Six from Downtown

by Dean Francis Alfar

The Wet Market

A WEEK AFTER I arrived in the city, I spent a day at the wet market, negotiating my way down the slippery floors and taking pictures. I was soon lost in the brilliant rainbow of fresh seafood, laid out in ice, suspended on hooks, swimming in plastic pails and low metal drums, whose names brought back memories of my childhood: palos, pating, alimasag, pindangga, lapu lapu, apahap, sap sap, pompano, tambacol, labahita, malasugi, pugita. At other stalls, I found trays of lato, seaweed that resembled a miniature bunch of grapes which my parents loved dipping in a mix of crushed garlic and spicy vinegar, as well as palm-sized oysters, their dull shells encrusted with barnacles.

One stall's sign captured my attention and got my taste buds going: Fresh Sirena. I smiled to myself, surprised at how many years had passed since I last tasted mermaid. When I was a child growing up in the south, my grandfather would take me out mermaid fishing. The boat of my memory was cramped and seemed ungainly in the water, but none of that mattered since I loved being out at sea with him.

"They think it's unlucky," he told me once, when I observed that it seemed only men went into the sea. "It does not matter to me that you are a girl. You're what God has given us and that's all the luck we'll need."

At a precise position whose exact oceanic location was known only to him, my grandfather would drop the makeshift anchor overboard and organize the fishing lines, stretching across the span of his arms the very fine filaments he purchased from American soldiers before they fled the Japanese. When all the preparations were done, he'd ask me to attach the bait. This was one of the best parts for me because I got to open the large biscuit tin with the end of a spoon and select a piece of jewelry. I would scoop out a handful of shiny trinkets and fuss over them, showing off to my grandfather how seriously I took the task. My favorite bait was a gold scapular embossed with the image of the Virgin Mary. After I had carefully attached the bait to the line, my grandfather would always tell me to sit still, watch the sea quietly and be ready with the net. Then he'd slowly lower the filament into the water, one hand unrolling calculated measures of length. Sometimes, it took forever for a mermaid to bite, and I remember thinking that perhaps they had all the jewelry they'd ever need. While waiting, my grandfather would smoke a thin cigarette between his teeth, flipping it into his mouth when only the smouldering filter remained, checking once in a while if I had a firm grip on the wooden handle of the net that was my part in things.

"Be ready at any time," he'd intone, exhaling smoke into the air laden with salt.

The mermaids we'd catch ranged from two and half to three feet in length. Their tails, excellent steamed, grilled or boiled with tamarinds, were an iridescent green flecked with blue points of lights. Halfway up was the bony flesh that was always cast away after cutting: the torsos were mottled pink and grey, with protruding nubs where nipples would be; the thin arms ended in four fingers, a filmy web of flesh between each one. The egg-shaped heads were crowned with pale stringy hair, like the ghosts of seaweed, covering much of the face that was punctured thrice by tortoise-colored eyes and a gasping mouth lined with sharp tiny teeth.

"Here's one," my grandfather would whisper upon sensing the line grow taut, before exploding into action, standing up and reining in the filament, hand over hand, until the mermaid broke the surface of the sea, unwilling to let go of the shiny bait. At his signal I'd quickly extend the net, making certain to trap the glistening tail, and together we'd haul the mermaid into the boat, where my grandfather would exchange the string in one hand for a fire-hardened club and strike at the mermaid's head until it stopped moving.

One was usually enough for our large family, but I remember during the times of fiesta how the sea would be dotted by little boats similar to my grandfather's, and how they'd return hours later, pitching low in the water, each with several mermaids.

I stood by the sirena stall and looked over what was offered, fighting the rising disappointment fueled by the memories of my childhood years. The mermaids lay side by side and almost haphazardly on top of each other, eyes closed and mouths agape, on a bed of crushed ice, most of them barely a foot long, some even smaller, and their tails had only the barest hint of green. Sensing my disquiet, the vendor, a middle-aged man with a red bandanna and a bulging belly, explained in a lugubrious tone that it was the lean season, and that all mermaids were that size nowadays.

I purchased the freshest looking one, astounded at the price per kilo, and asked if there was a place nearby that could grill it for me. The vendor winked and, for one hundred pesos, offered to cook it himself. I suspected he was overcharging me but gave in when he agreed to throw in a handful of sea snails for free.

The Business Quarter

THERE'S THIS STORY Marie told me after work one time over turtle pie at our favorite coffee place. You would never expect Marie to be the kind of person who collects a particular kind of story - she's barely five feet tall, round-faced in a way that recalls cherubs from the angel craze a few years back, and works for a non-government agency that is dedicated to preserving and promoting the zarzuela, moro-moro, and iyakan.

"I have a new one for you, Tom," she began, leaning toward my good ear. "There's this guy, okay? Around our age, regular guy, a call center guy, you know? Anyway, he's at his third call center - you know how people move around, right? Better pay is always a great motivator. So this guy is handling customer service for a phone company in the US. He gets a call from a woman, and you know, he goes through the motions, blah blah blah, the usual - they have a script and everything; they have a program on their monitors like a walkthrough and everything's there. I mean, everything. So anyway, this woman gets upset because she can't get the guy to understand her problem. But the guy, our guy, thinks he does. So he asks her questions again, just to make sure, very nicely because his supervisor or whatever they're called is listening in - they do, for evaluation, I guess. So he keeps asking her questions which I guess sounded either really useless or stupid to the woman, and she freaks out. She just freaks out. She starts calling him names, demands exactly where he is - and I don't know if they're allowed to say where they are, I mean, they're pretending to be in US, right? They even have the proper accents and all. So she's really upset and our guy's trying to calm her down, but he's getting affected too, I mean, who wouldn't, you know? "

I nod, offering her a cigarette before lighting one for myself.

"Finally he says, he says to her, 'I'm sorry I can't help you, ma'am", takes off his headset, stands up, leaves the call center, drives home, calls his wife's cell phone and tells her to come home from school - she was taking her master's in something, and, get this, she pregnant with their first child. But I'll get to that, in a bit. Anyway, when she arrives, well, when she arrives, he stabs her seventeen times with a kitchen knife. Seventeen times. I mean, oh my god, right? Then he sits down next to her on the floor and waits for someone to find them. He just sits there, looking at her, looking at what he's done, I guess. Just sits there. That's when he notices fingers slowly poking out of the wounds on her stomach. I know, I know. He sits there transfixed or whatever and just watches his child pull open the wounds and crawl to his dead wife's tits. Imagine that. I don't know what happened next, supposedly the call center helped keep the thing hush-hush to protect their image, but I don't know. Obviously, word got out. But it's not in the papers though. And you'd think that something like that would make the tabloids at the very least. I don't know."

As I listened to Marie recount the story in her own inimitable way, her eyes punctuating every detail, every digression, widening, squinting, liquid with the excitement of sensational tragedy, I felt slightly dizzy. When her hands grasped an invisible knife and punctured the air between us, repeating the actions of the call center man, I felt myself bleed, inwardly reeling from the assault as if I were his doomed wife, coming home to the unexpected violence of kitchen steel. By the time Marie was finished, I was exhausted, and there was really nothing more to say or do, apart from picking up my fork and eating the remnants of the turtle pie.

"So, Tom," Marie asks, checking her watch. "What's up with you?"

The Red Light District

IN THE CITY, everyone has to make money. I dance every night for a hundred pesos. I know it doesn't look like much - it's more of an allowance from the club owner - but I make a good living through tips. The club is called Suave, and though all the dancers are there by 7, the doors open only at 10. That's when the dancing begins.

Tonight's no different. Before I am called, I sit in a small room with the other guys. I stroke myself, imagining the last girl I was with, and apply ten thick rubber bands around my hardness, each one looped twice to keep the blood in. Some guys use more, but I've found that my pain tolerance peaks at ten. When I'm hard as a rock I wear my briefs, white and tight, to better show off my bulge. Then I wait.

When I hear my music play, I make my way to the darkened stage and take my position, my back to the audience, hands and legs spread apart, leaning against the wall. As the vocals rise, the lightshow begins and I start to move, grinding to the thumping bass line. I turn and move around the stage, working the space to the beat, posing, strutting, slowly here, faster there. My hands touch my chest, trailing down my abs and over between my legs.

My face is impassive - I was taught to show nothing, to let the audience imbue my face with whatever they want - except for my eyes. I look at them, the ones closest to the stage. I catch the eye of a young woman in the company of friends. I feel the heat of her gaze, consuming every inch of my body. I dance for her alone, timing my next motion to a downbeat, suddenly kneeling so close to the woman that she involuntarily flinches. I raise my hips and seduce the air, running a hand over my chest while supporting myself with the other.

I know what she wants, what she came to see.

I stand up, pull off my briefs and release my tail.

It uncoils quickly, swollen and pulsing, and I urge it up. The applause that follows is deafening and I hear my name shouted above the music. I flex my tail down and sideways, letting it trail down the cold stage floor before twirling it around, slowly at first, then faster, double beat rhythm, slashing through both the hot air and the deafening music. Then as I am abruptly trapped in a spotlight, I grab my thickness and caress the hard muscle, bringing it close to my face and look for the woman I chose to dance for.

Her arm is raised, her hand clutching a five hundred peso bill.

Please, she mouths. Do it to me.

I break into a smile and send my tail out toward her, fast as a whip, and encircle her neck. Her eyes open in anticipated surprise and I feel her gasp for breath. I contract and squeeze until her mouth falls open and her tongue rolls out. I lift her up, tensing my muscles, hiding the pain of the cutting rubber bands from my face, and she is choking and everyone is clapping, hooting, wishing it was them I favored.

I hold her in the air for a few moments, feeling the tremors of her spasms on my tail, before setting her down. She draws in several deep breaths and I let myself linger, stroking her flushed cheeks, brushing against her fingers until she opens her hand. I curl the tip of my tail around the money and bring it back to my hand, just in time as the music ends.

In the darkness that follows, I return to the dressing room, making way for the next dancer. I cut the rubber bands around my tail with a pair of scissors all the guys share and feel immediate relief as the blood drains away from the hard muscle.

I'm sore, as usual, but it's a living.

The University Belt

I WILL NEVER forget how Mr. Rosales, my music teacher in 2nd year, vanished. My parents, convinced at that time that I had a degree of hidden musical brilliance, engaged him as my tutor every Tuesday and Thursday night, in addition to my regular class under him on Fridays.

Mr. Rosales came from a small town in Negros, from one of those places whose names the mind finds impossible to recall, the ones where moths, wings tipped in poisonous dust, trail after would-be suicides. He was a peculiar man who talked about his life to anyone who would listen. After private lessons at my house one evening, he told me how much he loved music but felt that his entire life was a failure. I remained quiet, out of respect. But it was true.

Against his lips, the flute acquired an altogether different aspect, lilting, rising, falling, persuading, leading all who heard it almost but not quite to the precipice of utter joy. But consistently, at the precise moment when the next note would transport his audience of students to an unearthly paradise, he'd falter, reversing in mere moments the experience of delight and replacing it with a cacophony that could only rouse an exasperated sense of regret, enveloping those of us within earshot with the fading echoes of his desperate longing.

One Friday afternoon in class, right after another truncated recital that ended in the manner all his performances did, Mr. Rosales walked out of the music room, in tears. My fellow students and I followed him at a cautious distance down the corridors, past the classrooms where voices expounded on genes and peas, down the stairs past the glass-enclosed trophies that proudly attested to the school's victories in volleyball, origami and spelling, and out into the pristine and uniform-length grass of the quad. It was there that he turned to us and said, "I'm done with this - and with all of you."

The whirlwind that engulfed him appeared out of nowhere. It came as an inverted cone, swirling with the tip on top, ten meters tall, colored mostly green and smelling strongly of crushed leaves. It just covered him, like a cup in a shell game, and was simply not there the next moment. The fascinating thing about it, in fact the very last thing that everyone who witnessed Mr. Rosales' leave-taking remembered, was that the entire event took place in silence. There was none of the expected sounds associated with a whirlwind, even a completely unexpected one. It just came, upside down, covered him completely, and vanished, all in silence.

Mrs. Flores, the teacher who replaced him, was less memorable.

I think she taught piano.

Restaurant Row

EVENINGS AT SHIRO SHIRO were usually a happy time for most of us. Except for me. Tonight I just sat there, listening to each of my friends relate all their current and prospective creative work ("For profit or for the soul", as DM, the loudest and the most prolific of us, put it). As each person rattled off all their plans and schedules, I kept silent, knowing I was nowhere approaching my expected output as a member of our circle of writers and artists.

"I'm thinking of the male nude for my exhibit, but very harshly lit," Tony said, passing a handful of Polaroids around. "No shadows, no textures, no mystique. I think I can pull it off. I'm thinking of getting really old guys, grandfathers, you know, people like that. Hairless, wrinkly. I'll get them drunk or high and give them a fistful of razors. I'm thinking about what lies beneath all of us - or them, in this case."

It was not a matter of whether or not I had ideas. I did have them, I recall finding a few quite exciting, perhaps one or two even astounding in their potential. But they remained pure ideas, unexpressed, as I permitted myself to be mired down by the mundane circumstances of my life. Normally, even the humdrum everyday would be a source for me to mine and craft, set down into words, but I've been unable to pursue my thoughts to their multi-path endings, unable to commit the time and effort to actually create. The very thought of writing immediately drained me before I even started.

"Of course, all the thirteen stories will interconnect and are all true - I researched the police files myself," Susan was explaining, a little too loudly as usual. "It's all about the intertextuality of sexuality." She was telling the group about her book deal and the risks she was undertaking, pushing her personal literary agenda when all that the publisher wanted were short romances in Filipino. "Without risk, we cannot create," she said, pausing for dramatic effect. "It would just be empty fireworks. I'm setting the themed collection in a school for the blind. The challenge is to articulate what these characters cannot see - the onrush of heartbreak. Imagine these kids groping each other, fucking around while they make their stupid paper no one buys."

Her words reminded me how my own thoughts came in staccato bursts, like pyrotechnics that rose and flared, abruptly lighting my consciousness before just as quickly fading into the quiet of my mind. The longest piece I'd had written in recent memory was a fractured poem of three verses in first person with no imagery whatsoever. When I was finished I knew I was guilty of setting monologues as prose poems with no hope of truly creating anything; just wanting to write something, anything, to have something to show the others, to burn away time.

"You know those old 'Choose Your Own Adventure' books," Andrew asked, gesturing to the group. "You know, you make choices and get different endings and shit? Remember how they could have been so cool? Well, I'm writing one on my blog, hyperlinked and all, so there's an actual experience of moving away once a choice has been, you know, made. I'm working out linking it to this sad, sad blog I hacked. There's this woman who's been abandoned by her husband, and everything she writes is just pathetically exquisite. She exposes everything. She thinks he left her because she's fat and ugly, and she's absolutely right. She has a picture and, oh man! One of the links goes directly to her- and she won't know." His idea made most of the group laugh and sit up as they contributed memories of the old book series.

"She's her own tragedy," Marge giggled.

"That sounds great," DM said, bestowing a dazzling smile of approval upon Andrew. "Finish it and we'll think about how to protect it from plagiarists. I like the conceit applied to the web, but I don't trust the assholes online."

When it was my turn to speak, I just coughed twice and proceeded to be studiously engrossed with my cell phone, letting the painful moment of anticipated response pass by in bullet-time, before Marge, the purple-haired poet next to me, saved me from further embarrassment.

As I listened to her announce the publication of yet another of her collections of angry-young-woman-who-makes-the-mistake-of-falling-in-love-with-her-mother poetry, I thought about how my own ideas and plans just sat in the still corners of my mind, perfectly transfixed, like the plastic displays of menu items in the Japanese restaurant that DM insisted upon so he could light up and smoke his noxious clove cigarettes.

"So, in the end, my collection says, in a nutshell, 'I have nothing more to say to you, Mama - go find someone else to go down on you." Marge sat back, exhausted by her own vitriol.

"I love it," Susan said, raising her glass of Strong Ice to Marge before turning to look at me. "What about you, Trish? I didn't hear what you're up to."

"This and that," I muttered. "Nothing much."

"I'm sure you have something," DM said with a small frown. "What happened to the novel you're writing, the one about Spanish friars in Cebu?"

"I have something cooking," I replied. "I have the words."

"You're just being lazy, Trish," DM said with an exaggerated frown.

"Whatever," I said. I composed a text message and sent it to myself.

Get out get out get out

When the message arrived, triggering the beep of my cell phone seconds later, I stood up, excused myself and drove back to my house.

I headed directly to the fridge. I ignored the giant candy-shaped aluminum foil that contained the remains of last year's aborted writing and instead took one of the baby blue tupperwares, peeled open the cover and looked at all the words I'd been cutting out from various books, newspapers and magazines for past several months.

In a clean skillet, I tossed the words in, added a little water and soy sauce, twisted the heat to low, waited for the text to simmer and hoped for the best.

The Housing Projects

I WAKE UP from a troubling dream and realize my wife has left again without telling me. She's dealing with the anxiety of our inability to have a child in her own way - there, I've said it, it's out in the open. Seven years of trying nearly everything wears anyone down. I check near the window and see she'll be back before the sun rises. She's never completely gone.

Unable to return to sleep, I decide to go out for a drink and a massage, leaving at just past midnight. I lock up, walk a bit in the gentle drizzle, and wait for a cab.

Once in a while, I do this: find a friendly bar, have a couple of beers and just vegetate. It's important that I'm alone. I do not want or need conversation and I certainly don't want to think. On occasion someone comes over to talk. I don't respond. I am not in the mood for someone else's story, whether it is as banal as a prostitute with a heart of gold, as artless as a philandering man, or as half-flattering as some guy who thinks I'm cruising the bar for some action. I wear a mask of stupidity, of being unable to comprehend complicated sentences, and radiate a zone of general antipathy in the blue cloud of my cigarette smoke.

After I pay for my drinks, I take another cab. The dark streets offer no traffic, glistening with the dull sheen left behind by the superficial rain. At the Korean bathhouse I frequent, I check in, strip and take a bath while sitting on a small wooden stool. Then I immerse myself in the hot waters of the main pool, oblivious to the amiable argy-bargy of the other men around me, Filipinos and foreigners, simultaneously exposed and cloaked by steaming water. I soak until I feel the alcohol in my system flushing out via sweat. Then I go for my massage, hoping that the lady I like is present. She is, and soon her iron fingers wedge themselves into the knots of my aching back, shaking my body's dalliance with sadness with redemptive pain.

Afterwards, I go up to the bar in my robe and have a glass of Shiraz, mellow and with a hint of tartness, and look beyond the glass walls and out into the street below. I think of nothing, not work or children. For a while I pretend to be consumed by nothing, no cares, no worries. Just for a while.

Before 5AM, I ride a third cab home to the condo. I check to see if my wife is back but she isn't. The lower half of her body is still standing where she left it, next to the window, wearing only the floral patterned panties I don't like very much. I look out the window of our 33rd floor unit and see the grey skies slowly changing hues.

I know she'll fly back. She's on her way home.

I realize that I am desperately hungry, that everything in my system since midnight has been smoke and alcohol. I make scrambled eggs the way I like them (heat the pan with a little oil, dump the eggs, whisk briskly to separate the mass, then on to a plate - the entire process takes only a few seconds) plus a couple of links of sticky longganisa.

My wife arrives in a rustle of wings. I look up from my early breakfast and she is there, framed by the bedroom doorway, flushed and glowing with perspiration.

"You've been out," she says, kicking out the kinks in her legs which had gone asleep while she was away.

I nod. "A couple of beers and a massage."

"Good, good," she says, moving to the kitchen counter for a glass.

"Hungry?" I ask, pointing to my half-eaten meal.

"No, thanks," she says, filling her glass with water from the dispenser. "I just ate."

Later in bed, after she showers, I lean over and kiss her.

"You want to try again?" I ask, tracing the contours of her face with my fingers.

In the light of dawn, she turns away to hide her tears.

For Ian Casocot

end

"Six from Downtown" was first published in Philippines Free Press, June 2006, and subsequently in Philippine Speculative Fiction Vol.2, December 2006. It received the Philippines Free Press Literary Award for Short Story in 2007, as well as an Honorable Mention in the Datlow/Link/Grant The Year's Best Fantasy & Horror 2007.

Dean Francis Alfar is a leading advocate of speculative fiction in the Philippines, as co-editor and publisher of the annual Philippine Speculative Fiction anthology. His novel Salamanca (Ateneo Press) won the Book Development Association of the Philippines's Gintong Aklat as well as the Grand Prize Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Award for Literature, joining nine more Palancas, two Manila Critics' Circle National Book Awards, and the Philippines Free Press award. His short fiction is collected in The Kite of Stars and Other Stories (Anvil). He has been published in venues both national and international, including Strange Horizons, The Year's Best Fantasy & Horror, Rabid Transit: Menagerie, Latitude, A La Carte, and the upcoming Exotic Gothic II. He is the founder of the LitCritters writing and literary discussion group, husband to fellow writer Nikki Alfar, and father to daughters Sage and Rowan. He maintains a regular online presence at Notes from the Peanut Gallery.