Our family's just bought a taxi and Nanay's been on the phone the whole afternoon telling everyone we know. To Tita Teresing, her older sister: "Yes, Tering! Second-hand, but not cheap. Looks brand-new. Very classy…" To Tita Juliana, her younger sister: "All the papers are in order, Jule… I know, how fortunate we are… From Eman's savings, of course! All those years away…" To Ate Hilda, the spinster next door who breeds game cocks: "The white one parked in front, that's right… No, no, no! Eman will drive it first. Can't trust strangers nowadays…"
Now she is talking to Charity, her best friend and fellow teacher: "I don't know, Char. Hope this is it. Things will turn around now. You'll see. You'll see…" Nanay sits on the living room sofa, legs folded underneath her big bottom. She nestles the telephone receiver in between her neck and shoulder. She is absently scratching her callused feet, as she talks to Charity in a gentler, far-away voice. "Eman will drive, yes. Who else? Oh, I hope so, Char. I hope so. Pray for us. Pray for us."
Nanay has this habit of repeating herself. She does this whenever her emotions get too much for her. Maybe that's why our names repeat themselves, too. My name is JunJun. My sister, three years younger at nine, is called LenLen. My other sister, still a baby, is called MikMik. I imagine Nanay screaming our names as we popped out of her and greeted the harried kumadrona and the world with shrill cries, already in protest of our repeating names. They say you're not a Filipino if you don't know at least one person with a doubled name. I guess that makes me a true native to the bone. Yes, yes.
When Nanay puts the phone down, she turns to me and blinks her eyes twice. "What are you doing here?" she says. I blink back at her. I know she doesn't want me to answer. "Go help your father clean the taxi. And then we'll have supper." I blow out some air from my mouth and run my hand through my hair— my mock copy of MacGyver before he executes one of his many incredible feats on his TV show— and I bolt out of the house.
MacGyver is my favorite action hero, no doubt about it. He is calm even under the gravest of dangers. He can defuse a bomb or walk across a booby-trapped lair without breaking a sweat. Nothing fazes him. He is very smart. He can look at a pair of scissors, a bottle of catsup and some rubber bands and create a weapon that can immobilize an enemy. He can do anything. Anything. In fact, I believe that given some sticks, straws and matches, and more time than the usual few seconds on TV, he can build a phantom jet fighter. LenLen would call me crazy when I tell her this. I'd call her stupid. Then Nanay, always within earshot, would make a missile of one of her slippers and demand that I return it to her.
Outside the gate, I find Tatay crouching by the front of the taxi, tapping a tire, which reminds me of the time last week when a doctor was tapping his chest. Tatay couldn't get up that day, saying he felt dizzy. Nanay and I helped him to a tricycle and brought him to the hospital immediately. The doctor said he had a BP of 170 over 90, which freaked Nanay out. He has slowed down since then.
Tatay now dunks a rag into a pail of water and scrubs the front mag wheel roughly. His hands remind me of dried gingerroots.
"'Tay, I'll help you," I say.
He looks up and pulls out a dry rag from the back pocket of his shorts. "Here," he says. "You can clean them dry."
When he finishes getting the mag wheel wet, I kneel down and wipe. We go around the taxi doing this until the water in the pail is black-dirty and all four mags are shining in the drooping sun. Then we both stand to one side and stare at the taxi. I feel his hand on my shoulder.
"She's beautiful, isn't she?" Tatay says.
I have to agree with him, though the dusk is playing tricks with my eyes. The taxi is white, but the way the sunlight is hitting it, I see the smooth, shiny hood turn a little pink, then orange, then back to pink again. The letter X of the TAXI sign on the roof is scratched so it reads TAYI. It has JUNIOR painted in dark blue on the doors, so I can make-believe that it was put there for me. I guess the previous owner had a son also called JunJun. There are two strips of rubber running low around its sides, and for a moment, I imagine them changing into huge black wings and carrying the taxi—with me inside—up in the sky, high above our little house on Bagong Ilog.
There are children playing tumbang preso on the street, shouting and cursing. I also see three men, shirtless, a few meters away, eating at a fishball stand. I have seen them on our street before, usually going home drunk, sometimes in the middle of the day. They are looking at us as they quietly munch on their fishballs, getting their lips all slimy. I know what they are thinking: they want to ask Tatay about driving our taxi. Driving a taxi can make them a lot of money. There's a boundary of six hundred pesos which goes to the owner. Anything else earned above that goes to the driver. I hear some drivers bring home more than the boundary at the end of each day. At twenty-five pesos starting fare, and two pesos added for every three hundred meters, I wouldn't be surprised. But I know these men will never ask him. They don't know him—my father is the new guy in our area—and they are wary of him. I myself don't know him very well. What little I know of him I learned from his short two-week visits every three years that his Saudi bosses would allow and from all the letters and photos and gifts he used to send. He just got back two months ago, for good this time, after almost ten years away. I know that he and Nanay have always dreamed of buying a taxi. I wonder what they dream of now.
Tatay picks up the pail of water and ruffles my hair. "Let's go inside. Tomorrow, you will join me when I drive her around the city, how about that?"
Dinner that night is a little more special than the fried fish galunggong we usually have. Nanay has cooked tortang talong and she has bought a packet of catsup from the sari-sari store down the corner. I like it so much I reach out for the last piece.
"Hep!" Nanay says across the table, eyes glaring. She adjusts her hold on MikMik who is quietly sucking on one of her breasts. "Leave that one for your father. He has a busy day tomorrow, driving the taxi for a full day."
"A full day," LenLen repeats, next to me. I stop myself from elbowing her face.
Tatay reaches over and, with his fork, slices the stuffed eggplant in two. "Let him have half," he says. "He needs the energy, too. He is joining me," and he adds, smiling, "'no, JunJun?"
"Susmaryosep, Eman!" Nanay says. "He has his lessons. He cannot*"
"It's Saturday tomorrow, Letty," Tatay says. "He can study his lessons on Sunday."
Nanay shifts her weight in her seat. "And what if a group of four hails you?" she says. "What then? How will he squeeze inside? Or will you let him off by the road?"
"We will not stop for them," Tatay says. His calm tone has the effect of agitating Nanay. She rolls her eyes, stands up from the table and brings MikMik to their room. A few minutes later, she comes down and begins washing the plates, making a lot of noise.
"Not stopping for passengers is foolish," I hear Nanay muttering to the sink. "How can things be different for us? Things will never be different if we don't stop for passengers needing a ride."
I don't know what she is talking about. Why does she want things to be different? For a second, I think she is turning loka-loka, crazy. Tatay quietly finishes eating his half of the torta.
"I want to come, too!" LenLen suddenly wails. "I want to come, too!"
LenLen always does this. Every time she feels like she is being left out, she starts acting like such a baby. Last time when I had the flu, she thought she had cancer. "How can you have cancer?" Nanay had argued. "You're only seven!" But LenLen kept insisting in her whiny voice. Tatay, who had just returned home from Saudi, walked up to her, carried her to our room and laid her on the bed. Then he solemnly placed his hands on her chest and shouted, "Aloha, Ak-bar!" or at least, that's how it sounded to me, and made her sit up against the bed board. "There," he said, flicking a finger to her nose. "Tomorrow, you will be cured. But today, you will be afflicted with cancer. Your lungs will collapse, your skin will grow spots like Rambo (Rambo is our mongrel) and all your hair will fall out. You are my cancer baby." During dinner that night, Nanay kept telling LenLen to remove the towel round her head.
This time, Tatay gets up from his seat and walks over to LenLen and flicks her nose again with his finger. "On Sunday," he says, "it will be your turn."
"Yehey!" LenLen starts shouting.
I pay no attention to her. I look at Tatay as he moves to Nanay by the sink where he deposits his plate. He then wraps his arms around her and squeezes her tenderly, which seems to quiet her muttering.
"I'm riding, too! Yehey!" LenLen says. "Yehey!"
Tonight, while my mother writes her lesson plans on the dinner table, I sit hunched in front of the TV, watching MacGyver make a robot that opens a refrigerator and grabs an egg. I eagerly scribble this latest feat of ingenuity down in my notebook, adding it to my list:
I call my list "MacGyveractics." I check it every now and then, hoping to be able to do even half of the items on it someday. So far I've only done a made-up version of #6: I once tied LenLen with some rope. I brought her to this acacia tree in the middle of the busy highway not far from our house. Then, perched on one of the top branches, I tried to pull her up, cars zooming below us. Nanay made a paddle of her slipper that time, making it hard for me to sit the whole day.
"You should be sleeping now," Nanay suddenly says. Then she adds, "You have a busy day tomorrow."
Hearing something tender in her voice, I turn to her real slow. She smiles at me and goes back to her writing. That smile is rare, I should know. The last time my mother smiled at me that way, she was telling me about how she'd always wanted to meet Jaime de la Rosa, the 50's matinee idol. She keeps an old, yellowing picture of him stuck underneath the glass of her dressing table. He's her hero, she'd always say. There were lots of them: Jose Mari Gonzales, Nestor de Villa, Romeo Vasquez—even their names sounded heroic, like they were not movie stars but great Spanish conquerors—but it was Jaime she fell for, the one she'd always wanted to take her away to fantastic adventures. Maybe that's why she married my father late, waiting all those years for her Jaime to show up at her door. I know that her sisters don't approve of my father. A construction engineer who never made it big, they always say. But who cares what they say? I think ten years in Saudi is a big deal, something to be proud of. I mean, who gets to work abroad these days, right? And besides, we have a taxi now to show off.
I think I'm starting to know why Nanay said those words during dinner tonight, about how things could be different for us now, and why she gave me that nice smile. I guess she sees the taxi as her way of proving everyone wrong, and that my father is finally taking her on an adventure.
The next day, I wake up at five o'clock to the crowing of Ate Hilda's game cocks. I take a quick bath and put on a clean shirt with red and blue stripes. Nanay has prepared sardines and pan de sal with my hot glass of Milo and I am so hungry I eat fast and almost choke on the food. Nanay seems all excited and happy, not doing anything really, just shuffling around the kitchen and swatting at flies. LenLen and MikMik are still asleep but I hear Tatay's footsteps above me. He's had his breakfast and is already getting dressed. I think I even hear him whistling.
A few minutes later he comes down, all smiles and looking neat in his white shirt with a crisp collar. He even has his hair slicked back with pomade, shiny and black like Rambo's fur after a bath. Nanay now has this big smile running from ear to ear. Tatay goes to her and plants a kiss on her cheek. Then he turns to me. "Ready?" he says. My mouth full, I nod and follow him out the door.
"Don't make any trouble for your father!" Nanay screams, her words reaching me before I reach the street. "Or you'll get it from me!"
It's still dark, the sun's just beginning to peek from the horizon, and the air feels damp. I hear a couple of tricycles sputter to life two streets down. A jeepney grumbles past us. I jump all excited into the back seat, trying to make myself comfortable. Tatay gets behind the steering wheel and looks at me in the rearview mirror above his head. "What are you doing there?" he asks, and before I can answer, he points to the seat next to him. "Sit over here. People will think I'm your driver."
I know what he's thinking: only rich kids get to sit at the back of their cars, driver in front. I've seen them lots of times on my way to school, boys my age sitting in the back seat of their huge, gleaming cars, drivers looking straight ahead. But I don't tell Tatay that people will still think he's the driver no matter where I sit. It's a taxi, right? And he's the man behind the steering wheel, right? I just stay quiet and climb over my seat next to him and pull the seatbelt across me. By the time we reach the main avenue, the sky is already a bright blue.
Tatay tells me how I will help. I will be the cashier of the taxi for the whole day. He takes care of the driving, I take care of the money. He hands me some small bills, a few coins, and I keep them in my pocket. When a passenger pays, I give back change. This way, Tatay says, I can learn a bit about math and not worry about wasting the day not studying. It will surely make Nanay feel better.
Our first passenger is a man wearing a tie. We pick him up in Cubao and he tells Tatay to take him to Makati. I guess he's what they call an executive. He smells good and pretty soon he is snoring. On EDSA, I have never seen so many cars. We are packed in close to the other cars and moving so slow that I sometimes think we have all stopped and parked. I get bored so I start copying Tatay. I pretend that I'm driving the taxi myself, stepping on imaginary pedals and shifting my own invisible gear stick. In a few minutes I'm matching Tatay's every move. We drop off Mr. Executive two hours later.
We drive around Makati for a while and I stare at all the tall buildings made of concrete and glass. Our next fare is a young woman wearing an orange skirt. I peek at her from where I'm sitting in front and find that she's very pretty. She has a green eye dangling on her chest and when she sees me staring she smiles. "Your son?" she asks my father, who politely nods. "He's cute!" I think she's the most truthful person in the world. We drop her off along Buendia and immediately a woman and seven children pile into the taxi. She carries a baby in her arms, four of the children sit with her in the backseat, and the other two boys, about my age, squeeze in with me. They all smell of sweat and the sun and they look as if they have been running. The woman tells Tatay to take them to Padre Faura, somewhere in Manila, I think. I notice the boy next to me has a dark bruise on his right knee and he's covering it with his hands. When they get off an hour later, my bottom is sore from adjusting my weight on the seat with the two other kids.
For lunch, we go to Full House Pares-Pares along Ermita and we order chicken arroz caldo and a stick each of pork barbecue. I pay using the money we earned this morning. By two o'clock, the air-conditioner starts blowing warm air and our fat woman passenger with plastic bags of cosmetics starts fanning herself. "This taxi is second-hand," Tatay explains to the woman. We open the windows, which irritates her even more. Lunch and the warm afternoon air makes me fall asleep and when I open my eyes, our fat passenger is gone. Tatay hands me a few bills. "The cashier went away for a while," he announces. "Sorry," I mumble, pocketing the money.
It's starting to get dark and Tatay turns on his headlights. We are still somewhere in Manila, passing an old church and walls that remind me of a fortress, when Tatay stops for a man in a dark brown jacket. "Ortigas," the man says, and his breath smells of cigarettes. "Good," Tatay says and winks at me. "We're on our way home."
A half-hour later, we find ourselves driving along the Pasig River. The sun is gone and the moon is hiding and I can't make out the river on my father's side. I think of asking Tatay about boats on the river and whether or not they run at night when I feel the man behind us lean forward and I see a flash of silver under my father's jaw. Our passenger is holding a thin blade to my father's neck.
"This is a hold-up," the man says.
My hand instantly drops to my lap, on my pocket. I feel the paper bills there and the hardness of the coins. They feel cold on my palm. Tatay turns to me and gives a slight nod. The man looks at me, too. He has a huge ugly mole on his forehead. I look at him then I look at Tatay then at the man again. I take out the money, coins and all, from my pocket. The man holds his free hand out.
"Hurry up!" he says. And just when I'm about to give him all the money, I glance at my father. Tatay looks out his window, beyond the metal rails that border the Pasig River. For a moment, I'm afraid he's thinking of swerving the taxi to the left, possibly saving us from this dangerous man but surely throwing us all into the black river below.
Instead, he does something else. I'm not sure how to describe it: he looks out the window and his face turns calm and I see his whole body—I don't know—sink, I guess is the word. That's it, he sinks. It's like his chest crumples inside him and he grows small in his seat. He grips the steering wheel like he might slide off. I realize my father's BP has shot up again, and it's taking him over, taking over his driving.
The taxi spits to the right. It hits a street lamp. Our passenger hurls forward. He slams his head on the dashboard. His knife clatters to the floor. All the bills and coins explode from my hand and rain down inside the taxi like confetti. "Putang-ina!" the man shouts. He looks around, getting his bearings. Blood trickles from a cut on his eyebrow. He stares at me. I feel his hot stink on my face. Then he turns and clambers out of the taxi and disappears in the night traffic.
A crowd gathers outside. I unfasten my seatbelt. I shake my father, trying to wake him up. He doesn't move. I look to the people outside for help but no one even comes near. I feel small nails rattling inside my head. All I can think about is that if I don't get Tatay to a hospital soon, I'll never hear the end of it from Nanay. The front of the taxi's hugging the street lamp, which lolls to one side like it has gotten tired all of a sudden. I feel the engine still running. Tatay is still held firmly by his seatbelt. I get out of my seat and squeeze in between him and the steering wheel. My body reviews all the steps of my pretend driving that day. I step on the clutch, put the gear in reverse, and step on the gas real slow. I screech my way back on to the road, scattering people.
My mind is calm but I can feel my heart kick with every wild jolt of the taxi. I know I'm driving too slow, the other cars behind me keep honking, but I feel I'm on a mission. I let them overtake me. I never move beyond the first gear. I don't realize I'm passing a hospital until it's too late. I step on the brake and make a wide U-turn. I maneuver the taxi near the emergency entrance and I park it there in a crazy angle. I run out and drag a couple of orderlies to our broken taxi. They help me carry my father out and into the emergency ward, where an intern immediately but calmly checks him over and starts pumping his chest with his fists. Amazingly, the intern revives him. Tatay breathes in deep and his eyes open to slits. The intern orders around a couple of nurses then he turns to me and says that maybe I should call someone from home.
I call up Nanay. She arrives an hour later, storming into the ward in her flowered duster and wooden slippers, wailing and rushing past me to sit with Tatay on the bed, a lady to her fallen knight. She interrogates the intern like a police sergeant, and the other patients in the room look at her weakly.
I slip outside and find the taxi. The front end's smashed in and a wide gash runs down the hood. I can make out the color of iron where the paint has been scratched off. One of the headlights is dangling from its socket, reminding me of plastic flopping eyeballs. I stick my head in the window and find all the money gone, not even a centavo left. Someone took the money, after all. I see the glint of the blade on the taxi's floor and I'm thinking, LenLen wouldn't be riding tomorrow, nor on any other day for a long, long time.
I go back to the emergency ward and find Nanay sitting beside Tatay while he sleeps. The place is quiet, most of the nurses have gone, and only a couple of old men are sleeping on the remaining beds. Looking at my mother gently touching my father's forehead, I know that things, if they don't get different just yet, will be all right for us, for now.
Then Nanay sees me and her face turns to rock.
She walks towards me and pulls me to one corner of the ward, and I'm thinking, this is it, I'm going to get it, I have made trouble for my father and now I'm going to get it from her.
"Did you really drive the taxi?" she asks, all serious and scared at the same time.
"Yes," I say, looking up into her eyes.
"All the way to the hospital?" she says. "All by yourself?"
"Yes," I say again, as honestly as I could.
Then she smiles—that nice smile which melts her face soft—and she looks at me long. "You're a good boy. A good boy," Nanay says.
She looks at me long. Like I can do anything.
Originally from the Philippines, Peter Zaragoza Mayshle received an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, where he was awarded two Hopwood Awards, a Farrar Award in playwriting, and a Civitas Fellowship for teaching in the Detroit public schools with the InsideOut Detroit Literary Arts Project. He coauthored Ligtas Likas, a 25-minute animated film produced to motivate children to practice recycling and proper waste management and screened in 2009 at the first-ever "Green Film Festival" in Manila. He is currently pursuing a PhD in Composition and Rhetoric at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and he'll be in Saratoga Springs, NY for a Yaddo artist residency, June 2010.