June 16, 2019
First of two parts
WHEN I remember my father, I think of his hands. He spent his whole life painting and was most at peace when holding a brush. His palms never stayed clean, no matter how hard he scrubbed at the end of the day. Layers of color stained his skin over the years.
Papa sold most of his paintings on the streets of Tondo, but some he made just for me. These he did on the backs of flyers, torn-down posters, even “Police Wanted” signs. The first one he gave me was a portrait of a woman with brown skin and a head of unruly black hair. When my father handed me the painting, the woman’s lips burst into a wide grin.
“That is what your mother looked like before she died.”
She ran her hands through her hair, making the wild tangles even worse. She laughed, and I laughed with her. Though the painting made no sound, I thought I could hear her voice.
I loved having that portrait to myself. Let the people outside have Papa’s other paintings, those somber images of Christ people bought when they swore that they saw a halo shimmer or the Lord smiling at them. Whatever my father earned, he used to buy our food for the day. When there wasn’t enough, he’d buy for me and just watch me eat as he got to work on the next day’s painting.
Papa made me something for every birthday and every Christmas. Even when he was running out of materials, he found a way. He gave me a waterfall pouring into a crashing basin, a carabao lazily munching on grass in the summer heat, and even a busy fiesta of colorful floats and dancing revelers. The striking pinks, blues, greens and yellows stood out against the dirty gray of our house.
“Mine are better than the ones you sell, Pa,” I told him.
* * * * *
When I turned eleven, Papa got a job working for a small movie theater. It didn’t have anything on the iMax screens in the malls of the city. Really, it was little more than a bungalow where people came to watch older films in the afternoon and bold movies at night. It held about twenty people and the screen was no bigger than a schoolroom blackboard.
My father painted the posters for the theater. Although he did it by hand, they looked even better than the printed posters. Something about the way the colors blended together made them just unreal enough to show that sweat and time had mixed in with the paint. And besides, the printed posters didn’t move.
Papa and I got to watch the movies for free. I loved sitting in the cool darkness surrounded by children and people attracted by Papa’s posters. The action movies were the most popular ones. Papa drew people in with striking yellows bursting from painted pistols. People enjoyed the whizzing bullets on the concrete wall as much as they loved the movies inside.
My favorites were the old Filipino action movies starring men like Robin Padilla, Cesar Montano or Fernando Poe Jr. No matter how miserable their lives got — family members shot down, children and wives kidnapped — they always pressed forward. They met their troubles head on and shot them in the face.
I met Simon during a screening of “Isang Bala Ka Lang.” He sat two seats away from me, cheering as FPJ blasted his way through gangs of nameless bad guys. I had seen him before, selling cigarettes and candy on the streets, but I’d never spoken to him. Lots of children had odd jobs in our barangay.
“I’m saving up for a gun, you know?” he said. He couldn’t have been much older than me at the time. “That way no one can steal from me.”
“You need the denim jacket, too.”
“But then how will anyone see the blood of my enemies?”
After the movie finished, Simon showed me the money he earned selling on the street. I couldn’t help but be impressed that he’d been able to make as much as he did. He showed me his carton of merchandise filled with candies, bottled drinks and cigarettes. It had a secret compartment where he hid the money for a gun.
“If any of it goes missing now, I’ll know you took it.”
“Then what? You’ll shoot me? You don’t have a gun.”
“I’ll beat you to death with my slippers.”
Simon liked to joke, but I always saw him checking the money, counting and recounting to make sure he hadn’t lost a single peso.
He let me help him sell after that. We knocked on car windows, weaving in and out of traffic to make whatever we could. No matter how many times the rich knocked on their car windows to shoo us away, we persisted. We made much more as a team than Simon did alone. He always gave me a good cut of the day’s earnings.
“Be careful with that,” he said. “There’s always some addict looking for money to steal.”
I didn’t need telling. Everyone in our barangay knew how horrible crime was. The narrow alleys and crumbling buildings housed every kind of criminal imaginable. At night, they came out to get their fix of drugs, sex and cruelty. They preyed on each other like animals and only the worst of them survived. I knew more about it than Simon realized.
* * * * *
For my birthday once, I let Simon see my private collection. Papa busied himself with a painting, trying to hide that he was waiting to see what Simon would say. At first, Simon didn’t say anything. He took his time watching how the images moved and changed. He watched the carabao lay down in its field to take a nap, saw the revelers in their fiesta dancing to silent music.
“Your father couldn’t do one with explosions?”
Papa just smiled.
I showed Simon the portrait of my mother last.
“How did she die?” asked Simon, as my mother blinked up at him.
“Ricardo Reyes shot her,” said my father. He didn’t say anything more. We didn’t talk about it a lot. It didn’t really help to say those things aloud. Everyone knew that Ricardo Reyes and his men did what they wanted. Reyes had built his network of drug dealers and gunmen over the past decade. They kept the addicts of Tondo happy with an endless flow of shabu, then did as they pleased with the money. They walked around without a care, their guns displayed for all to see. Even if the police picked them up, they just paid off the cops. Or shot down any heroes. One of those shootouts had killed my mother.
“Sorry po,” said Simon. I shrugged; there was no changing the past.
My father painted Simon that night. In the painting, the boy sat on a grimy street curb with his carton of goods. He smoked one of the cigarettes he was meant to sell. The light from the embers highlighted his eyes, where he kept his exhaustion and sadness. Sometimes I’d see it in his eyes in person.
* * * * *
One day, Papa and I came to the theater to find his paints spilled onto the ground. Some of it had been tossed onto his posters, careless splashes obscuring his handiwork. There were no children around that day. Instead, grown men with beer bottles in their hands and guns at their hips filled the place.
“You, old man,” called a deep gruff voice. Ricardo Reyes approached us in a cigarette ash dusted sando that hugged his beer belly. He scratched his head with the barrel of a pistol. I wondered if it was the same gun that killed my mother.
“We don’t need your posters,” said Reyes. “We’ll just print them out like normal people.”
“Let’s go, anak,” said my father, turning to go.
“Wait, you can’t do that!” I said, rage rushing through me.
“I can. I own this place now. I own this whole town, stupid boy.”
“Anak,” said my father, tugging at my arm.
“Listen to your father,” said Reyes, his finger on the trigger.
I let my father take me away. The rage continued to burn but guilt wormed its way in as well. I should have stood my ground against Reyes. FPJ wouldn’t have retreated. At the same time, I felt horrible that I might have gotten my father into danger. I felt less than brave and more than cowardly all at once.
I told Simon about it over a cigarette. “I hate them. They act like kings and no one can do anything about it.”
“It’s the shabu. Messes up their minds so they can’t think straight.”
I crushed my cigarette beneath my heel. “Bastards.”
Simon placed a hand on my shoulder. “Don’t worry. Things are going to change.”
The mayor from Davao City promised the country that things would change for the better. During his presidential campaign, he promised that crime would be gone in six months. I couldn’t help imagining him lining up Ricardo Reyes in his sights and promising him, “Isang bala ka lang.” The country accepted the mayor’s promises and made him president.
My father didn’t trust him.
“I don’t like that man,” he said. “He’s a killer.”
“Some people need killing, Pa.”
“How could you say that?” I had never seen my father so hurt. The lines on his face couldn’t help but betray his anger. I could read the disappointment etched onto his skin, as clear as if he had painted them on himself.
I didn’t speak to my father about politics anymore after that.
* * * * *
“This is a semi-automatic Glock 17.” Simon placed his childhood dream in my hand. I tried not to show how surprised I was by its weight. They never showed in the movies how heavy it felt. I tightened my grip on it, letting my hand hug its curves and edges.
“I can’t believe you finally got one,” I said.
“Guess how much I paid for it.”
Simon grinned. “Nothing.”
Simon had gotten his gun by joining the Citizen’s Protection Army. The CPA did what the police couldn’t or refused to do. The volunteer group handled problems on the streets and patrolled them. They carried around firearms, but Simon promised me that was for self-defense.
“We finally get to make things better around here, man. No more being scared, no more taking shit from those bastards. And that’s not all.” He pulled a wad of cash from his pocket. He riffled through the bills, showing me the purples and yellows. He must have had at least five thousand in his hands.
“Is this for real?”
“As real as it can be.”
I had never seen that much money in one place. Business for Papa at the time was at its worst. He had stopped doing religious paintings, instead devoting time to a new subject. With police raids becoming more frequent in our area, news of death came out most mornings. At the very least, the drug dealers died. Many of them had been in the theater the day my father lost his job. For some reason, Papa painted them. They lay dead, the growing pool of blood beneath their corpses the only movement on the canvas. His typically bright and vibrant paintings had transformed into dingy city streets where black and red ruled. They didn’t make money, but he persisted.
“I want in,” I told Simon.
“Thought you’d never ask.”
* * * * *
Along with a gun, the CPA gave me a black shirt with the group’s logo on it and a laminated member’s card. They gathered in a small headquarters where Simon and I got our assignments for the day. We’d get assigned an area to patrol, and we helped where we could. For the first few days, I mostly helped break up domestic disputes and listened to shopkeepers who’d been robbed in the night.
But I knew there were bigger things to be done.
Every night, many of the other members went home with thick piles of cash in their pockets. More money got passed around in the CPA headquarters than I would have known what to do with. Some nights, Simon went home with upwards of six thousand pesos in cash.
Papa didn’t approve of my membership, but he didn’t try to stop me either. When I told him about it, he just shrugged his shoulders and said, “You’re a man now. You can make your own choices.”
After a couple of weeks, Simon told me I was finally ready for a big-time job. “There’ll be four of us. We’ll each go home with ten thousand.”
I couldn’t respond. My mind could barely comprehend the idea of that much money.
That afternoon, a list of names was posted on the bulletin board at the headquarters. Simon pointed to a familiar name on the list.
“Tonight we’re going to kill Ricardo Reyes,” he said with a smile.
To be concluded next Sunday
Credit belongs to : www.manilatimes.net