
By the time the authorities had finished removing the corpse the sun had completely died its daily death. They were getting really efficient at this, I thought. I’d stayed rooted to the spot until the last of the curious had their fill of the grisly spectacle. Despite the darkness of the November sky I could see the pool of blood sparkling. Bits of white-dashed brain, chipped skull?—glistened.
As I snapped out of my reverie I heard someone scurrying nearby. When I turned to look I saw a man in tattered clothing hauling a folding bed, its rainbow mat frayed, and a nylon bag with a poor reproduction of Winnie the Pooh on its faded blue surface. Under the flickering light I recognized him as the beggar to whom I’d occasionally give leftovers and what not that I would find lying about in my unit.
He smiled, then muttered in his whispery voice, “Malas na dito. (It’s unlucky here already.) Behind him, under the yellow light of the lamppost, his lengthened shadow, distorted, jerked as if it were unwillingly dragged along by its owner.
I first met him, the dead man, that is, while I was pumping iron at the condominium’s gym. As he entered he greeted each one of us, shaking our hands with a vigor that seemed to say, well met, old friend!, rather than the prolonged herrohe uttered, which ticked off all the boxes in my mind of the stereotypical friendly Japanese that was ubiquitous in our part of the city.
Perhaps it was his avuncular manner, the way his eyes sparkled, the creases at their corners crinkling as he bobbed about the gym with boundless energy that put me off.
Here was a man with a bodybuilder’s frame and a prosthetic leg, who went about his business as if everything was bright and bubbly, and who was so eager to make friends that he easily crossed the private space of everyone he met. I resented him for it.
Grudgingly, I nodded my head and allowed my hand to be swallowed by the beefy limb proffered to me.
Mumbling an excuse, I gathered my water jug and phone, which lay beside the bench press I had just vacated, and made for the exit, forgetting to wipe the bench in consideration of the next user.
Over time I’d bumped into him randomly. In the elevator. At the lobby. By the massive fenced acacia near the building entrance that served as a smoking area. The tree, its limbs drooping, would always weep its leaves, which made the street-sweep’s job somewhat of a Sisyphean chore.Or at the roof deck, where despite the no-smoking sign I’d sneak a stick or two to smoke while I let my eyes wander over the sprawling metropolis below.
On occasion he’d bum a cigarette off me. I didn’t mind, I had loads. Boxes and boxes of free Marlboros on account of my PR work for Philip Morris. Everyone benefited from my tobacco largesse, anyway. The guards, who’d transformed from impassive sentinels when I first arrived to obsequious eunuchs ready to spring at the slightest prompting, the cleaners, the beggars. Even the padyak driver who’d started charging me the “discounted” 20 pesos a ride instead of the 50 pesos that was his ready answer for everyone else, no matter that the destination was only two blocks away. All because of two packets of paper sticks filled with tar and other unspeakable toxic compounds that did more for me in that they added negligible moments in the tobacco-triggered time-bomb that was my life than they did for him. Cigarettes will be the death of me, that and my countless other vices like my unfettered lust and even more unimpeded drinking. Cigarettes will kill him, too, but all he needs is a little sense knocked into him and for the fags to be more expensive even by just a peso for him to stop. But ultimately, his death will be caused by poverty, rearing one of its ugly heads. A tubercular cough, maybe, or food not trickling in, or Death in the form of the masked rovers who loved improving their marksmanship by shooting at the poor.
At least, during the times we’d smoked together, me and the Japanese uncle, he wouldn’t force his presence on me. Rather, he’d smoke in silence, as if the pulmonary processing of nox evoked something within him that demanded complete and utter attention. He’d just stand there, like a placid Buddha, the only sign of life the slow rhythm of his breathing, and the smoke that would filter out his nostrils. Immovable and smiling and unshaken by the fate of the world. He wouldn’t even mind the mosquitoes that would congregate around us whenever we found ourselves smoking at dusk. Only an odd swatting motion, which reminded me of carabaos lazing in their mud bath back home, which I’d come in close contact with during the few times I’d gone along with acquaintances in search of violet-ringed mushrooms in the field. If only his skin were darker. But there are albino carabaos too, of course. Pink-skinned and looking like the raw and robust meat of pigs recently slaughtered, that most people in the city have never even laid eyes on.
The things I would have asked him: his name. Why he was here, in this country whose locals would only ever see him as a cash cow. What happened to his leg, or why he didn’t seem to have a girlfriend, unlike many of his countrymen who had petite Pinays clinging to their arms as they walked the pot-holed streets or snuggled in elevators. Why he seemed happy despite being alone.
I’d always wondered whether his mind buzzed with questions, too. Was he bugged by convention, the need to perform the social function that required one to engage in small talk? Was he ill at ease at having so many familiar yet unnamed faces around him? Should he ask for my name, strike up a friendship? Ask where the best places to eat were?
The last time I’d seen him, his artificial leg was off, replaced with aluminum crutches that were leaning against the wall as he sat on a plastic chair. With the bandage that kept his prosthetic limb attached to his thigh missing, I could see without peering hard because of the dark the assault of rot. He was dying. I was sure of it. An uncle, ma’s second cousin, had the same greenish spot that everybody saw on his leg. Barely four months after, he was dead. A certain despot, too, has a dark splotch on his face. His lackeys deny it, but everyone’s sure he’s sick. Rumor has it he went to Hong Kong for treatment. He said he didn’t have colon cancer, which was one fine diversion, because it’s not down there where he’s sick. More somewhere above. Like his larynx, according to the grapevine. Or his head, according to most.
Anyway. It’s only now that I realize that when I saw him last he had drifted further away from his usual perch—the metal trash receptacles by the 7-Eleven beside the building’s entrance that he’d appropriated as his bench. I was walking on the pavement with newly-laden asphalt and musing on how the warmth it emitted was actually pleasant. It wasn’t as harsh as the daytime heat, whose remnants were finally snuffed out by the descending cold. In fact, I’d imagine myself as a child again, my tender cheeks kissed by the earthy warmness emanating from the fired-up pugon within whose belly was baking the bibingka perfected by the old ladies in my hometown. As my eyes strayed from the ground they homed in on a hulking figure hidden by the shadow cast by the massive neon characters of the nearby Japanese restaurant that couldn’t seem to attract any customers. Without meaning to I had stopped before him from across the street. He didn’t seem to see me. His stare was vacant, as aimless as my wandering.
There are ghosts in our building. They roam the corridors and hide in the vents. An incorporeal cat has made the garbage chute on our floor its haunt. It’s a wonder the building is still teeming with tenants. Nobody seems to complain. Maybe the tenants are like me, too busy dealing with the grind of living to notice, too tired to give a fuck and raise a fuss when they do.
A woman from the next balcony —the Japanese guy’s—accompanies me on drunken nights when I’d smoke before tottering off to sleep. Our meet-ups as random as the unit’s other occupant. The most times I’ve seen her, though, was during the period before dawn. I’m doubtful as to whether my neighbor had ever seen her or not. Were she a more regular presence I would appreciate it. I’d love to have some constancy in my life. Someone who’d linger silently at the sidelines, maybe act as a sounding board when the oppression of living gets too much to bear. Who doesn’t mind the tricky hours. I’ll make it a point to ask the next time I see her. But I haven’t, not for two months, I think.
My most constant ghost is a memory so vivid so…relivable. On November evenings the memories are more real. They transition seamlessly from the past to the present, as if the reality of today were an osmotic and semi-permeable environment, unencumbered by the fact that time has passed, refusing to follow the linearity imposed on the human experience. The lengthy darkness helps, maybe. In this kind of darkness everything seems acceptable. Like fall and spring happening all at once in a country where the only seasons are wet and dry—seen as the budding of vibrant bract on the branches of a tree that has just shed its dun leaves. On nights of this month, the penultimate episode of the duodecimal equivalent of the darkest before the dawn that is Christmas, I walk into my room and step into the timelessness of remembrance. First, the perfumed scent of a girl. At its heart the animal odor of commingled skin and sweat and other body fluids. But no girl to greet me, the girl is long gone. What is left is a phantom warmth on my bed, whose mattress is permanently indented on the side formerly occupied by another body but no more. My nights are terrible because these specters of disembodied heat and scent are constant reminders of the void in my life. A ghost can be seen, felt, smelled, yes, and that provides a small measure of comfort. But it is an un-embodiment of absence, athere-but-not-quite of something that will always now be nothing. In an effort to cope with the oppressive atmosphere I jerk off, making myself believe that as I heave the semen from my lower orifice I, too, would become hollow, and thus, floating and untethered from the earth filled with worldly concerns. I don’t make much sense, I guess, but that’s the tendency when people hear someone say ghost. Everyone just shuts out all following information.
I expect I’d have to add another ghost to my list. I’ll meet December with my ethereal posse by my shoulder, hounding me over a short lifetime’s worth of omissions and commissions. As the Stygian gloom of November leaks into the mark of the year’s end and blurs the boundaries of time it isn’t hard to believe I am Scrooge whose meanness of spirit is trapped in a body spurred to seek excess to the point of dissipation. For Christmas carols I’ll have a dirge instead, and watch as my regrets rise up from the ground and converge into the vision of a man missing a leg. Maybe I’ll talk to him, make him my new sounding board, my penance for the sin of failing to come up with a word or two out of letters whose possible combinations are as vast as the universe. My penalty the knowledge that the words I utter would be understood because there is a language unbound by borders, comprehensible though the entities belong to different worlds. I will speak and he will understand. But never an answer that I will recognize in the languages that I know, because ghosts, or at least my ghosts, while filled with messages are mute. G