The man pauses, takes deep breaths. His tirade has been going on for fifteen minutes now. I don’t know his name but he’s a regular. He comes to me at least twice a week, says what he wants to say, pays me, then leaves. I’m not the one he’s angry at and I’m not the subject of his tirades. I’m just a… call me a stand-in. People come to me when they can’t say what they want to say to the people who need to hear it. They figure it’s easier to say it to a complete stranger who does not really care what you’re talking about. I don’t care what this man is saying as long as he pays me after.
“You wouldn’t know kinky if it sat on your face!” The man goes on, spittle flying from his mouth.
The man’s been coming to me four about a month now. From what I’m able to piece together he won the top prize of a major literary competition three years in a row and was considered a wunderkind of Philippine literature. He now writes an erotic column for a tabloid under a pseudonym. And his editor’s his mother-in-law. Everyday his column’s always not good enough for her and she rides him hard (heh) to kink it up some more. For the readers’ sake, she says. Right.
The man stops talking, catches his breath. He looks at the ground as he reaches into a pants pocket. His scalp is winning the battle against his hair. He hands me a hundred pesos, thanks me and walks away. I watch him as he crosses the street and flags down a jeepney bound for U.N. Avenue.
I turn around and see that save for a stray dog I have the whole Plaza Dilao for myself. Late afternoon traffic is building up along Quirino Avenue and my lungs savor fresh carbon monoxide. The dog takes a crap at the base of the statue of Dom Justo Takayama, a 17th century Christian daimyo who was expelled from Japan and lived in Manila.
A traffic policeman was negotiating with a truck driver near the gates of the Columbian Center. Lozano. He’s a shitty cop who demands a hundred pesos whenever I set up here. The shitbird senses someone watching him conduct his business, looks up, and actually smiles at me. I’m tempted to salute him with my middle finger but wouldn’t want to risk a punch to my stomach when he collects his hundred later. I smile my most genuine fake smile.
His smile probably means that he’s glad I haven’t run out on him. And it’s also a warning not to. I slipped away from him twice before and the next time he collected from me he jacked up the fee to three hundred. Interest, he said. Along with a punch to the gut. Someday, he’ll be roadkill, run over accidentally by twenty cargo trucks.
I light up a cigarette, sit on my favorite bench and continue reading my newspaper. I’m halfway through my second cigarette when I sense someone standing before me. Thinking it’s Lozano, I grumpily put down my paper and start to reach into my pocket for his hundred.
Except it’s not Lozano. It’s a bureaucrat of about fifty, thick glasses, hair combed over to one side. He had on government regulation polo barong and black gabardines while clutching a plastic attaché case. A client.
“Yes?” I say.
“Are you Tony?”
“I’ve heard I can talk to you,” he says.
I drop the cigarette and crush it out as I stand. “Well, you can talk at me. And if you really want me to answer back, it’ll cost extra.”
“No. I’ll just… I’ll just talk at you,” he says. He put down his attache case. “How much?”
“Fifty pesos minimum.”
“I’m all ears, then. Whenever you’re ready,” I say.
He seems unsure of what to do, what to say. He looks at me and past me. He opens his mouth and I thought he’s going to start. “Can I hit you?”
“Whoa, whoa. No, you can’t. I don’t do that. You want someone you can hit while talking at him, you want Gary. He’s at the Liwasang Bonifacio today, I think. Big guy, favors muscle shirts. Used to be a stuntman in movies. You can’t miss him,” I say, starting to sit back down.
The man scratches his head. “That’s out of my way. And I have to do this now,” he says.
“Sorry I can’t help you. You can talk at me all day long but no hitting.” I pick up my newspaper and look for the article I was reading earlier.
“Wait,” the man says.
I look up and see him dipping into his wallet. He takes out a thousand peso bill and holds it out.
“This is all the money I have on me right now. It’s yours if I can hit you.”
I stare at the money then study the man. He’s thin and short. I reckon the worst I’ll feel is an eight year old slapping me.
I stand and take the money from him. “Alright. A couple of conditions, though. You just hit me once.”
“Okay,” he says.
“And I get to hit you back.”
“Oh,” he says, brows furrowing. “What the hell. Fine. As long as it’s not in the face.”
“Sure. Not in the face. Now, I’m all ears,” I say.
We stand not quite face to face for he was a couple of inches shorter than me. His eyes dart left, then right, finally resting somewhere on my face. He was probably looking for a target. I ready for my nose to be hit. He opens his mouth, his throat moves and then I feel something hit my left cheek. A jolt of pain dissolves into a burning. The bastard must be stronger than I thought. He shouts something but I can’t understand for his palm kept reintroducing itself to my cheek.
I stagger back, throw up my arms to ward off any further reintroductions. I begin to understand his words.
“It was the cat! It was the cat!” He pays no attention to my pleas to stop. He raises his attaché case and I had to act soon before it gets acquainted with my head.
“It was the cat!”
I step forward and take hold of his arms and knee him in the groin. Twice. He crumples to the ground.
I stoop down, catching my breath. “Are you okay?” I ask.
He lay in a fetal position, gasping for breath.
I hear shouts and whistles and turn to see Lozano and one other cop entering the park.
“Ice it when you get home,” I say to him. “Good luck.”
And I run.