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The Day the Dancers Came by Bienvenido Santos Essay

As soon as Fil woke up, he noticed a whiteness outside, quite unusual for the November mornings they had been having. That fall, Chicago was sandman’s town, sleepy valley, drowsy gray, slumberous mistiness from sunup till noon when the clouds drifted away in cauliflower clusters and suddenly it was evening. The lights shone on the avenues like soiled lamps centuries old and the skyscrapers became monsters with a thousand sore eyes. Now there was a brightness in the air land Fil knew what it was and he shouted, “Snow! It’s snowing!”

Tony, who slept in the adjoining room, was awakened.

“What’s that?” he asked.

“It’s snowing,” Fil said, smiling to himself as if he had ordered this and was satisfied with the prompt delivery. “Oh, they’ll love this, they’ll love this.”

“Who’ll love that?” Tony asked, his voice raised in annoyance.

“The dancers, of course,” Fil answered. “They’re arriving today. Maybe they’ve already arrived. They’ll walk in the snow and love it. Their first snow, I’m sure.”

“How do you know it wasn’t snowing in New York while they were there?” Tony asked.

“Snow in New York in early November?” Fil said. “Are you crazy?”

“Who’s crazy?” Tony replied. “Ever since you heard of those dancers from the Philippines, you’ve been acting nuts. Loco. As if they’re coming here just for you.

Tony chuckled. Hearing him, Fil blushed, realizing that he had, indeed, been acting too eager, but Tony had said it. It felt that way–as if the dancers were coming here only for him.

Filemon Acayan, Filipino, was fifty, a U.S., citizen. He was a corporal in the U.S. Army, training at San Luis Obispo, on the day he was discharged honorably, in 1945. A few months later, he got his citizenship papers. Thousands of them, smart and small in their uniforms, stood at attention in drill formation, in the scalding sun, and pledged allegiance to the flat and the republic for which it stands. Soon after he got back to work. To a new citizen, work meant many places and many ways: factories and hotels, waiter and cook. A timeless drifting: once he tended a rose garden and took care of a hundred year old veteran of a border war. As a menial in a hospital in Cook Country, all day he handled filth and gore.

He came home smelling of surgical soap and disinfectant. In the hospital, he took charge of row of bottles on a shelf, each bottle containing a stage of the human embryo in preservatives, from the lizard-like fetus of a few days, through the newly born infant, with its position unchanged, cold and cowering and afraid. He had nightmares through the years of himself inside a bottle. l That was long ago. Now he had a more pleasant job as special policemen in the post office.

He was a few years younger than Tony-Antonio Bataller, a retired pullman porter but he looked older in inspite of the fact that Tony had been bedridden most of the time for the last two years, suffering from a kind of wasting disease that had frustrated doctors. All over Tony’s body, a gradual peeling was taking place. l At first, he thought it was merely tiniaflava, a skin disease common among adolescent in the Philippines. It had started around the neck and had spread to his extremities. His face looked as if it was healing from sever burns. Nevertheless, it was a young face much younger than Fil’s, which had never looked young.

“I’m becoming a white man,” Tony had said once, chuckling softly.

It was the same chuckle Fil seemed to have heard now, only this time it sounded derisive, insulting.

Fil said, “I know who’s nuts. It’s the sick guy with the sick thoughts. You don’t care for nothing but your pain, your imaginary pain.”

“You’re the imagining fellow. I got the real thing,” Tony shouted from the room. He believed he had something worse than the whiteness spreading on his skin. There was a pain in his insides, like dull scissors scraping his intestines. Angrily he added, “What for I got retired?”

“You’re old, man, old, that’s what, and sick, yes, but not cancer,” Fil said turning towards the snow-filled sky. He pressed his faced against the glass window. There’s about an inch now on the ground, he thought, maybe more.

Tony came out of his room looking as if he had not slept all night. “I know what I got,” he said, as if it were an honor and a privilege to die of cancer and Fill was trying to deprive him of it. “Never a pain like this. One day, I’m just gonna die.”

“Naturally. Who says you won’t?” Fil argued, thinking how wonderful it would be if he could join the company of dancers from the Philippines, show them around walk with them in the snow, watch their eyes as they stared about them, answer their questions, tell them everything they wanted to know about the changing seasons in this strange land. They would pick up fistfuls of snow, crunch it in their fingers or shove it into their mouths. He had done just that the first time, long, long ago, and it had reminded him of the grated ice the Chinese sold near the town plaza where he had played tatching with an older brother who later drowned in a squall. How his mother had grieved over that death, she who has not cried too much when his father died, a broken man. Now they were all gone, quick death after a storm, or lingeringly, in a season of drought, all, all of them he had loved.

He continued, “All of us will die. One day. A medium bomb marked Chicago and this whole dump is tapus, finished. Who’ll escape then?”

“Maybe your dancers will,” Fil answered, now watching the snow himself.

“Of course, they will,” Fil retorted, his voice sounding like a big assurance that all the dancers would be safe in his care. “The bombs won’t be falling on this night. And when the dancers are back in the Philippines…”

He paused, as if he was no longer sure of what he was going to say. “But maybe, even in the Philippines the bombs gonna fall, no?” he said, gazing sadly at the falling snow.

“What’s that to you?” Tony replied. “You got no more folks over ‘der right? I know it’s nothing to me. I’ll be dead before that.”

“Let’s talk about something nice,” Fil said, the sadness spreading on his face as he tried to smile. “Tell me, how will I talk, how am I gonna introduce myself?”

He would go ahead with his plans, introduce himself to the dancers and volunteer to take them sight-seeing. His car was clean and ready for his guests. He had soaped the ashtrays, dusted off the floor boards and thrown away the old mats, replacing them with new plastic throw rugs. He had got himself soaking wet while spraying the car, humming, as he worked, faintly-remembered tunes from the old country.

Fill shook his head as he waited for Tony to say something. “Gosh, I wish I had your looks, even with those white spots, then I could face everyone of them,” he said, “but this mug.”

“That’s the important thing, you mug. It’s your calling card. It says, Filipino. Countrymen,” Tony said.

“You’re not fooling me, friend,” Fil said. “This mug says, Ugly Filipino. It says, old-timer, muchacho. It says Pinoy, bejo.”

For Fil, time was the villain. In the beginning, the words he often heard were: too young, too young; but all of a sudden, too young became too old, too late. What happened in between, a mist covering all things. You don’t have to look at your face in a mirror to know that you are old, suddenly old, grown useless for a lot of things land too late for all the dreams you had wrapped up w ell against a day of need.

“It also says sucker,” Fil answered, “but who wants a palace when they can have the most delicious adobo here ands the best stuffed chicken… yum…yum…”

Tony was angry, “Yum, yum, you’re nuts,” he said, “plain and simple loco. What for you want to spend? You’ve been living on loose change all your life and now on dancing kids who don’t know you and won’t even send you a card afterwards.”

“Never mind the cards,” Fil answered. “Who wants cards? But don’t you see, they’ll be happy; and then, you know what? I’m going to keep their voices, their words and their singing and their laughter in my magic sound mirror.”

He had a portable tape recorder and a stack of recordings, patiently labeled, songs and speeches. The songs were in English, but most of the speeches were in the dialect, debates between him and Tony. It was evident Tony was the better speaker of the two in English, but in the dialect, Fil showed greater mastery. His style, however, was florid, sentimental, poetic.

Without telling Tony, he had experimented on recording sounds, like the way a bed creaked, doors opening and closing, rain or sleet tapping on the window panes, footsteps through the corridor. He was beginning to think that they did. He was learning to identify each of the sounds with a particular mood or fact. Sometimes, like today, he wished that there was a way of keeping a record of silence because it was to him the richest sound, like snow falling. He wondered as he watched the snow blowing in the wind, what took care of that moment if memory didn’t. Like time, memory was often a villain, a betrayer.

“Fall, snow, fall,” he murmured and, turning to Tony, said, “As soon as they accept my invitation, I’ll call you up. No, you don’t have to do anything, but I’d want to be here to meet them.”

“I’m going out myself,” Tony said. “And I don’t know what time I’ll be back.”Then he added. “You’re not working today. Are you on leave?”

“For two days. While the dancers are here.” Fil said.

“It still don’t make sense to me,” Tony said. “But good luck, any way.”

“Aren’t you going to see them tonight? Our reserved seats are right out in front, you know.”

“I know. But I’m not sure I can come.”

“What? You’re not sure?”

Fil could not believe it. Tony was indifferent. Something must be wrong with him. He looked at him closely, saying nothing.

“I want to, but I’m sick Fil. I tell you, I’m not feeling so good. My doctor will know today. He’ll tell me.” Tony said.

“What will he tell you?”

“How do I know?”

“I mean, what’s he trying to find out?”

“If it’s cancer,” Tony said. l Without saying another word, he went straight back to is room.

Fil remembered those times, at night, when Tony kept him awake with his moaning. When he called out to him, asking, “Tony, what’s the matter?” his sighs ceased for a while, but afterwards, Tony screamed, deadening his cries with a pillow against his mouth. When Fill rushed to his side, Tony dove him about the previous night, he would reply, “I was dying,” but it sounded more like disgust overt a nameless annoyance.

Fil has misgivings, too, about the whiteness spreading on Tony’s skin. He had heard of leprosy. Every time he thought of that dreaded disease, he felt tears in his eyes. In all the years he had been in America, he had not has a friend until he meet Tony whom he liked immediately and, in a way, worshipped, for all the things the man had which Fil knew he himself lacked.

They had shared a lot together. They made merry on Christmas, sometimes got drunk and became loud. Fil recited poems in the dialect and praised himself. Tony fell to giggling and cursed all the railroad companies of America. But last Christmas, they hadn’t gotten drunk. They hadn’t even talked to each other on Christmas day. Soon, it would be Christmas again.


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