Manuel

by


by barbara barquez ricafrente

He was always Awil to those who knew him since he was a boy who ran around in his birthday suit, his face often caked with mûrit from dirt, dried-up tears, and a breakfast diet of rice coffee that his mother did not bother to wipe off his cheeks. The eldest of ten children, he only went as far as the second grade, and this is the reason he has always had a hard time with math, could not read, and could hardly write – save for his name.

His father Domingo was the local bully in his younger years. Despite his muscular physique, Domingo had a certain disdain for manual labor. Instead, he would position himself at a corner of the main street in his barangay and demand peso coins from passersby. For this, he earned the alias Ibŭg, which in the local dialect meant thick-faced or shameless. As he began to grow white hair and acquire a stoop, however, Domingo somehow got hold of an old violin which he trained himself to play. He eventually formed a string quartet of self-taught musicians, with him playing the violin, two others playing the guitar, and the fourth member playing the base guitar. He composed his own music and had his own repertoire of songs for a group of young girls he organized into a dance troupe that became known as his pastoras. These girls, his neighbors’ daughters, were usually clad in a screaming red dress with raffles and a matching red hat and sash. The girls, whose thickly made-up faces made them look like they had fallen right smack into a mound of rice flour, performed at selected homes in town and were given “cash donations” by pleased homeowners during the Christmas season. They even joined competitions among similar groups in other parts of Bicol.

Awil’s mother was a laundrywoman who, even in the ‘60s, already skipped meals trying to feed her large brood. Thus, Awil learned early on that he needed to develop some skills in order to get by in this world. By the time he reached his teens, he had become a highly skilled pickpocket. He was a keen reader of body language, and knew right away when someone had money on him. He also polished the art of distraction to perfection. Sometimes he went with a partner, usually one of his younger brothers whom many likened to Jesus Christ for his long flowing hair and gentle face, but operated mostly on his own. His victims never noticed their missing purse, wallet, or bundle of cash tucked in the front pockets of their trousers or jeans until they had to take it out to pay for something. He was always on target and never missed a beat, something that earned him the grudging respect of the town’s older and less-talented thieves.

To spare his family from potentially embarrassing situations, however, he deemed it prudent to change venues by picking other people’s pockets in the more prosperous neighboring towns of Polangui and Ligao. Sometimes he went further south to Legazpi City, or went the other way to the bustling town of Nabua in Camarines Sur and the latter’s cities of Iriga and Naga. However, this got him into trouble with the other fellows of the local underworld in those areas and they took turns beating him up. Awil somehow survived these episodes and, owing to his pleasant manners and harmless stance, he was eventually able to befriend the gang leaders. Although he was never caught red-handed, he earned quite a reputation in these places that got him thrown in jail a number of times. These stints sometimes lasted months, his family not having the slightest idea where he had gone off to. He got out of jail only when one of his friends from the underworld bailed him out, or when his jailors had become too friendly with him, or when the jail warden was running out of funds for the detainees’ meals.

At the age of twenty, Awil fell for the charms of a woman who worked as a housemaid in one of the bigger houses in his barangay. She bore him eight children whose names he sometimes forgot or interchanged. When the going was good, Awil was very generous with his earnings. He gave almost all of it to his woman and told her to buy whatever she needed. This, however, was the exception rather than the rule. More often than not, he could hardly scrape together enough money to buy even his own meal.

Despite his poverty, Awil had a happy disposition. He had neither expectations nor goals. He did not bother to get employment anywhere, join his peasant neighbors reap palay for local landowners during the harvest season, weave weed baskets for local middlemen in the lean months like his neighbors did, or sell rice biscuits or puto in nearby cities for extra income. He simply lived each day as it came. He drank some to please his peers, but had very low tolerance for alcohol. Neither did he smoke, unlike his father who reeked of tobacco. His children grew up on their own, like wild plants that shoot up any which way toward the sunlight. He hardly noticed them, did not know what their preferences were, and had no idea what went through their minds. By the time his third child, a boy, hit sixteen, the kid came into the company of armed rebels who frequented the more remote fringes of the barangay. It did not take long before the boy joined them in the mountains. Awil never saw him again.

Fed up with being poor, his wife landed a job as a domestic help in one of those South Pacific islands. She wrote to Awil one day, several years since she had left her family for that far-flung country, to tell him she wasn’t coming back and that she had found another man, a local, with whom she wanted to spend the rest of her life. Awil, of course, did not know what to make of the letter. Making excuses about the state of his eyesight, he asked a neighbor to read the letter for him instead and apprise him of its contents. Upon learning of his wife’s decision, Awil felt sad and went home to sleep.

It only took a week before he decided it was time to move on. As he did have a thing for housemaids, Awil flirted openly with some of the younger ones employed in his neighborhood. He brought them on dates either at the old Bichara Theater in Ligao or the newer one in Polangui, where they watched back-to-back Tagalog action films usually featuring FPJ, Lito Lapid, and Rudy Fernandez, and had lunch or merienda at nearby eateries. Sometimes when Awil did not have enough cash for a movie and a meal for two, he and his date just listened to a movie broadcast by way of loudspeakers over an adjoining wet-and-dry market in Polangui as they sat on grimy benches at a halo-halo stall that was teeming with fat flies and crawling with stray cats and dogs. The girls always seemed quite taken by him, as Awil gifted them with cheap little things such as a pink comb or a gaudy purse and always made them feel like a princess.

He also developed an interest in cockfighting. He tagged along with cockfighting enthusiasts or the para-bulang among his neighbors and enthusiastically placed bets on their cocks. He even bought his own roosters and tried to train them into becoming prize fighters, but his attempts were all in vain for Awil had no understanding of the scientific approach. His cocks always ended up on someone else’s dining table. After some time, he decided to give up this distraction.

Mid-life crisis hit him at age fifty. Awil did not know what to do with his life, and sought the advice of a neighbor whom he considered a friend. But he was not making himself clear by mumbling, sighing, and giving only bits of what was on his mind. Pressed for an explanation, he finally blurted out that he felt so useless after his peers in the underworld had teased him about why he was still a pickpocket when the rest of them had elevated their game to pushing marijuana and shabu, the so-called poor man’s cocaine. The neighbor warned him of the dangers of drug pushing, telling him it could land him in jail for the rest of his life or get him killed. Awil gave it a lot of thought and, after sometime, decided he would only deal in marijuana just to show his peers he was no wimp.

His modest earnings from this trade allowed him to buy his own pedal-powered tricycle, known locally as the padyak. After some years, Awil deemed it best to clean up his act altogether by becoming a full-time padyak driver. But as he had never done manual labor in his life, he soon grew tired of the physical exertion the job required and went off to Bulacan to stay with the family of one of his daughters. Today, he seems happier trying his hand at playing grandfather to his children’s children, and flirting with housemaids whenever the opportunity presents itself. He has no expectations that life has anything better to offer, and is perfectly at ease with where he is. That is, until his peers come out of the woodwork once again to tease him about his lack of progress.

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