Hard Core

 

I.
—I gave up work today.
—Are you sure you did the right thing?
—I should have done it a long time ago.
—I suppose I should ask you what you’re going to do next.
—I choose not to make plans for the future.
—And your folks?
—I haven’t talked to them about it yet.
—They ought to know.
—I don’t think I’m ever going back.
—Have you some place else to stay?
—There’s lots of places in the city I can room in.
—How will you live?
—My savings will last me a year.
—And afterwards?
—A year is all the lifetime I need, beginning now.

II.
—What do you think of the place?
—Spare.
—Just the way I want it. Do you want a beer?
—Yes, thanks.
—Dropping out from society sure is a funny thing.
—What do you mean?
—Why, I finally got a more interesting crop of people to pick on—I mean real people, compared to the lot I had when I used to play the rat race. I mean, I am now actually making contact with absolutely no effort.
—People have always been around. What’s so different about people between then and now?
—That’s just it. Before I used to think of people as animate shut-ins. I used to go out of my way to peel them to their core, to find out what made them tick if you stripped them of their joys and fears, desires and failings—the entire flab that passes for humanity.
—And did you succeed?
—I think I did. I lost interest immediately. There was nothing inside them after all. So I gave up on them.
—But you take interest in people again, you were saying.
—Yes. At least in the ones in this orbit. I admit I gave up on people too soon then. It took me some time to realize I had the same hollow make. It was time I had to come to terms with my own empty core. That led me to where I am now. I can divest more down to my core, to strip it to its final, irreducible hard element.
—You meet people—how?
—Yes. A crop of them lovely castoffs. I don’t even have to step out the door. First one was the old lady who owns and rents out the rooming units in this compound. An old wiry, wrinkled pod. Asked a lot of questions before she let me rent this room. I told her I was writing a book—can you believe that? The cheapest excuse ever invented. Anyway, she fell for it. I believe I established instant respect in her when I paid her one year’s rent. Next day I brought in my things and began settling myself. The old lady was solicitous but I politely refused her help. It took her two weeks before she had to, well, pry into my inner sanctum. She was worried not so much about me being a recluse—I never went out—not even once, I had pretty well stocked up on my first month’s provisions. It was the other roomers who prodded her to check up on me. She rapped cautiously on my door. I promptly let her in. She smiled apologetically. She excused herself and asked me if I needed anything. She wanted to know how I was getting along with the neighbors. I told her I kept to myself and that I had nothing to complain about the people next doors. She was impressed about how neat my room was. Although it was daytime, the fluorescent lamp was on and gave the room a clinical aspect. The pads of yellow paper and cluster of ballpens on the desk beside the bed somehow reassured her. A cool draft was steadily seeping in from the window above the kitchen sink. The small refrigerator was humming soundly. She readily took the chair I offered and instantly fell under a chatty spell. She appreciated profusely my being a quiet occupant—in fact, I was so quiet that my neighbors in the other two studio-type rooms that flanked mine were starting to get concerned. The first complainant, so to speak, was a medical student next door. He too was a quiet occupant. But I could hear him at his books at night. I could hear him putter about his kitchen things—making coffee or preparing snacks, I guessed. Most of the time he was reciting—memorizing—from his books. He kept on that way for a week. One night, close to midnight, I thought I heard him address someone. I was about to sleep after my nightly ritual of ten mental runs of the English alphabet—backwards. I half-listened to his muffled rambling. I was startled a bit when I realized he was actually talking to me. The gist of what he said—he sounded earnest, too—had something to do with how terribly bored he was with his study and that he would consider it a favor if the person next door would make some signs of life once in while to divert him. It was the same thing on the following nights. In fact, it became part of his nightly study regimen. I then gave up my nightly ritual with the English alphabet, because I found the medical student’s appeal a more effective soporific. In the other room are a man and a woman. Husband and wife, according to the old lady. The husband works as a night guard at a bank. He probably sleeps all morning while the wife entertains herself with a children’s show and another for housewives on TV. On some late afternoons, before the man goes off to duty, I could hear them make love. It is a squeaky and thudding affair, with the man breathlessly whispering to the woman to keep it down or else the neighbors will hear. The old lady chuckled heartily when I told her this. At night their room droned with the drama specials on TV. It was the wife, the second complainant, who was most intrigued by the silence of my room. The old lady said my neighbors meant well in sending her to check on me. Her grandson used to occupy my room she said further. He was in between jobs and needed some time to recharge. He was amiable and endeared himself easily with the neighbors. He was a good cook and would invite the couple and the medical student for meals and lively talk. Naturally, when the old lady’s grandson invited for dinner there would only be three of them here. It was on such occasions that the woman and the medical student managed to hit it off together. It came to a point when the two became so quiet at table that the old lady’s grandson was able to see through what was happening. So he gave up dinner invitations. However, even his succeeding lunches began to take on a dreary flavor. The husband and wife were reticent and the medical student hardly touched his food. One day the medical student came up to him and asked him to arrange a dinner for the night and invite the woman. The student confessed that he was in love with the woman and that he wanted to be alone with her after dinner and desperately requested the old lady’s grandson to let them have the room until midnight. The old lady’s grandson refused. The medical student insisted no further and sullenly left for his own room. The next day, the old lady’s grandson left, telling her he was due to start on a new job.

III.
—This room is filling up nicely.
—But it is still as spare as before, only gloomier.
—Exactly. What you discern is the stuff of my molting.
—I don’t understand.
—I don’t expect you to get it all at this phase.
—You’re pushing this madness a little bit too far.
—I’m still good for the last three months of my lifetime.
—What I don’t understand is that you look more hale than you ever did before your self-exile. Strangely, you seem so… solidly serene.
—Better—I’m beginning to lose my old skin.
—All this talk is scaring me. I need a beer.
—You will get more than that, my old friend. Here, and have a cigarette, too.
—What else do you have in store? I think I’ve seen everything.
—Tonight is a special night.
—Let’s make it more special. Let me take you on a night out. How long has it been since you last had a diversion?
—Thanks for inviting me out. But isn’t this diversion enough? For you, I mean.
—Don’t laugh—I have to admit that I come here exactly for this insanity of yours. I ought to come here more often if I didn’t resist the longing.
—You come when you have to come. It’s what makes the whole thing special.
—Whatever happened to your next-door folks?
—I let the medical student come in as often as he wants or needs to. The first time was shortly after I told you about my chat with the old lady. He just upped here with some beers early one night and gave me a rundown of his school hangups. I let him talk most of the time. Sometimes he just sits here and smokes for hours while I read Nicanor Parra aloud. It took him not a few nights more of his school woes before he finally got around the one subject I know still sparks your interest, my old friend. He is of the lanky sort and a bit pale. However, there is fire and strength in his eyes that could at any moment be channeled to the punitive parts of his body. This much could be hinted at out of the passion he expended in relating the story of his unconsummated love for the married woman who lived in the other room. His story had dwelled in general terms on the charm and beauty of the woman. He strongly lusted after her. The old lady also comes here almost regularly. The last time, she congratulated me for making the woman in the next room happy. The noise from my room of late lifted the deathly silence it used to exude. Although the woman was not within comprehending what she must have caught I was sometimes declaiming, she was certainly affected by emotions she perceived my delivery evoked. Actually, I read in monotone. I have yet to meet the woman personally, though. It is evident that she would eavesdrop on this room whenever I had company. Her TV would either be turned off or its volume turned down very low. Especially so when it was her husband’s turn to engage my non-reactive company. The security guard came up here one afternoon with a gun. It was his first visit. He said the gun was for protection. For his wife’s protection, that is. He was putting his wife’s safety in my charge while he was away at night. He said he had nobody else to turn to. He said he had just been talking to the old lady about his concern for his wife’s safety. The landlady had told him he needed not worry since I could be trusted to watch over things, since I was the only other roomer aside from his wife who rarely left the compound. He taught me how to load and unload the gun, but instructed me to keep it loaded. He said I needed not worry over my not having fired a gun before. He said all I had to do, when the need to fire it arises, was to aim at close range. I kept the gun in one of my desk’s drawers. He would come here on his nights off. He brings me beer and goat’s meat. He would talk about his work, how it bored him, how he missed his bed, how madly in love he was with his wife. He belongs to the toady sort, dark and ruddy from head to foot. He always smelled strongly of Skin Bracer. He has a low booming voice that breaks easily in croaks when excited. He drank until midnight and always took his leave cheerfully. It was the medical student who first intimated the undeclared rivalry between him and the security guard. He too eavesdropped on the latter’s visits to my room. He had nothing but blind loathing for the man. The security guard, on the other hand, had nothing but pity for the boy. Of course, he was not blind to his wife’s feelings for the boy. But he was confident that his wife was madly in love with him—her husband. The whole thing had a tragic air to it. The medical student was itching to break the deadlock, by whatever means. The security guard was biding his time. I let them play their little game. I drank their beer and listened to them as they unlid their life stories. I was never called to react or to divulge on anything that was said about the other. Until one night the security guard asked to see the gun he entrusted me for safekeeping. He unloaded the gun except for one bullet. He pocketed the discarded bullets. He handed the gun back to me calmly and told me to keep it. He then told me that he would come to visit the following week. It was the first time he made an advanced engagement. He told me he would bring along his wife. He also told me that the old lady would be present. He also told me that the medical student would come—it turned out they finally agreed to settle the matter civily over some game with the gun. He also told me to have a friend of mine to join the party, which I have and am doing now, my old friend. I expect them to arrive all at the same time any moment now.
—What?!
—I told you this would be a special night.
—You’re crazy!
—I think they’re coming now…

IV.
—Well, I’ve lived my lifetime.
—That was a foolish stunt you pulled off on me back then.
—None of that now, my old friend.
—You’re lucky your folks are willing to take you back.
—And return to them I shall not.
—What? What have you got now? No job, no money, no home…
—You still don’t get it, do you?
—Help me.
—Okay. I still have the gun.
—Oh no…
—Okay. Watch me carefully.
—You’re not really…
—There’s really a bullet in here, see. This time it’s no booby. I’m spinning the barrel. I think this goes well in my mouth.
—You’re crazy!

Rosendo M. Makabali is a technical writer in a government office and the employees cooperative.
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