Apr 4, 2013

LOW WALL by Estrella Alfon

Estrella Alfon

I WAS taking a bath, standing under the cool clean water from the bathroom shower, soaping myself when I felt a small missile hit my back, and I saw a pellet of paper, such as little boys use to load rubber slingshots, drop to the bathroom floor. Looking around me, and looking up, I was just in time to see a pate lower itself, a man’s head quickly disappear out of view behind the bathroom wall.
                We had built our barong-barong in the days immediately after the liberation. It had not mattered to us then, as it had not to so many others by the fire left bereft what the barong-barong would be like. Enough to us that these would be a roof over our heads and walls to hide the wretched bareness of lives pulled down to the most essentials by the liberation’s conflagration.
                It had quickly come out however, after a while when other houses sprang up beside ours, some of them meaner, some of them better than our own shack, that the shelter we now call home, was in some ways inadequate and wanting.
                We had pulled the charred wood from the ashes, their surface embers we had quickly hacked off to save the unburned core of wood underneath and had made these serve for posts. The twisted tin too, the blackened galvanized iron sheets; these too we had salvaged, and of these fashioned roofs and walls.
                When the rain came, the water leaked in through the roof and wind drove the rain in through the flimsy, nail-hole-pocked walls. A storm would rattle the whole structure, shake it like a truckfull of empty cans; and when the dusts arose from the seared upheaved streets, dust settled on food, and beds, and clothing inadequately protected by low, jerry-built walls.
                For we had only salvaged the walls standing of adobe stone, and on these posed slats of wood, for wood was dear, and labor dearer and in those days, as you remember, money was not immediately to be found- and so our barong-barong had low walls.
                Even the bathrooms. And so long as there had been no structure erected behind us, it had seemed the low bathroom walls were security enough from prying peeking eyes.
                But an auto repair machinery shop began to form in the backlot. An enterprising Chinese had seen all the burned trucks and garage – and from scavenging around for spare parts he could shine to a usefulness the Chinese had progressed in business so that he now had a shop – one of the first repair shops in the city.
                We had already dust and rain and heat to complain about. We had add now the noise of machines grinding, and people scraping away the paint from vehicles, and other people spraying new paint on scraped auto bodies, the spray machine making dolorous whining sounds.
                Men worked in the shop, and we therefore quickly had peeping toms. They would hear the bathroom shower going, and they quickly found out that that meant someone was taking a bath. My sister-in-law was first victim. She said she had seen someone peeking through a crack in the adobe while she took a bath.
                We cemented all the cracks in the adobe.
                Then one of my brothers, home from camp, caught sight of a hand one day clamped over the bathroom-wall, its owner probably readying himself for a lift. My brother rapped the hand smartly with a piece of firewood lying by; we heard a pained yelp, and the scamper of feet.
                We raised to the bathroom wall. But my father insisted on leaving an opening at the top, for filling the wall up to the roof would darken the bathroom too much.
                We were of course, by all these, admitting ourselves the defeated in this battle between peeping toms and our own outraged modesties.
                We’re fairly modern in our family. We go about in shorts, and something in bathing suits. Bare thighs and bare shoulders and bare midriffs do not send any of us into hysterical oohs and ahhs. And the young of the family have always been allowed to watch their elders dressing and undressing so that they could look upon the human body, ask what questions they wished, and feel no abnormal curiosity.
                But there is something indecent to the fact of being spied upon while you’re doing your ablutions that outrages the very sensibilities. I know it made me fighting mad.
                I stood up on the toilet seat, looked out over the bathroom wall and surveyed the machine-shop yard. Before I could prevent myself, I have shouted a few invectives at a boy I spied sitting down on a dismantled automobile chassis.
                I had seen the head of hair that had lowered itself from peeking at me and it had been just the shock hair he had. I strung together all the Tagalog words I have in the back of my mind for just such emergencies as this, and flung them at him.
                Everybody in the yard let their work drop while they stared at my mixture English, Tagalog, and Visayan swear words, but the shock-headed lad sat there and made no show that he had heard.
                Then a Chinese boy also standing by nodded his head at me, rolled his eyes at the lad and thus indicating himself as witness that I had indeed placed my finger on the correct man.
                All the people in the house had gotten wind of what was up. My mother gave me my clothes and had to literally take me off the toilet seat and tell me which article of clothing to put on my by now dried body.
                We ranged ourselves like a tribunal at the iron-grilled window of the house as we waiting for papa to bring us the culprit.
                My palms actually itched with the desire to slap his boob’s face. My ear tingled with the desire for violence and my face felt flaming hot.
                When the lad came he was sandwiched between my father whose nostrils seemed to flare with his anger, and a meek-looking man in a dirty suit of ma-ong, who kept wiping at his eyes with the back of his hand. The lad himself was sullen-looking creature. His face looked stony, and his hang-dog air was not repentant so much as sneering.
                As always, in cases like this, you get keyed up to a moment telling yourself what you’ll do when the moment comes. And yet when the actual minute arrives, all of a sudden, you feel a change of heart. That is what happened in this case.
                All of a sudden I seemed to be removed from this spot, this moment, this role. I watched as from distance the spectacle of myself, my brothers, and my mother ranged before the iron grills of the window. And I saw a lad, his head unshorn, uncombed on his bare feet, the dust of the city; and on his frame the careless dirty clothes of the unloved. And of a sudden, the itch went from my finers, the tingle from my ears, and my face resumed normal temperature again.
                The Chinese who owned the shop and yard came also, and it was to him my father directed his tirade. Papa said, These are your men you could at least tell them how to behave… And the Chinese kept shaking his head, saying he would tell them next time, and that he does tell them but… and he would shake his head and cluck his tongue, and otherwise act the very sage of regret.
                Then the man behind the boy, the dumpy little man with the dirty ma-ong suit came forward to me. He was actually crying! And he flung his pudgy short-fingered palms out from him and said, I am his father!

HE LOOKED at me, at my brothers, and at my mother, and the tears streaming from his eyes, and he would sniff his nose once in a while, and then swipe at his streaming eyes with his ma-ong sleeved arm.
                Putting a hand on the shoulder of a young man, he pulled then pushed him forward at us. The boy’s father said, his face working with emotion: “slap him! Curse him and kick him! Do anything you wish.
                “I am tired of trying to make him learn. I am a widower, my wife, his mother was killed, and I have to look for a living for him and four other brothers and sisters.
                “How can I be a mother of the same time too? Yet I have tried…”
                The man sobbed, actually! And mother and I looked at each other in amusement, consternation, and skepticism.
                “I have tried – “ the man continued, “And look what happens. He shames me, he disgraces me, he makes me cry here before you with the reality of how I have failed.”
                My brothers left the window, disgust making them go away. And my father was forced into quiet by the fellow’s theatrics. The lad stood there, rubbing one dusty foot at the other, twisting his shirt, running his dirty fingers through his dusty dirty hair.
                The father faced me, recognizing me as the party most offended, and kneeling down, tugged at my bakia, so suddenly I was surprised into surrendering into him. He straightened up, gave me my own bakia, and holding his son near me, much as you would hold a dressed chicken to a singeing flame, he said, “Strike him, make him bleed, maybe it will knock some sense into him.”
                I took the bakia, replaced it on my foot, and said, “It is not our habit to strike people, and it is not necessary.”
                The man let his son go, and the lad stood aside.
                Mother also left us. Father and the Chinese were talking earnestly off the one side and their conversation had turned to used cars and current prices.
                I was left alone to deal with this tearful man and his dullard son. I felt robbed of my own revenge, the joy of the punishment I had thought of meting stolen from me. Yet there was no way to stop the father’s profuse tears, and although I had longed for apology, this apology he was making was not making me feel mighty but miserable.
                He was saying, “In school, the teachers tell me he won’t study. I put him to work here, and what does he do – go peeking into bathrooms at ladies whom he should respect, the way I have tried to teach him ladies should be respected.”
                The man’s speech was a curious mixture of Tagalog and English. He must have been a man with ambition once. I looked at the lad, his son, and in my mind pictured the others, the brothers and sisters back at their home.
                What happens to a man’s heart when all his dreams for himself and his sons are realized not in glory but in the sight of a lad of fourteen, his hair unshorn, his feet bare, his eyes sullen, downcast but rebellious.
                I rejected the thoughts in my head as sentimental, saying to myself, the man is just putting on an act, those tears are mere show.
                And yet I know the man was not acting. And there would be other days, other people. And he would cry, but – I looked again at his son – it would not improve that lad.
                “I felt guilty in my heart of some fault, some vague shortcoming I had that was responsible for that lad’s being what he was, and what, I knew, he would surely be.
                I turned away from the father and the son. I walked away. Looking back, I saw his face, his tears just drying, his eyes looking as though he would call me back.
                But they turned, traced their back to the shop yard. As they walked, the man kept pushing his son, and the son sometimes stumbled. The Chinese called out to the father: Finish your job. The man wiped his eyes and nodded, then prodded his son again with a push.

Originally published in the Philippine Pen Anthology of Short Stories, 1962

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