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Saturday, March 24, 2007

THE WISHING MACHINE





1. "Gay?"
"Yes."
"Salvador Kero is gay?"
"Yes."
"Salvador Kero. Gay."
"Yes."
Janus shook his head. "Impossible."
"Not just possible," Marie leaned forward, "true."
"If Salvador Kero were pubic hair he'd still be straight."
Marie got up from the couch. "You know, you're impossible."
As Janus bent down to take off his shoes, sweat drops raced to the tip of his nose. "One shouldn't gossip about next door neighbors." May, the cruelest month. Afternoons were even hotter than noons. "And where did you get this crucial piece of information?" He put his shoes under the couch and rolled his socks off. He brought them near his face and sniffed.
Marie had gone to the kitchen. "At the sari-sari," she shouted. "I had to buy detergent. You know Mrs. Apat. She knows everything."
"At a sari-sari? I thought they didn't exist anymore."
"At the sari-sari." Marie returned and handed Janus a Coke and a bowl of peanuts. She dipped into her pocket and took out a few hundred peso bills. "By the way, thanks." She handed him the money.
"You're giving me money." He took a sip. "Impossible."
"No, I'm not giving you money."
"This is what," he counted, "a little over eight hundred. It's not money?" The bills smelt of calamansi.
"It's not mine."
"It's mine?"
"I got it from your pants, while I was hanging them to dry." Marie dipped into the peanut bowl. "How many times do I have to tell you to empty your pockets? What if they were coins? You could've broken the machine." She sat beside him, hugging a throw pillow.
"This is not mine."
Marie shrugged. "Give them to me, then."
Janus held on to the bills. "How could I leave eight hundred pesos in my pants?"
"You didn't leave eight hundred pesos in your pants."
"I didn't."
"You left a thousand pesos. After hanging the clothes I went back to Mrs. Apat. That's when she told me about Mrs. Kero."
Janus raised his eyebrows. "And how does she live, having a homosexual husband?"
"Not Bernadette. Not the wife." Marie was nibbling his earlobe. "The mother. Culasa Kero. She's an aswang."
Janus giggled. Marie was kissing his shoulder blades. "Aswang?"
"Yes."
"She--what?--eats people?"
"People's intestines."
"Marie?"
"Yes?"
"You were naked when I came home."
"How observant."
"Were you naked all day?"
"The first time I went to the sari-sari, no."
Janus sighed, put down his Coke and grabbed her buttocks. Who would've thought marrying one's cousin would be so weird? An aswang? Next thing he knew she'd be telling him about aliens.

2. "This is the third time in three weeks. I know you own the machine, but I don't think you want it broken."
Marie was in a nun's suit. Janus couldn't help but stare. He had asked about it several times, but except for the fact that she stole it from a mental institution Marie wouldn't give him any more details. It was quite frustrating.
"Are you listening to me?"
"Yes." He scratched his left foot. "No." She was holding a one thousand peso bill in her right hand, and a five hundred in her left. "June is coming. Have you thought about going back to school?" They were supposed to graduate together, four years ago, but the massacre had traumatized her. Now he was working and she was doing the laundry. They were the last of their clan.
"You left money in the washing machine again!"
He put his socks back on. Then his shoes.
"What are you doing?"
"Call the University tomorrow morning." He put his shirt back on. "Ask them about re-admission."
"Where are you going?"
"And from now on, you only have to wash your clothes." He slammed the door on his way out. It was his uncle's blood, that bossiness. His aunt had been a saint. "Grew up in Manila," he whispered, "thought he was big time." He opened the gate and stepped out into the street. It was dark, and the neighbor's children were playing hide and seek. Weren't they afraid of the aswang? He felt his pockets. He had loose change. He went to Mrs. Apat's sari-sari.
It was two corners away. Now the only sari-sari in the baranggay. Mrs. Apat, the last of her kind. Like him and Marie. Endangered species, he should be pushing for cooperation. Janus sighed. At the store he found several fat men drinking. He nodded in their direction.
"Hello Janus! Long time no see!"
He gave the old woman his best smile, teeth in, chin up, and said, "Oh, you know work."
"I saw you on tv--what was it?--last January? Terrible, just terrible."
"He's in jail now, Mrs. Apat. His children are safe."
"Yes! Yes! But their poor mother..."
Janus didn't know what to say, so he said, "A pack of cigarettes, please."
"Oh, those will kill you! I'll get you some biscuits."
Before he could respond she was handing him a full plastic bag. "Well... Thank you. How much, Mrs. Apat?"
"Don't worry about it. Your mother was wonderful woman. Plus, it's good having a nice policeman around."
Janus nodded, said good night and goodbye. His mother and Mrs. Apat. Now that was something Marie didn't seem to have picked up yet. The sky was moonless and starless. He hurried home. He found the gate open but the door to their apartment closed. He knocked three times, silently. "Marie? Marie?"
"Hold on!"
He had to wait a full minute before she came. She was still in the nun's suit. "Is there something wrong?" He took the biscuits from the plastic bag and handed them to her.
She had her hands behind her back. "I was naked."
"Yes?"
"I thought you were Mr. Kero. He is always asking for vinegar."
"I see." He sighed. "Look, I want to apologize. About leaving money in my pockets. About--"
"Are you playing a game with me?"
"What?"
She showed him her hands. She was holding a few thousand peso bills.
"What?"
"I found them in my pants."
"You have pants?"
"One pair. I wore it a few months ago and washed it with your clothes earlier today. You left so I had nothing to do. I was going to do some ironing and when I found these." She dumped the bills on the sofa. "Are you playing a game with me?"
He went to the couch and counted the money. "What?"
"Are you playing a game with me?"
"Where would I get fifteen thousand pesos?"
"Seventeen thousand."
"Sixteen, and I'm not playing a game with you."
"Then," she took his hands in hers, "who is?"

3. "Well, why did you cancel my call?"
"I was at a gas station! What, you want me engulfed in an inferno?"
Marie finally opened the door. Janus had arrived an hour before. His feet hurt. "Thank you very much for letting me inside my house."
"Oh shut up," she said, but her heart wasn't in the fight. She helped him take his shoes off. "Mrs. Kero is dead."
"I know. The mother, not Bernadette."
Sweat drops clung to her chin. "Did you even go to work? How did you find out?"
"Mrs. Apat told me. I dropped by the sari-sari on my way home."
She took his socks off. "You dropped by the sari-sari?"
"I wanted to buy a pack of cigarettes."
She was wearing a bra and nothing else. "You don't smoke."
"Yes." Janus opened his backpack and took out the plastic bag. "Biscuits?"
"Aren't you even bothered by Mrs. Kero's case?" She was taking off his pants.
"What case? She was old. People die." The biscuits were stale. "It's part of my work. When I see babies I see soft skulls."
"Is death all you ever see?"
Janus took off his briefs and wiped Marie’s chin. "Sometimes I see pain."
"May I?"
"Stale." I lay down the couch. "You want to order--anything? Nothing expensive, though. It's still a few days before pay day."
"No. It isn't." She put her hand into her bra. She tossed a few thousand peso bills onto his lap. "I figured it out."
Janus sat up. The bills spilled onto the floor. "Figured what out?"
"Where the money is coming from."
"Where is the money coming from?"
"From the washing machine."
"From the washing machine?"
"Yes. Whenever I wash it produces money. Not just in pockets. I washed your underwear today, and those," she gestured to the bills on the floor, "appeared when I hit the drain button. I was tossing a shirt in just as you arrived. If we look now I bet there'll be a few thousand with it."
"You think Mrs. Kero was killed, yes?"
"Yes."
Janus put his pants back on. "When do you want to go to the wake?"
"She's not dead. She's an aswang, and they didn't follow the proper murder rituals. Why do you think it's a closed-casket?"
"How do you know it's a closed-casket?"
"How do you know it isn't?"
"Bet?"
"Don't challenge me." She took her bra off. More thousand peso bills. "I do the laundry."
"Poor, poor Culasa Kero. Once a human being, now a joke." Janus picked up the bills. "Forget the money. Let's bet with things that have value." He handed the money to Marie.
She took the money and lifted an eyebrow. "What do you have in mind?"
"If it isn't a closed-casket, you'll go back to school."
"And if it is a closed-casket?"
"We go back to Aklan." He caressed her nose. "We won't be able to take the Villa back, but it'll still be home."
Tears sprung from her eyes. "I'll go get dressed. Take off your pants and put your briefs on." She raced up the stairs to the bedroom.
Janus put his pants back on. "Where is the wake being held anyway?"
"At St. Paul's!"
"What?" Janus put his socks and shoes back on. "How inconsiderate! Some funeral. If it were at St. Peter's we could walk to it." He watched Marie run down back to the living room.
She was wearing a black t-shirt and maong pants. "How do I look?"
"You're in clothes."
"You think I should wear shoes?"
"Slippers are fine."
She dropped to her knees and looked under the sofa. "You know we have money, we could go get a taxi anytime we want."
"And you can go back to school."
"Shut up."
"Just use my slippers, you know we’re late."
"Maybe we can do the laundry every day, and then just buy a car. Two cars even."
"Why not?"
Back on her feet she was a marvelous sight. Curls bobbing and arms seemingly twisted. "I'll just go get the money from the wishing machine."
Janus chuckled. "Let me get it, you've been working all day. He didn't wait for her to respond. He was gone for a full five minutes. When he returned, there was a frown on his face. And two keys in his hands.
"What is that?"
"Your wish. The cars." He tossed her a key. "Your wish came true."
Going out they were so excited they forgot to lock the door. Right outside the gate a Volkswagen and a BMW were waiting.
"You wished for a Volkswagen? For me?" Janus caressed the car's yellow hood. "It's Bumblebee!"
Marie shook her head. “I’ve known you all my life. Knowing what car you’d want is--an obligation.”
Janus became very quiet.
 "I've been thinking a lot about money, see. Not for the University. For the Villa," Marie said on their way to St. Paul.
Janus did not respond.
Mrs. Kero's casket was closed.
There were many people at the wake. Salvador Kero wasn't there. But Mrs. Apat was. When it was time to go home they gave her a ride on the Volkswagen. "This is a good car," she said, "a policeman's car." They dropped her off at the sari-sari, where three drunkards were talking about dreams.

4. At the gate of the apartment complex they found the BMW stolen. At their door they found a drunken Salvador Kero. "I was," he said, "wondering if I could borrow your grill."
"Sure," Marie said, "sure." Janus went inside the house. Marie helped Salvador carry the grill up to the gate. When she got back to their house she found Janus naked on the couch. She left the door open.
"What is your problem?" She sat beside him.
Janus stood up, paced around the room. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"You haven't talked to me all night."
"We were at a funeral. It's supposed to be solemn."
"Everybody was talking! And besides, when have we ever respected the sacred?"
"Maybe we should start."
Marie started giggling.
"Stop that."
Marie hid her head under their throw pillows. Her laughter became louder.
"Stop that!"  
"I can't believe you're jealous!"
"Oh, you're so full of yourself!" And suddenly Janus was beside her, taking the throw pillows, kissing her, undressing her.
"Two years married, you still doubt me?" She caressed the tip of his nose.
"You were so curious about his homosexuality. I knew you had a crush on him."
"But I love only you."
"I know. I know." He closed his eyes. "Close your eyes."
She closed her eyes and kissed him. "It was only infatuation, you know. And that was a week ago. Now I just pity him. He was such a nice man, polite. He's a teacher, you know? Now his mother's dead and he's drinking because he loves her so much."
"You got drunk a lot, too, after--"
"Yes. Yes." She sniffed. "But you, you, you quit drinking."
"You were drinking enough for the both of us." He locked her in an embrace.
"It didn't help me. It won't help Salvador. The only thing that's going to rid him of the pain is his mother, back from the dead."
"Is that what you want, for Auntie to come back?"
"And Father too, and Uncle, and Auntie? No." She opened her eyes, found Janus staring at her. "But all day, I've been wishing for Mrs. Kero to come back."
They both heard the growl, like a dog poised to attack, and had only a moment to break free of each other's arms. The beast landed in the space between them, teeth and claws digging into the couch. Marie recognized who it was. The short, white hair. The smooth, white skin.
It was Culasa Kero.
The washing machine made wishes come true.
Foam flowing from her mouth, Mrs. Kero pounced on Janus. Her fangs locked onto his left thigh. "Marie!" he shouted.
Marie watched as blood poured onto the floor. She would be the one to mop that up. 
"Marie! Marie! You have to destroy the washing machine!"
What was the aswang doing, biting at a thigh? Was there something wrong with his intestines?
"Marie!"
"What?"
"It made the wish come true! Destroy it!"
"But the money! And the car!" Marie picked up a throw pillow and started hitting Mrs. Kero on the head. "The Villa!"
"My thigh! My intestines!"
Marie rushed to the washing machine. She found it just as she left it this afternoon. A solid beige. Fat like her mother and aunt. How would she destroy it? "I wish for an axe!" She removed the machine's cover and found nothing. "What?"
She had to wash, then wish.
She took her shirt off, put it in the washing machine, got some detergent and a pail of water. She set the machine on gentle. Timer, thirty seconds.
Would an axe be enough? Why didn't she just wish Mrs. Kero back to the dead? How about "I wish Mrs. Kero didn't come from the dead!"      Didn't come back--
She closed her eyes. "I wish the Mabutis didn't massacre our family! I wish we had the Villa back!"
When she opened her eyes again she found herself at the living room, sitting on the couch. Janus was standing near the door. Beside Marie was a woman. Her name was--Berlin. She was--Janus's wife. Marie was--visiting from Aklan. She was going to stay with Janus and Berlin for a week. Her parents were back in Aklan. At the Villa. With Janus's parents. And--Marie's husband. And--her son. She was only here for a week. 
"Janus!" Berlin said. "Janus! Did you hear what Marie said?"
Janus blinked, shook his head. Marie just blinked. Blinked and blinked.
"Gay?"
"Yes."
"Salvador Kero is gay."
"Yes."
"Salvador Kero. Gay."
"Yes." Marie sighed. "Yes. Yes. Yes."
Janus rubbed at his thigh. "He certainly is."

Philippines Free Press
March 24, 2007