by Gian Carla Agbisit
It was not because he needed defending. I just felt I needed to do it. My loyalty to him required it.
I was six and Kenji, a boy in my class, who always seemed to have a cold, kept saying “Pukol, pukol.” His arms were tucked inside his shirt like someone who is about to rob a bank with a fake hand gun. A red sweater was draped around his shoulders, and he was trying to jerk his shoulders to move the empty sleeves.
“Pukol. Pukol. Pukol tatay mo,” he said between snivels.
I ignored him. Instead, I invited my seatmate Pauline to smell my new strawberry eraser. I told her that my eraser smelled nicer than hers. She agreed after I handed her one of my Stik-O’s. But she thought her pencil was taller than mine. We compared. We both had the thick black pencil required of first graders, mine though was losing its eraser and was chewed on.
“Ay, pandak!” Pauline laughed.
“Konti lang,” I defended.
“Pukol, pukol,” Kenji came back taunting. One of his sweater sleeves hit my face. I stood up and I tried to poke his eye with a pencil.
I missed. The pencil was too short.
The boxing gloves were there even before I was born, hanging on a hook behind my parents’ bedroom door. There was no use of them. I turned out to be a girl—my name changed from Carlo to Carla— and my father would not be able to use them. But they stayed there.
My sister Shari was born. Then, Lana. We would march around with Mama’s shoes, or with her handbags trailing behind us like trolley bags. Sometimes, for a change, we would pretend to be little mermaids and crawl about the house, pillowcases wrapped around our legs. We would take Papa’s Good Morning face towels, clip them to our hair, and pretend to be blondes, flipping the pseudo hair again and again until one of us got tired and decided to give her Barbie a haircut.
Sometimes, Mama would play with us. She would give us small handkerchiefs and we would crowd around a small basin, washing them longer than what it took Mama to finish washing all the other clothes. The tips of our fingers would wrinkle and we would look at each other and smile in amazement, as if the creases were badges of honor for what we had accomplished.
Games with Papa, however, were more exciting. He would hand us plastic toy trucks and bulldozers and trains. We would pull the strings attached to these toys and around the house we go, an army of three soldiers and one captain. We would pick up the dried leaves and put them in the back of the trucks and deposit them to the garbage can.
“They were dead soldiers and they needed proper burial,” my father would say. Sometimes, when Lana felt the need to know who killed the soldiers, the leaves would suddenly become fishes that needed to be refrigerated or canned. And because everything was cleared again, we would go on, marching around the house, three little girls pulling on toy trucks and bulldozers and trains, until TV’s Sailor Moon would call us back inside the house.
After dinner, while Mama cleared up in the kitchen, we would line up in our pink cotton pajamas, begging Papa for stories. It was always about a girl named Rimpampanita. She had a long braided hair and somehow, she always had an exciting day, almost always death-defying.
After goodnight kisses, my parents would close their door, and when you listened really well, you would hear a soft thud against the door. The boxing gloves were still there, hanging on a hook, accumulating dust.
A deer’s head attached to a block of wood hung on a wall in the kitchen, as if the deer broke through the wall, through the block of wood, and its body was somewhere outside the kitchen wall—trapped—writhing and trashing about. However, its eyes, made of dark blue marbles, made the deer’s head looked like it was watching over the dining table with a straight face, making sure I ate my vegetables.
The deer’s head was purely ornamental except during Christmas when its horns served as hooks for our Christmas stockings. Santa Claus hung his gifts on the horns too.
Papa woke me up. He said Mama was attending the misa de gallo and that he wanted something to be done. He wanted me to stand on a chair and hang a yellow plastic bag in the deer’s horns.
“Dahan-dahan,” he said. He sounded excited. And every time the bag rustled, he would “shhh-shhh.”
I was in fourth grade. “Wala talagang Santa. Hindi totoo si Santa,” Pauline had said. I thought Santa Claus had died. Pauline was trying to comfort me with the thought that Santa simply never existed.
Papa was born of a mother who was so sosyal she could afford to feel morning sickness and take pills to cure it. Because of the pills, Papa was born that way. His arms were underdeveloped. The right looked like a lobster’s claw that he used to hold a pen or a spoon or his cigarette. The left was a useless sausage-like appendage.
His arms were too short so he could not wear long sleeves. He never owned a jacket. Or an umbrella.
He could not pull his pants up or down. He could not button his shirt. He could not tie his shoelaces. Or scratch his back.
Mama did all those things for him.
Sometimes, Papa would need to come to Manila for his work. When we were all in college, he would stay in our apartment for a few days and would go back home to Cagayan. Once, he stayed with us for about a month.
He would be up by 3 A.M. and would go over to Joy’s house in Blumentritt for his coffee. Twice or thrice, he came home late, singing and reeking of alcohol.
Joy was a family friend’s friend, a single mother with three sons.
One day, I was rummaging through Papa’s bag for his lighter.
Pieces of paper. Calling cards. Coins. Two or three twenty-peso bills. A LOTTO ticket. And a foil pack that said: LUBRICANT.
“Bullshit Pa,” I said and walked out, because, for once, I would have wanted to have the last word. And although I could have said something smarter— preferably a remark that involved ‘transcendental’ and ‘man whore’— I was too angry to think.
It was February 14, 2010. After each having an adjective for my father and for what he did—Lana, always the bravest, chose “douchebag,” although I doubt my father understood the word— my sisters and I spent the day at the local mall, watching Eat, Pray, Love.
I had never seen Mama cry in front of anybody. You could see her bloodshot eyes, and tearstained cheeks, and you could even hear her sniff if you were not looking, but you could never see her cry. She would lock herself in the bathroom and the hell she cared if you really had to pee.
Transcendental Man Whore would not be able to pull his pants down. My mother would be locking herself in the bathroom.
I liked the idea.
“All men do that,” he said.
Mama repeated the same thing using science. She was rationalizing things. She said something about women losing sexual urges earlier than men, stuff like that. “He is still your father. You should not lose respect.”
The new prayer had eight lines and a simple melody. And he was trying to teach by example. “Steeple, steeple,” Papa said the way our pastor said it, and my sisters and I formed a steeple with our hands.
Papa cleared his throat.
Mama, a Catholic, made the sign of the cross.
I closed my eyes.
“God is great and God is good,” Papa began.
“And we thank Him for this food,” his voice broke.
“By his grace…” I bit my lip and stifled a laugh.
All hell broke loose.
Shari and I had to eat dinner outside the house. Papa said that if we could not even behave right, we might as well be demoted to being guard dogs. Lana had been demoted to a pig a few weeks before that for talking back.
Sitting on a hammock tied to a tree and a post, balancing our plates on our lap, and trying to bone a fish in semi-darkness, only the mosquitoes enjoyed the feast. When Mama called us in, I was more than willing to say sorry.
It did not really matter why you were saying sorry—or if you were really sorry—as long as you said sorry.
My grandmother used to say that when Papa was born, my grandfather took to drinking. Every night.
I was five; and Lana was just a baby. We were watching something on TV and Papa was laughing heartily. The color of his face was close to red, so was the color of his eyes. He smelled weird, like roses and vinegar and rotten fruit. Mama was telling Papa to “Sleep it off. ‘Yung beer lang yan.” But Papa stood up and went to the garden.
Shari said Papa looked like Roderick Paulate playing Petrang Kabayo. We thought Papa would find Petrang Kabayo amusing so Shari and I decided to tell Papa that he looked like a bida.
It was dark outside but I could see Papa. He was lying on the ground. His right arm was outstretched. His eyes were closed. He looked really funny, sleeping on the grass, without pillows and blankets. Shari and I laughed really hard.
Mama did not find that funny though. She rushed to Papa’s side and called out to the neighbors.
There were drops of blood in the grass the following morning. And the color of the left side of Papa’s face was a mix of blue and violet and black. Papa still looked like a bida, like Petrang Kabayo in mid-transformation. I told him, and he smiled.
Vanidadez’ Sari-Sari Store was the black market for grade schoolers. They sold popsicles and rubber bands and different kinds of stickers and scented pens. It was across the school and to get there, you had to cross the highway. Teachers always warned us: “If you cross the street, you’ll get hit by a car and you’ll die.” They were so sure of it.
Pauline told me that Vanidadez’ was selling Chabelita paper dolls, and I wanted one. But because I did not want to die, I begged Papa to take me there.
“Hold on,” Papa said. He looked left, then right.
We crossed the street, walking side by side. I was clutching the side of his shirt. It would be hard to tell who was guiding whom.
In the Ilocano dialect, “pukol” is a word that refers to the unusual shortness of something, an arm, a leg, etc.
“Your father has short arms.” Or “Your father is disabled.”
“Just a little.”
“There is no Santa. Santa is not real.”
“It was just the beer.”