Sunday, January 7, 2018

Short Story by Cecilia Brainard about the Dog "Romeo" 🐢 #literature #Philippines

I'm sharing my short story about a dog, a mother, and #Philippine life in #Manila during the #Marcos Dictatorship. This is part of my short story collection, Vigan and Other Stories (Anvil, 2012). The collection is available from and Kindle ( ~ #CeciliaBrainard 🌴

Cecilia Manguerra Brainard 
It’s Sunday evening and my mother has just returned from the 5:30 Mass at Malate Church. In the past, after Mass she and I would have walked to the Chinese restaurant on Remedios Street where we sat on the table against the mirror, away from the crowded doorway. Mama would have ordered fried rice, sweet and sour pork, pancit, and a crab and lobster dish swimming in white sauce. While we ate, she would ramble on about the Indonesian tenant in the house in Bel Air complaining about a roof leak, or her court case with her uncle, or she would complain about my brother and sisters needing money from her. While she talked I would daydream about going away after graduation, to America or Europe. 

But this particular Sunday evening, I’m not in Manila and my mother is alone and so she has walked the six blocks to our house, bypassing the Chinese restaurant. In the dark shadows of the foyer, she fumbles with the locks on the front door. There are four sturdy American-made locks and the dog is barking. “Romeo, quiet!” my mother shouts.  The dog whines in recognition. “Quiet!” She sounds stern, but the sternness is not because of the noise, but because of her alone-ness. Her children—we— are all gone: I in America, a sister in Venezuela, another sister in Spain, and her only son in Cebu. She had a live-in maid who used to sashay up and down the driveway, but my mother fired her after some money and jewelry disappeared. “It’s safer to be alone,” she wrote me. Years later, after the fall of Ferdinand Marcos, during my visit to the Philippines, she told me about an old woman whose throat had been slit by her servant. My mother was afraid that would happen to her, so she let the girl go, preferred to be alone in the house, protected by the numerous door locks and the dog outside. “At least a dog is loyal to the person feeding it,” she said. 
So it was the dog that became her only companion. He lived in the garage that was filled with old furniture and boxes with empty jars and bottles and old newspapers. He liked to sleep on the tattered “Welcome” mat made from rags, which he dragged as close as he could to the kitchen door but where he remained dry if it rained. The garage opened out to a side yard that was seven feet wide by thirty—a very narrow space with room only for a couple of clothes lines and a row of San Francisco plants against the high cement wall. The dog patrolled the area diligently, round and round, took in all the odors of the neighborhood—dried fish frying, piles of rotting garbage along the street, the occasional whiff of Manila Bay. He listened carefully to everything that went on in the three-house compound: the creaking of the iron gates, the quarreling of the gay couple in the front house, the squalling of children in the back house. He could even hear the plaintive cries of balut vendors walking down our street at night, vending their ducks’ eggs, echoing throughout the night until dawn — “Penoy-baluuut!.” Every little sound made him bark. What drove him foaming mad were the huge ugly gray rats that paraded on the cement wall above him, taunting him, sassing him, wanting his leftovers that sat in his chipped Melmac bowl. The dog had some German Shepherd blood in him and his barking was ferocious; when I read about my mother’s decision to let the maid go, I thought that at least the dog was with her. Manila in the 1970s during the Marcos dictatorship had an increase of holdups, of burglaries. Once during this time my mother walked along our street, Luis Maria Guerrero, when a man rushed to her and ripped off her earrings from her ears. Her ears bled and the ragged ends needed to be stitched back together by a doctor. It was my brother who told me what had happened, not my mother. “She’s sixty-five, she should not be alone, but she insists,” my brother complained. “Manila is too dangerous; she should be here in Cebu, with me, with her grandchildren. She should retire now, rest.” That was what my brother and I talked about often when I visited—my mother and how hardheaded, how impossible, how unreasonable, how difficult she could be. But after my visit, I would leave, cross an ocean, go to my other life. It was easier for me but not for my brother.
            The dog’s name was Romeo. We had been studying Shakespeare at Maryknoll College when I gave him the name; Romeo and Juliet had made me weep. For some reason, people talked to him in English. Even neighbors and visitors who only spoke Tagalog would call out: Romeo, come here, or Romeo, quiet. Once, my mother’s best friend and dancing companion, Mrs. Quintos whom we called Anday naively wondered why the dog in our household was English-speaking— “Naku, pati aso English-speaking.”
            I got him when I was in my sophomore year of college. Saturday mornings, I visited my orthodontist, Dr. Polintan in Escolta. On this particular Saturday, I was there with my ten-year old niece, Lisa. After Dr. Polintan tightened my braces, Lisa and I left his office and waited for a taxi. Lisa spotted a man holding two puppies. They had large dark eyes and brown fluffy fur with German Shepherd markings. The sight of them brought me back to my childhood when my father had raised a couple of pedigree German Shepherds, Prince and Beauty. Our cook used to fix ox tail for them; and Papa used to inspect their food, cutting up the meat and mixing in rice. Prince used to jump up and lick me whenever I got home from school. They were happy times. The markings on the puppy that Lisa was playing with reminded me of those days. I asked the man how much. Thirty pesos at the time could buy a nice pair of leather high heels, but I paid it and the dog was mine. 
            When my mother saw the dog, she screamed and said she did not want a dog in Manila, that we did not have the space for a large dog, that a dog like that would run away or turn rabid and have to be shot. When my mother went into a screaming tirade, I usually kept quiet, went to my room and picked up a book, but that day I held the dog tightly in my arms and firmly said, “I’ll take care of him.” My lack of hysteria silenced her then. Later there were arguments about the dog, and at some point, there was talk that he would be dispatched to Cebu. But this never happened, and after a while we stopped talking about what to do with Romeo. He became part of our life in Manila. In fact, as the Marcos regime entrenched itself and the economy worsened, crime increased and Romeo became something of an asset. And as the months passed, Romeo became less my puppy and more of the family guard dog. I was too busy then with school and if I recall right there was a boy who had broken my heart and that consumed a lot of energy right there.
            This Sunday, my mother is in her bedroom with the two beds. The bed she sleeps in is neatly covered with a blue and white Ilocano woven bedspread which Anday had given her. Making her bed every morning is something Mama learned from the German nuns of St. Scholastica, along with eating potatoes and cleaning your plate. A crucifix and a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary stand on her headboard. The other bed however is in total disorder with piles of folded clothes, documents, letters, and pictures which I have sent her. Thursday nights, my mother clears this bed so Anday can sleep over after their dance lessons. Long before ballroom dancing became popular in Manila, my mother and Anday took tango, mambo, paso doble, fox trot, and cha-cha lessons with dance instructors. One of their dance instructors was named Diko, a tall serious family man who took his dips and turns seriously. Once when I was moping around in my upstairs bedroom, my mother and Anday called me to dance with them. There in our living room, Diko held my hand and walked me through the steps—one-two-three cha-cha-cha—he chanted but I kept messing up the cha-cha-cha and Mama and Anday laughed so hard they were clutching their bellies. You are too stiff, they said and you should stop looking down at your feet but just feel the music. Meanwhile outside Romeo started barking and howling because he could hear the record player and the laughter.
In my mother’s room, there is a dusty wooden dresser crammed with makeup and bottles of perfume and a one-legged ceramic musical ballerina that would suddenly start up for no reason at all. And this Sunday night, it suddenly starts playing its brassy tune (Somewhere My Love) while the one-legged ballerina twirls around. My mother stops and stares at her and sighs remembering her husband and children, remembering the noisy happy household they used to have. She waits until the song is finished and the ballerina is once again frozen in her pirouette and then my mother removes her Sunday dress, bra and slip, and she hangs these over a chair near the TV. She slips on her housedress with the floral pattern—little yellow flowers with a green background. It’s loose like a tent and made of cotton because cotton is cool and it’s always hot in Manila. Even when it rains the temperature rarely gets below seventy degrees. She removes her shoes and searches for her rubber slippers. She’s tired tonight, but the dog is waiting. She switches off all the upstairs lights. My brother has repeatedly told her that it’s not energy-efficient to be switching lights on and off, but she likes to turn off lights and appliances that aren’t used; it makes her feel she’s saving money. 
She goes downstairs to the kitchen. Romeo starts to whine and he wags his tail so it hits the kitchen door in a rhythmic thump-thump. My mother ignores him; she opens the refrigerator to find food to heat up, her supper, also Romeo’s supper. If it weren’t for the dog, she’d toast a slice of bread and eat that with some margarine and strawberry jam; but the dog needs more than that, and so my mother heats up kare-kare—beef stew—making sure there are bones for the dog.  While the food is heating, she searches the refrigerator for forgotten containers of food, which she can give the dog: last week’s pork chops, chicken adobo, rancid pancit. She opens the door to the side yard and is met by the overjoyed dog that jumps up to lick her. “Down, Romeo!” My mother picks up the dog’s food basin and gets back into the kitchen. She throws in the leftovers. When the kare-kare is hot, she picks out the bones, ligaments, meat, some vegetables and adds that to the dog’s food. She picks up the rice pot, dishes out what she needs, and scrapes the remaining rice into the basin. She pours hot soup over all these, mixes these up, and then she opens the screen door and places the basin on the ground. “Eat, Romeo,” my mother orders. The dog wags his tail and licks her hands and her feet before eating. The dog worships her.
What the dog wants most of all is for my mother to touch him, rub the fur on his back. His fur is clean. A neighbor woman comes in every Saturday to clean the house and to wash him using a strong bar of sulfur soap to kill his fleas and ticks. He loves the feel of the woman’s strong hands working the soap through his thick fur; and the gushing of cold water down his back makes him moan. He never barks, never whimpers, but he stands perfectly still near the garden hose which the woman uses to wash him.
But he rarely feels the touch of my mother’s hands, and so in the early mornings while she’s hanging her clothes to dry, he makes it a point to do his rounds so he’ll brush against her legs. And then she says: Go, Romeo. Sit down. But sometimes she talks some more: I heard the children playing, and I forgot and thought they were mine. I forgot that they’ve grown and are gone. But they’ll come back home. They always do. They’ll be back. And the sound of my mother’s voice echoes in Romeo’s mind, creating strange longings, yearnings for wide fields and open skies which he has never seen.
            By the time my brother told me about Romeo’s death, my brother was drinking. He liked brandy and preferred Napoleon. He could go through a hundred dollar bottle in three days. The day after I got in from the States, we went shopping in the Duty Free Shop so he could stack up on his brandy. He was drinking brandy that afternoon. We were sitting on the verandah between the old house and his house. During the first few glasses of brandy, he talked about Cory hiding in the Carmelite Convent in Cebu during the EDSA People Power Revolution, and the dramatic fall of Marcos. But with his fourth drink, he talked about our mother, about Romeo’s death in particular.
            “Romeo couldn’t get up,” he said. “He’d been dying for several days before Mama finally called and asked me to go to Manila. He was lying on that dirty mat and he could barely move, but he wagged his tail when he saw me. The typhoon season was starting, and he was constantly wet. I told Mama we had to call a vet. She didn’t want to put him to sleep; she insisted he just had a cold. We argued for a long time until I finally convinced her that a vet could give him medicine to make him feel better. She was in her bedroom when the vet arrived. She was looking at a dress catalogue. I was with Romeo when the vet gave him a shot. I didn’t even know he’d died. He had a peaceful death.” 
My brother and I recalled how good natured Romeo had always been, how willing to please, and how as a puppy he looked so much like a German Shepherd, but that as he grew older, his legs grew lanky and his chest filled out while his rear remained lean so his shape was more like a dingo; but he was always big and always sounded fierce, just like a German Shepherd. I told my brother how happy Romeo had been to see me as a grown woman with my first-born son—this was back in 1972, right around the time of the Plaza Miranda bombing. It was as if the years had not passed between us; and he had jumped up into my arms and licked my face, and he wagged his tail as he stared curiously at my son. He was terribly polite when my son yanked his tail—all he did was whimper and turn to look for my mother. It was clear to me then that it was my mother whom he now loved. I had become some kind of pleasant memory, one he cherished, but I was no longer part of his life; I was no longer part of the universe of that garage and backyard in our Malate house. 
            There is one more thing:  long before Romeo died, on Monday morning, at 5:30 in the morning, my mother picks up her the bra, slip and dress which she had worn on Sunday. In the semi-darkness, she makes her way down the wooden stairs. Romeo hears her, and he quickly stands up from his mat and races to the kitchen door. He wags his tail expectantly as he listens to my mother picking up the plastic basin and filling this with water at the kitchen sink. She drops her clothes into the basic, sprinkles Tide over them, and proceeds to wash them. Romeo hears all of this and his heart is beating fast as he stands by the kitchen door waiting, waiting. At last, before the sun is up, the door opens, and my mother with basin in her hands, steps out into the small yard. Romeo looks up, rushes to her, jumps up and whines his greeting. “Down Romeo,” she says, pushing him away. Undeterred, he wags his tail and starts his patrol of the small back yard, round and round he goes and the dripping from the clothes fall on Romeo’s back as he does his rounds of the seven-feet-by-thirty back yard. And then, and then, as he squeezes past my mother, he brushes up against her legs, and then my mother reaches out to touch him, “Come here, good dog, Romeo, good dog, you’re all I have now,” she says. The sun is up and it’s morning finally when Romeo licks her hand and shivers with delight. 🐢

Tags: #goodreads #Philippineliterature #philippines #librarygirl #pinoyreads #fiction #shortstories #Cebu #Manila #dogs
 Read also:

No comments: