By Worrying, Add a Single Hour

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An earlier version of this story was submitted in the 60th Palanca Awards. 

This is not a story about the engine loudly braying that early morning – the jeepney driver’s foot on the pedal whipping violently this mechanical beast of burden. The motor’s cries echoed on the empty streets that cold December, as the driver prodded the diesel-hungry creature to give all its strength, mercilessly demanding that the tired Isuzu 4BA1 weave through the provincial asphalt highway.

The lady by the entrance, shivering and half-asleep, held tightly on the metal railing by the door. She was no stranger to this scene –the calluses on her palms and feet were witnesses to this route she plied seven days a week. Beside her, on the floor, were two pails filled with fish still flopping in desperation, with a clear sheet of plastic secured over the pails’ mouths to keep the creatures from their futile attempt to escape. With her left hand clinging on the rope tied around the pail’s metal handles, she huddled closer to the railing – wincing her astigmatic eyes to observe the surroundings outside.

It wasn’t her stop yet, but years of traveling this way told her she would have to go down soon. A tricycle would be waiting for her at her stop to help her bring the fish to the town market, for yet another day of chitchat and haggling with barrio lasses and gossipy matrons who inspected her fish without care. She knew those faces, too familiar they almost felt like family, until they revealed their true forms – greedy, beady-eyed regulars who cloyingly demanded cheaper prices as if all she did was cheat them of their money. Her explanations that the catches were dwindling and the fishermen would not settle anymore for the usual rates fell on deaf ears. She ached to say she wanted to give her apo new clothes that Christmas but she knew it was useless — these were hard times and people were beyond pity.

She fumbled for her purse, drew three grimy coins from it, then stretched her arm to hand her fare to the boy seated closer to the driver. She looked inside her purse again and counted just enough change to pay the tricycle driver later, much to her relief — relief immediately replaced with panic when her pails slid an inch away from her as the jeepney hit a crater on the road. She mumbled a prayer and shouted to the driver that if her fishes scatter on the floor he was going to pay for everything.

But this is not her story.

The boy, seated in front of the old lady, let go of his girlfriend’s hand to reach for the geriatric woman’s fare. This boy sorely wanted a beer right now.

It was not yet 6 A.M. but Lea, his girlfriend, was already panicking – nagging him that they better make it to Kat’s place before his girlfriend’s mother phoned to check on her, or else.

Lea lied that she’d be spending the night at Kat’s to finish an overdue paper, and her mother, who was usually skeptical of her late-night “projects”, immediately said yes – which Lea and the boy found both surprising and suspicious. His girlfriend theorized her mother would call at Kat’s the moment she woke up, eager for that moment of triumph when she would discover that Lea was not there.

The paranoia of getting caught that possessed her ruined the whole night for them. She kept reminding the boy about the last time she was found out, when she had to be grounded for the whole semester until finals week saved her – the flood of school work the perfect excuse not to be home by 10. This time though, she told him she wasn’t going to let the boy ruin her chances of late-night hang-outs at Kat’s place, especially when the holiday break was only ten days away.

The boy just wanted to go back to the bar at Alabang and order one more beer before it closed. Actually, drinking a convenience store beer on the sidewalk would do just great. What was he doing anyway bringing this girl to her best friend’s house? Going steady with Lea wasn’t part of the original plan, to be honest.

If anything, Lea’s crooked teeth and moderate acne discouraged everyone enough to pursue other, more voluptuous muliebral prey. To the desperate, however, her braces brought to her an innocent charm that gave people the impression she was shielded from high school adolescent experiments at the back of school buildings, and college encounters that became the next day’s medals of honor among the other boys.

He knew those college stories very well. Every time, he would listen closely to his classmates brag about their conquests, and each time he shrank from shame that the only story he could share was something he wouldn’t dare even speak of, ever – one that involved a sad-looking middle-aged man in a seedy movie house and a security guard flashing his light at them. There was scampering away in all sorts of directions after that, and he went home swearing never to remember again.

He sorely hoped to be the one who bragged about his story with the other guys, but tonight his girlfriend foiled the plan with her paranoia. Right then, really, all he wanted was to bail out, even if that meant jumping out of the speeding jeepney.

He just couldn’t take this anymore – and this wasn’t even his story.

You would think he knew better, the girl muttered to herself as she licked her teeth – feeling the metal braces wiring her deformity into perfection – and felt the gust of wind slapping her face, while she tried with much difficulty to turn the other way from Dennis’ stare. She told Dennis – she told him countless of times – she wasn’t allowed to be this late, that her mother suspected that she was still seeing him, that she was risking a lot of things just to let him have his way every time.

He thought everything was that easy, she told him, and that was what the problem was. He never thought about the what if‘s. What would happen if Kat grew bored and fell asleep waiting for her? What would happen if it were Kat’s mother who woke up and opened the door for the two of them? Not only will her mother know – she’d have the scolding of her life, and she’d be stuck home for the rest of the vacation.

But still: he insisted that night, saying it wouldn’t take long, what was one movie after all? She agreed, stupidly, not checking the time, and after the film was done three hours had passed by already. Still, the boy asked that they eat at a bar nearby, and she once more relented, since what harm would dinner do after all, and afterwards he was drinking a bottle of beer already, and his friends were, suddenly, conveniently around the area as well, until it was already 3 in the morning, which by then she couldn’t take it anymore and she had to pinch the boy until he bled. That was when they left the bar in haste.

You would think he knew better, she whispered to herself, this skeleton boy with a single eyebrow that threatened to metamorphose into a moth. Every day she counted his faults, and for the past five months they’ve been together she grew irritated with her new discoveries: his uncouth habits, his provincial inflection, his lopsided unsure smile, his vinegary breath, his tear-jerkingly unfunny jokes (and how he’d laugh like each was the funniest in the whole world), and the nose hair that crawled out of his nostrils.

For the record, it was definitely not because he made fun of her braces and how he constantly prescribed medication for her pimples. All she knew was that every day her hate was piling up for this boy, like bricks forming a wall in between the two of them, and more and more she grew disgusted with the way he touched her, his kisses, every time he disgustingly forced his tongue into hers – the way savages did, without grace, without magic, only lust.

She was stupid to think he’d know better, but what would he know? He was only a boy, a boy inexperienced with girls, ignorant on the ways of passion, of the power of sensations, of waves of desire that seized two people who were in love, unlike Tito Boy, her best friend’s dad, who held her with such firmness and gentleness, who made her whole body shiver as he caressed her skin, who kissed her and made her feel like those women in romance paperbacks her aunt stashed away in the kitchen cabinet – electricity running down her spine, and she felt beautiful, the most beautiful girl in the whole world in his arms, never mind that Jesus followed the two of them with his stare, high above the wall of her room, with
his disapproving gaze and pursed lips. This wasn’t her story, and nobody must know her story – God forbid – never.

Jesus, Son of God seated at the right hand of the Father who will judge the living and the dead, definitely knew that moment the driver wanted to wring the old lady’s neck. If not for his divine omniscience, then surely Jesus must have figured it out when the driver held on tight to the cheap green plastic cross hanging around the jeepney’s rear-view mirror, as the man silently cursed the old lady.

Reeking of fossilized sweat from ten years of traveling through this godforsaken route, the driver was well acquainted with these senior citizens who believe everyone owed them kindness. Well,  if she doesn’t like his driving she can just jump off the jeepney and get herself rolled over by the speeding vehicles behind them, good riddance. It’s about time the old bitch should realize jeepney drivers like him were doing her a favor — letting her ride with her stinky fish despite how the stench made the other passengers uncomfortable.

It was almost daybreak and he hasn’t earned enough yet to call it a day, with all his earnings for that night from the people he had inside his jeepney at that very moment. He had no choice but to race every jeepney that hour so he can get to more passengers before they did.

His brows furrowed when he remembered he still had to claim his confiscated license. He needed to get it today or else he’d risk driving illegally again, and who knows when those bastard traffic enforcers would pop up and invent a violation to stop him with? Mga gago. One of these days – he swore – one of these days he’ll have his revenge. He’ll run over one of them when no one’s looking and escape like hell. That would show them.

Yet despite everything, he was a proud workingman, he upheld his dignity, and he refused to borrow money from his mother-in-law anymore because he can’t stand begging like a dog. The bitch, putang ina, she can go back to Pampanga and get herself drilled by the soldiers like in her good old days, as long as she left him and his wife alone. The whore, all she did was sit and gossip as she got more porcine by the day – eating away the meager fruits of his hard labor, as she flaunted the money she received from her dead expat lover’s insurance company. 

She would never let him forget that she bought the jeepney, and the television, and the refrigerator, rubbing it in perpetually that he was good for nothing and unable to provide for her daughter. He fervently hoped she choked to death on her chicharon one of these days. Wishing for a heart attack would be too kind.

They say Jesus will make a way when there seems to be no way  and Jesus better make this way clear because he has no plans of stopping for anything or anyone, be it a traffic light or a pedestrian (unless it was a passenger). God knows this wasn’t his story, but that fact didn’t make his rage go away.

Not very far away, a bus driver was weaving along the dreamy bucolic route, enjoying the wind by the open window at his side.

The driver was set on making one more trip to Novaliches and back as he breezed towards the terminal – pushing the rickety, aged bus faster right after the last passenger alighted at Muntinlupa. Already, he could feel the weight of his eyelids blurring the dim distance ahead, the moment made even worse by the blast of cold air lulling him.

He chuckled suddenly as he remembered Diana, the parlorista from across the street, who kept him and his compadre Mang Lando busy that day with her jokes and chismis about the frigid Aling Zenaida from the marketplace who gripped her phallic fishes tightly. They guffawed at Diana’s witty commentaries while the three of them drank gin and ate peanuts, unmindful of the suspicious stares of other neighborhood drunkards in their barangay as they openly welcomed the loud transsexual who teasingly flirted with them.

Lately, these afternoon drinking sessions have become frequent because of Mang Lando’s recent sleeplessness. His compadre was finding it difficult adjusting to the new shift assigned by their bus company.  Worried that one of these days Mang Lando would comatose on the road, he’d send a text message or two every now and then just to keep his friend awake. He needed the text conversations too, anyway, since he hasn’t been sleeping as well for the past weeks to keep Mang Lando company during the insomnia bouts – he beside Mang Lando in their room, observing his compadre toss and turn while waiting in vain for sleep to come.

He suggested telling their operators about Mang Lando’s problem and pleading that they change the schedule, but Mang Lando was firm about it: No. They couldn’t risk it, not when Julio just got fired when the management caught wind of rumors that Julio was planning to form a union.

Fighting the hangover and tiredness by stepping on the gas even more resolutely, he focused on the prize that lay ahead, the promise that he could at least doze off for a couple of minutes while waiting for passengers at the bus station.

The bus shook violently as he told himself how near he was already, almost there, just a few kilometers more from a few moments’ rest at the terminal.

He closed his eyes for a split-second and felt the wind cold on his skin.

But it was not the real story, because the real story is this, that somewhere, in a humid classroom away from this moment, a high school student is answering this question:

A 4,900-kilogram jeepney traveling with a velocity of 90 mph from the south, and the 40-ton bus speeding at X miles per hour, traveling from west, will collide at an intersection in 15 seconds, the bus ramming the jeepney at an angle of 73.0° north of east.

Solve the speed of bus.

Our young hero, sighing to himself as he stares at the view from his window, will complain that there are better things to worry about than solving stupid questions about vehicles colliding into each other, which had no practical bearing nor inherent value in life.

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