This Collection of Filipino Fiction Is What You Should Read Right Now
Award-winning author Angelo R. Lacuesta has just released City Stories, his personal selection of his favorite stories published over the last 20 years. Through these short stories, Lacuesta revisits the cities of his past, from the concrete and sunlit streets of his childhood to the complex skylines and thrills of more recent trips. Below is one of the Lacuesta's favorites. "Night Hawks," originally published in Stigmata and Other Stories, gets a fresh release in City Stories.
He saw his work first on the internet. He had overheard someone—the gentleman from Montenegro—ask another delegate about museums or art galleries in the area, and that started a conversation.
The name stuck, of course, though he never once introduced himself as “Edward.” At the morning plenary just the week before, he feverishly wrote what he thought he should say about himself on the conference notepad. It doesn’t hurt to be prepared, he thought, I don’t want to ramble like that woman from Haiti or to come off as crazy like that man from Malaysia.
Later, the man from Malaysia himself would walk up to him, draft him on a search for a proper lunch, and ask him over rice and sweet-and-sour fish at a Chinese restaurant if he would kindly go over the paper he was to deliver in a couple of days. “Eddie,” he said, “Eddie, I know you will understand what I am trying to say about the language situation in Malaysia.”
Eddie wasn’t one to say no, not after Malik paid for lunch and sat with him through coffee until he had finished the document. He gave him his observations, and when Malik frowned at the points of improvement he offered, he adjusted his comments so that they were unequivocally positive. They were the only Asians in the conference after all.
For his trouble, Malik also gave him a fortune cookie. It was the very first fortune cookie in his life, and he broke the flesh-colored shell and opened the folded slip of paper excitedly. “Less life, more art!” it said on the small strip of paper, almost startling him with its imperative tone. It was really not a fortune, it was sort of a command, but maybe it was better than getting a series of numbers such as Malik had. “Want to trade?” he asked Eddie. OK, Eddie said, it wouldn’t hurt, and he glanced at the two-digit numbers, six sets of them separated by commas.
“That could be worth a fortune one day,” Malik told him. Eddie made a show of giving it a thought before folding up the paper and filing it in his wallet.
Later on, Eddie learned to do as the locals did. He took long, aimless walks across the small town, taking pleasure from the sound of his footsteps on the pavement. It was something he thought he never really heard back home; all the walking he did was in the malls.
It was easy to find his way around. In the middle of the campus was the old capitol building, easily the tallest and the most visible thing around. They had been told that the town was once the state capital, and that was real gold foil on its dome. “If that were in our country,” someone quipped, “all that would have been scraped away within hours.”
Eddie spent time sitting in the cafes watching the locals and listening to their conversations. He sat in the park, luxuriating in the cool weather he only found in the mountains back home, and then only when he could afford or find time to visit them. He paced his hotel room while his dinner, always a different one each night, took six minutes to cook in the microwave.
He was shocked by the number of bicycles on the road and in the University parking lots. He was unnerved by the sight of all the young American students and their long bodies. He heard them laughing and drinking through the night as though they were right outside his hotel room window, though he knew they were in that small clearing of benches and tables just around the corner, by the river, and that their voices carried.
By day, that river was empty and wide, left to drone quietly along its banks after they released their early morning flocks of morning joggers, walkers and bikers, and long before it claimed them again in the late afternoon. In the midmornings, Eddie found himself alone on the riverside path, walking as far as he could before the cold forced him to retreat into an inner road that threaded the line of campus buildings along the bank.
He passed the Theatre Arts Center, the College of Architecture and Engineering Labs Building 1. He passed a thick knot of trees and a wide field where some students were tossing a frisbee around. As he was almost turning the bend, the frisbee landed right in front of him. It was bright red and looked like it was begging to be picked up.
Someone called out “Hey bra” and it took him a while to realize it was really “Hey bro” and it was meant for him. He bent down and picked up the frisbee, making a scraping sound on the pavement. He turned and spun it aimlessly at the college kids spread out on the field.
He felt a little out of breath, a little giddy. He couldn’t remember the last time he threw a frisbee. Or threw anything, for that matter. At the conference panels he hardly asked questions or gave insights. He was there as an observer, after all.
At the discussion on Africa and Linguistics, held in a small conference room tucked away in one of the subcorridors of the College of History, Eddie sat through the second half-hour fighting the urge to twitch his leg, or simply leave. The room was packed—maybe he wouldn’t be noticed. He would certainly not be missed. But he stayed.
The man from Nigeria, who always wore the university t-shirt he had purchased at the commissary, had appeared for thepanel discussion dressed in a dark suit and had much to say. With him on the panel was the man from South Africa, a white man in his 30s who always wore the blank, pallid expression of a young boy but spoke quite spiritedly on the subject at hand.
At the end of the discussion, a little past the allotted time, the room quickly emptied itself of the student audience. A handful of delegates milled around to commend the panelists on their fruitful discussion before quickly moving on to the next item on the schedule.
Eddie overheard the South African pick up on something the Nigerian had said during the panel discussion.
“The Caine Prize, you say?” the South African asked the Nigerian.
“Yes, it was founded Michael Caine in the 1970s.”
“Michael Caine? The Actor?”
“No, the writer,” the Nigerian explained. “He is dead now.”
“Michael Caine is dead?”
“No, the writer. Not the actor.”
After the issue was cleared up, Eddie thought about making a joke or a comment about this. He subconsciously cleared his throat and smoothed his hair to make his presence known, but decided to let it go. He found himself pushing through the crowd of students to head for the next session.
Someone told Eddie that abandoned bikes were being rented out at the lost and found office. He walked over and took the one that posed the least challenge and drew the least attention, a low-slung mountain bike that sported six gears and shock absorbers.
He paid his deposit and they took down the details on his ID. He rode away to the next panel discussion and almost ran over Malik, who was standing still on the sidewalk next to the Adler building.
“Wow,” Malik said. “You’re just in time for my talk. I need you to ask a question.”
Malik wanted him to ask something during the short Q&A they always held after the discussion. He had written it out on a piece of paper and folded it discreetly into the palm of Eddie’s hand.
By the end of the third week, it began to dawn on him that his was by far the most unfortunate role at that conference. Not only was he implicitly required to be present at every panel discussion, whether it was on Post-Terrorism Bioethics, Gender and Media Issues, or Quantitative Resource Management, he was also required, as all Philippine government nominees were, to file a report on each topic, based on a standard template.
The most difficult part, of course, would be trying to fit in the report into that framework, which was meant to apply to everything from art exhibits to state visits. To his mind, the importance of his mission lay somewhere firmly in between. The conference did not need him the slightest bit as a resource or as an audience, and he was not there, either, to ease any political or cultural tension. But he was one more person, one more presence, in a room full of faculty, students and media observers, and this was of some importance, perhaps, especially during the less popular discussions where every person in the room mattered.
At mealtimes, when they were not left to their own devices, the delegates would gather in clumps and populate the cluster of restaurants and bars that lay at the edge of the campus. He found himself improbably nursing a pint of beer in the middle of the day, something he never imagined he would do back home.
That was when he heard the man from Montenegro ask the woman from Argentina about a museum or art gallery in town. She was beautiful and she wore a quaint little hat, and her smooth, bright shins shone from under the table, and Eddie wondered where she had been all this time. Her accent made it difficult to decipher what she was talking about, but Eddie was quick to pick up his own name.
“Edward Hooper,” the woman from Argentina said.
“You mean Hopper,” the man from Montenegro said.
“Yes, that’s what I meant. Hooper,” the woman answered. “His most famous work is in Des Moines. Very near here!”
Eddie looked it up later that night and saw what they had been talking about. He wondered how the painting would look up close. Would he see the brushstrokes? Would he see how the layers of color were laid on? Someone had told him paintings should be looked at that way: he should look closely then take a couple of steps back to take in the whole picture.
He clicked on the search results randomly, and not knowing anything much about the artist beyond his name, came upon an assortment of images and illustrations that might or might not have been the artist’s creations. Still, the idea of one name bringing up so many pages of so many associated things thrilled him.
The next day, Eddie was relieved to be having lunch alone at the Chinese restaurant. At one of the tables were two Filipinos. He recognized them immediately by sight and sat with his back to them. He didn’t know what it was that made him so sure. Beyond their features, he wondered if it was the way they wore their faces or ate their food.
“Never ask anyone about their status,” he heard one tell the other. “That’s rule number one, man.”
He spoke like an American, like he was born there. There was no answer from the other man.
“I mean, there’s no use anyway. The guy could just tell you he’s a green card holder. Either way it’s useless. Best to just keep to yourself.”
He wondered whether they were born here or raised there. He had his back to them but he wanted to turn around a bit and look at them, from the side, or when they were not looking, to see if he could tell.
They had drafted a thirty-page resolution synthesizing and outlining various agreements they had made over the last three weeks. The conference ended with cocktails and a photo session, where all 236 delegates suddenly showed up as though out of nowhere. Then they all had to sign on the resolution to make it official. Eddie made it a point to shake hands with everyone, lastly Malik, who patted his shoulder and gave him a conspiratorial wink.
Eddie still had three days left before his departure date. He checked the internet for buses to Des Moines and carefully studied the schedule. The only buses were at 2:15 and 5:30 a.m. and it would take four hours to the city. Either way there was waiting to do, here, or at the bus station there because the Des Moines Art Center opened at 11 a.m.
If he didn’t end up going, he wondered what he could do in all that spare time. He had reports to write, receipts to log and things to buy for the folks back home, but all that could be done at the airport, or on the plane.
He rode his bike to the lost-and-found depot and picked up his deposit. He counted the remaining dollars in his wallet, pulled out a folded piece of paper and thought it was the one with the numbers that Malik had given him. But the paper unfolded twice, and for an instant he had failed to recognize his own handwriting on the conference notepad. He had written, in bullet points, that he was the observing delegate from the Philippines, with two published papers, that it was his 5th conference of the sort, that he was born and lived in Manila, that he was married with three children; and then, a short list of his grants and fellowships.
Later that night he heard laughter again coming from the river. He had been thinking about the flight back home and wondered how easy or hard it would be to stay behind and make a clean break of things.
He took off his sweater and his pajamas and put on his jeans and a t-shirt. He thought about the cold and put on his sweater again. He took his coat from the closet and put it on. It would take him twenty minutes to walk to the bus station, past the old capitol and its shiny old dome, down the lit streets, just past the restaurants and bars. If he hurried he would make it. Maybe I’ll see what the fuss is all about, Eddie thought.
What Eddie didn’t know, as he stood in his coat in the middle of what had been his room for the last three weeks, was that it was not “Nighthawks” that awaited him at the Des Moines Art Center. It was the one called “Automat.”
City Stories will be launched on September 14 (Saturday) at 11:30 a.m. in MR2 at the Manila International Bookfair, SMX Convention Center, alongside Mookie Katigbak-Lacuesta’s Eros Redux, which revisits and reworks many of her original poems in order to reveal their true intentions, imposing clarity and order on the poems and the experiences that produced them—as odes or savage acts.