A Cold Dish

A Cold Dish

By Kenneth Tan

His palms were sweaty and his back ached as they waited for the group. Manoling was restless and he couldn’t sit down, yet the more he paced the greater his back ached. He was in the dining room on the 2nd floor of a two story house owned by his partner.  The dining room had a plastic monobloc set which could seat eight people, which is pretty big for a round plastic table.

Manoling was of medium build and of average height and his furious pacing hardly shook the thin wooden floors of the house.  His partner, Rico tells him to relax and throws him a pack of cigarettes.  How can he relax, as he held the pack in his hand, he had to pretend to be a geodetic engineer, Rico needed him to declare to the prospective buyers that his property can support a high rise structure.

Rico had the falsified paperwork at hand and he just needed someone who looked honest and respectable and who knew enough about construction to discuss it in full detail.  He also wanted to make extra money by charging his co-owners the full service fee for a survey on their property, Rico had other partners. Manoling was hesitant but he needed the money badly. “What name do you want to use?” Rico asked. Manoling hadn’t thought of that, of course he couldn’t use his real name; he shaved his beard this morning and wore a shirt that he never used before, a tacky striped blue and yellow collared shirt that he tucked into an oversized pair of khaki slacks. He shaved his head too, just in case.  This con was going to be done here in his city and he didn’t want to risk being recognized by these people on the bad chance that he bumps into them in the supermarket or something.

“How about Daniel Santos?” Manoling shot back while lighting his cigarette. “Engineer Daniel Santos, hmm… It has a nice ring to it” said Rico. “That name IS perfect” Manoling thought to himself Engineer Dan was one his top clients when he still had a lucrative construction business. That business is long gone and it took with it almost everything he possessed.

Saddled with debt and his heart heavy because of the betrayal of his relatives who stole his collectibles and borrowed money from lenders under his name Manoling saw his reputation slipping into infamy.  Now the banks will not lend him money, no one wants to do business with him, and with no college education Manoling was fucked.   His wife left soon after that bringing with her anything that fit the moving van along with his daughter Lisa.  His beloved Lisa, he hasn’t seen her in years and he still dreams of her every night and every night he would wake up weeping in his bed.  His wife and her family had forbidden him to see Lisa until he can support her.  Sometimes he would get a text from Lisa “I luv u Papa” or “I miss you Papa.”  He got a long message once and only once and it said “They want me to hate you Papa, but don’t worry I know how hard you tried and you’re never going to give up because of me.”

He was a pariah and the life he had before, the only life he knew, was gone like it never existed… like he never existed.

Now, here he is a bundle of nerves and desperate for money, his share for this con was fifty thousand “the price of my soul” he thought.

“They’re here” said Rico as he rushed to the gate, he was a big tall man who lumbered when he moved, his steps shook his house’s light wooden floors.  Manoling was hyperventilating so he took long deep breaths and rushed to the bathroom to wash his face to calm himself.

In the bathroom he used a shell shaped soap and thought to himself as he smelled it “lilac, Lisa had one of these”   and he remembered how he and Lisa were lying on the grass in their garden one evening when she was three and how inquisitive she was, asking about the stars and what made them shine and planets and comets, she was very smart for her age.  They stayed there for hours because Lisa just wanted her father all to herself she would tell him later on.

With the money he makes here he’ll be able to finally see her again, she’d be 15 by now.

Finally, he was calm he checked himself in the bathroom mirror and was amused a bit as he looked very different, very clean almost like a new born baby.  He then walked to the dining room, sat down and pretended to read the real estate section of the newspaper.

He heard the group chattering as they entered the gate and walked the length of the driveway, they were at the foot of the stairs, Manoling breathed in deeply and slowly transitioned into character.

“Engineer?”  Rico called Manoling.  He put down the newspaper stood up and smiled approaching the group with his arm extended in a handshake “Danny Santos…” he said calmly.

It was a small group of four composed of well-dressed men and women, there was an old lady bedecked with jewelry who was in her late sixties, elegant, accompanied by her twenty year old scrawny grandson, a fifty something gentleman in a strange rust colored barong whose buttons threatened to pop off near his bulging mid-section, he was dark and was carrying a clutch bag, beside him was the chubby real estate broker she was dressed in a drab brown printed blouse on brown slacks which seemed to make her look older than her 40 years.

After the pleasantries they talked about the property that they were supposed to purchase from Rico, they asked Manoling, or rather, Engineer Santos about possible problems with the bedrock and if it could support the weight of the structure they were planning to build and he answered them as he and Rico have rehearsed.

There were times during his explanation that he could feel the bile from his stomach rising to his throat but he just swallowed hard and continued with the meeting.  Earlier, he had set his phone to ring with a subtle imperceptible tap and when he got the signal from Rico he subtly slapped the pocket where his phone was and let it ring a few times before answering it.

With mock irritation he pretended to have a conversation with an imaginary secretary who was reminding him of his imaginary meeting with some imaginary client at some imaginary place.

After going back to the table he humbly begged leave from the group and picked up his laptop bag without waiting for their consent.  He was caught by surprise when he was stopped by the elderly lady in the group, she held his arm softly and asked “Engineer, where is your office and how can I get in touch with you if I have more questions?”  The bile rising from his belly again “This wasn’t part of the plan” he thought to himself, “it was supposed to be an in and out assignment and there was no talk of having another meeting after this.”   He was in a panic but he managed to calmly answer “My office is currently in Quezon City but we are moving to Makati in a few weeks as most of our clients are here and it is a lot easier to just move than to travel back and forth all the time, I’ll have Mr. Rico forward to you my new address.” But the woman was adamant and in his brain he worried that the woman suspected something was not right “Could I have your calling card Engineer?” she said.  “I’m sorry ma’am, my new calling cards haven’t arrived yet and I’m all out of my old cards, like I said we are moving out” he could feel the sweat in his brow forming.  The expression on the woman’s face was shifting towards suspicion so Manoling jumped in “I’ll tell you what.  Let me give you my cellphone number” as he jotted down his number careful to change the last two digits and signed it Engineer Daniel Santos. “Please call me anytime you want” he said and this seemed to satisfy her.  He apologized for his haste warmly shook the hand of everyone and left Rico’s house.

He took a long walk towards the main road and he was shivering his back still ached and the pain was excruciating.  He could feel the adrenaline rushing in his system and this made him shake some more which caused him to break out into a cold sweat.  He could feel the bile rising again and he leaned against the wall of one the houses and threw up on someone’s shrubbery.  He wiped his mouth with his handkerchief and upon reaching the main road he hailed a cab, he just wanted to get out of here.   Once inside he asked the driver to take him to the mall and then collapsed on his seat.

Closing his eyes he replayed the whole scene in his head and was surprised that he felt elated because he couldn’t believe that he was able to pull this off.  In some way he felt vindicated and he thought of all the people who conned him“Fuck you all!” he mumbled and for the first time in a long time, he felt good.

*****

He was giddy in the jeep as he was going home from the mall and inside his head he was thinking that with the money coming in from his basic salary plus the fifty grand he was going to get from this caper he could finally send money to Lisa and maybe even take her with him to visit his mother in the province.  He was computing the bus fare and the cost of the entire trip.  “Maybe I could set something up in the province and maybe Lisa won’t even have to go back to her mother, she never liked Lisa anyway, Lisa and I will be a family again” he cheerfully thought to himself.

He went home that night to his studio apartment.  There was a note pinned to his door, it was from his landlady asking him to update his account or face instant eviction.  He was a couple of months late on the payment since he had to use his remaining  funds on his apartment’s security deposit and  he had to buy furniture and appliances  for his house, all pre-owned of course, but he’ll be fine once the money comes in, his rent was such a tiny amount.  He slept peacefully that night, he has not slept peacefully in so long and it was bliss.

The next day he woke up for work and he was all energized like a different man sprouted from this hibernation.  He went to work all cheerful and at around lunch time he calls Rico to follow up on the cash.  “Mano…” Rico said “they haven’t paid me yet, but they will deposit half of it this week and the other half next week.  Wait for my call”.  They hung up and Manoling continued on with his mind-numbing work with renewed vigor.

He waited days for Rico’s call but none came.  He called up Rico and was assured that payment was coming “half of the money is already in the bank; they paid by check so it should clear in three days.  He could wait three days, what’s three days compared to the years that he’ll be spending with Lisa.

Three days came “Mano, can you wait a few more days?  My wife withdrew the money but she had to rush to Laguna, her mom is sick but she’ll be back soon” Rico said casually, “I have the check for the other half and I’ll deposit it tomorrow so by the time she comes back I can give you the full amount.”  “No problem, I can wait.  Give me a call okay?” Manoling said cheerfully on the phone.

*****

It is 3:30pm, Manoling is sitting on his desk several piles of paper were scattered around his monitor waiting to be encoded and he is staring blankly at his computer screen and occasionally he’d shift his eyes to his cellphone which leaned against the screen.  It laid there like an ominous letter that no one wanted to open.  Rico had not called and Manoling was starting to get worried.  His landlady had sent him a demand letter; this is the first legal step to eviction.  The thought of being homeless gives Manoling the motivation to call Rico he couldn’t wait anymore.  “Hello, Rico.  Yeah, it’s been four days I guess it’s okay for me to get the money from you later” he said.  “Mano, I have a problem, I’m hiding from some sheriff because of this civil case that was filed against me…” and Rico continued with his tale but Manoling wasn’t listening he could feel a slight tightness in his chest which made it difficult to breathe, this was pure anger he was feeling and every cell in his body was reacting to every word that Rico was spewing. “…and so I have to hide out in Laguna for a while maybe a week or two” said Rico.  Peeved Manoling tried to maintain his composure and replied “I can go see you in Laguna, just tell me where you are.”  “Negative man” Rico said in a whisper he was trying to sound like some gum shoe detective in one of those bad mysteries, “I’ve already told you too much as it is.”  Manoling would have laughed at the ridiculous way Rico was speaking if it weren’t for the fact that his fury was reaching its peak but Manoling still spoke calmly “just deposit it in my bank account, my account number is-“  and Rico blurted in a theatrical panic “Mano, just text it to me, I can’t talk anymore, I think I’m being followed” and he hung up.  He still held his phone to his ear, dumbfounded, furious, insulted, and anxious all these thoughts running through his head and just like that he felt his skull cleaved in half an extreme pressure creating a psychological fissure and the pain in his head was excruciating.

*****

When he came to he was on the floor and surrounded by his office mates, one of them was kneeling beside him lifting his head giving him some water “Just relax, take a sip” he said.  “Are you okay to sit down?” his boss asked while standing by Manoling’s feet, they took off his shoes Manoling noticed, struggling to sit he nodded to his boss.  A pretty young thing from the trainee pool asked him “Sir Manoling how do you feel?”  “I’d like to sit down on my chair” he muttered and tried to stand up only to have his knees buckle under him they had their arms around him and half-carried  him to the lounge.  They sat him on the couch.  “You just stay here; lie down if you want to.  You can take the day off, when you feel better” said his boss the concern in his voice soothing Manoling.  “Thank you sir” he managed to breath out his reply.

*****

He left the office but he didn’t go home, he didn’t want to look at that demand letter which he left on his kitchen counter.  Instead he went to church.  He sat on the pew, the breeze flowing through every cornice, stained-glass window and pew of the church and the soft echo of the chirping birds that flew from one chandelier to the next centered him and he could feel the anger subside as he entered a state of being.  Then and only then did he kneel and begin his prayer.  When the walls of his world started crumbling down he could only find refuge in the sanctuary of the church, and he loved the solitude because he felt that God can hear him better when the cacophony of his heart was still.  And it was still now and his heart spoke with utmost truth and he prayed for his daughter that she may be well and experience at least a semblance of the childhood that he had.  He asked for forgiveness for not being able to fulfill his obligation to her, he prayed that he might be able to spend his days with his daughter and watch her and guide her through life.

Then he suddenly felt unworthy to ask for this last petition for how can he guide her if he allowed himself to lose his way.

Then his heart stirred once more, the confusion and noise slowly coming back, a million thoughts a million memories overwhelming him, the old woman’s hand on his arm, the creditors taking his cars one by one, his daughter’s empty room, faces, employees, his cousins and aunts and uncles living in their swanky houses bought with his money, and Rico’s snickering face, that ugly face with that taunting smug smile.  He stood up and without as much as a glance back he walked away from God for he felt he did not deserve His help and he was now more alone than ever.

*****

Two weeks had passed; Manoling spent those two weeks going through the motion of work as he could not get Rico off his mind.  He’d call Rico every day and the phone would just keep ringing until he’d hear the recorded voice of a woman who always told him that the phone was either unattended or outside the coverage area. He managed to convince his boss for a loan, it was enough to pay for a month’s rent and it was enough to appease his landlady… for the moment.

Rico called him a few days after, “Mano, I need your landline.  Can you pretend to be an investor this time?  A prospective investor is going to call you and all you have to say is that yes you also invested in this project and several of my other projects and you made money.  Then I’ll close the deal and once he deposits his investment we split it fifty-fifty.  It’s twice what we made the last time” he said excitedly.  “I haven’t gotten a single cent Rico, not from our last transaction, zero multiplied by two is still zero.  Please pay me already” he said rather sternly.  “The money from our racket will go straight to your bank account Mano, I promise you that” Rico said pleading.  “So what happened to that civil case?” he asked skeptically.  “It’s all been sorted” he said casually.  “So where’s the money?” Manoling asked.  “That’s why I need this racket my friend, I can’t find my wife, she’s in some sort of trouble and she won’t tell me what it is, I sent her the check so she could encash it and she disappeared, I’ll find her don’t worry about it” he said in mock exasperation.  “Let’s complete this first ‘project’ first then we can talk about this investor of yours” said Manoling with a tinge of anger in his voice.  “Okay, don’t worry.  I’ll get back to you right away on that, I’ll call you” Rico promised again.

*****

He was at his office and it was 9 o’ clock in the morning, a normal uneventful morning when he got the call on the company phone.  “Hello, Good morning, this is Manoling Ocampo speaking.”  “Mano?” a soft female voice spoke on the other line, he recognized it right away.  “I’m surprised to hear from you?” he said rather sharply but he heard a soft whimper on the other line “I didn’t call you to fight” said his wife sobbing “it’s Lisa…”  A surge of panic and the tightness in his throat made it difficult to speak “What’s wrong with Lisa?” “They didn’t see her…” she stammered “it happened so quickly, the driver was drunk…  I’m sorry Mano, our baby is gone” and the most miserable wail came out of Manoling, it was guttural, a noise that could never come from a creature of God it was nothing of this world it came somewhere so deep, all the world bore the weight in that one painful scream…

*****

Flying Car Kills Three in Freak Accident

Three teenage girls were killed yesterday when a runaway car turned turtle, launched into the air and landed directly on top of them.  The driver, Cesar Azarcon, 25, suffered minor cuts and bruises.  Witnesses said that the vehicle, a Toyota Corolla, with plate number XEA-213, was speeding through the subdivision and lost control when the car hit a large acacia tree…

*****

The sun was shining brightly that Saturday; a cool breeze was stirring the trees as Rico was washing off the soap suds from his car.

As he kneeled to spray off the mud under the fender he noticed a shadow on his car door.  He looked up startled, and said “Hey?  Mano!” “I came to get my money” Manoling uttered.

Rico noticed that Manoling had dark circles around his eyes his hair had grown back and it was disheveled and he had a thick unkempt beard.

“You look like shit” Rico said to Manoling with that smug grin on his face.  Manoling just looked at him.  Nervously he asked Manoling to come inside for some drinks “at least my gun’s there in case Mano tries anything” he thought to himself.  He saw Manoling looking at the extension room as they walked through Rico’s garage; it was empty now as the workers took a break for lunch.  “That aluminum framing looks expensive… I know that brand” Manoling said as his voice echoed in the empty room.  “That’s for my sister’s office” Rico lied trying to sound casual and not really offering any explanation to Manoling, it was actually his new office but his unremorseful face was not showing any hint of what was on his mind.  He motioned towards the stairs leading to the dining room where they had that meeting.

“Sit down” Rico said pointing to an empty plastic chair.  Rico went straight to his chair on the opposite side of the table, on that side his gun was tucked into a holster taped under the monobloc table.  He was sure that Manoling would not try anything but he just wanted to play it safe.

Mousy Manoling wouldn’t even hurt a fly.

When he turned he noticed Manoling still standing, “easier to shoot” he thought but Rico was a bit edgy.

“Where’s the money?” Manoling demanded, Rico shrugged and said for the umpteenth time, “they haven’t paid me yet, Mano”.

“Admit it Rico, you got the money and spent it already, that new office of yours downstairs…” he said his voice slowly rising.

“I don’t like being accused” said Rico with a slight tilt of his head which Manoling found offensive to which he responded “I don’t like being conned, Rico!” he said putting emphasis on the name.

Both men were staring at each other, scowling.

The taller and bigger Rico sat on his chair with his left arm draped on his beer gut, his right leg resting on a stool and his right arm dangling just below where his gun was. The lean Manoling was standing with his left foot forward pointing directly towards Rico and his arms hanging loosely on both sides he looked like a wild cat ready to pounce he was a good eight feet from Rico. “Are you going to give me the money today?” he said in a barely perceptible growl. “I’m telling you I have not been paid and-” Manoling didn’t wait for Rico to finish as he rushed and toppled the big man off his chair, the sheer force of the attack sent the plastic table flying along with Rico’s gun.  Manoling sat on Rico’s chest a knife suddenly appearing in his right hand and he repeatedly slashed and stabbed the man. First to get hit were Rico’s flailing arms as they rose to defend him, but Manoling was too quick and exploited the spaces in between. He plunged the knife into the cheek, then the tip got bits of Rico’s neck and collar bone. Irritated by the flailing arms Manoling put his knee on Rico’s right arm and grabbed the left arm stabbing into the biceps he twisted the knife to severe the muscle and tossed the immobile arm aside. Rico’s eyes were wild with fright as he stared at Manoling’s face and he saw hate in its purest form. Struggling, his arm broke free and grabbed Manoling’s knife hand.  Manoling twisted and slowly pointed the knife at Rico’s heart, he put his full weight on the knife and despite Rico’s best efforts the knife inched closer to his heart.

“No…” Rico breathed and the knife moved another inch, he can feel his arm tiring and the weight of Manoling seemed to have doubled.

“No…” he mustered, he wanted to say more but his lungs wouldn’t let him and his left arm lay useless on the side and he could feel Manoling’s hot breath on his sweaty face.

“No…” he whispered now, the warm blood flowing from the hole in his cheek and the knife was right on top of his heart and their eyes locked together.

“No…” and smooth as silk the knife pierced into his chest and right through his heart and he could still see Manoling looking ever so deeply into his eyes.

There was no pain where the sharp knife penetrated his body just a heavy weight crushing his rib but the dreadful coldness of death slowly covering him as his life pumped out by the gallon terrified him.  He heard Manoling’s words “you have fifty eight seconds before you die…” and a lot more other words but he couldn’t hear anymore, he could feel his body shivering, it was hard to breathe as he choked on his own blood, the room was fading but he was still alive everything was just a haze like a thick fog blanketed the room.

Manoling stood over Rico watching him die.

He savored the sight of Rico’s body as the blood was flowing from the hole on his chest, he watched as Rico coughed and spat out blood and a final spasm from Rico’s bloody carcass brought a childish smile from Manoling’s lips, yes this delighted him.

He calmly wiped his knife on his jeans and felt a sense of satisfaction sweeping through his entire body.

He kneeled beside Rico to check if he was dead and whispered “I forgive you Rico”, then headed to the bathroom to cleanup.

He turned on the faucet and used the little shell shaped soap with the lilac scent, Lisa’s soap and both blood and lilac flowed into the drain.

He looked at his blood stained face in the mirror and saw evil itself, he leered and thought of all the other people he was going to forgive that day.

*****

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