Nancy had said the best fish and pork were sold five blocks from the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, so Noel Borgos followed his mother, his Tito Vic, and his teenage cousins Nancy and Claudine as they weaved through the wet, narrow aisles of the markets at Baclaran. Every so often a stray cat, thin and sickly, scavenging the rot left in the alleys, would dart from beneath a display of cheap handbags, splash in a puddle at his feet, and disappear across the aisle.
Noel wiped sweat from his forehead with his shirt sleeve. “How much farther is it?” he asked. Nancy rolled her eyes. She was a slender girl who wore her long black hair in braids and, like Noel, was entering her last year of high school.
“It’s behind the Pizza Hut. Naku, you whine a lot.”
He walked beneath a blue tarp shading a display of bolo knives. He hated his cousin’s smugness. Nancy was less confident than pushy, he decided, like the pretty girls at his high school. He recognized her defensiveness in so many of the Filipinos he’d met here in Manila. A few paces ahead, Nancy wrapped her arm around her sister’s waist. Claudine—shorter and heavier than Nancy, with a thick melon-y face and horn-rimmed glasses—leaned in with her hip. She whispered to her sister and they laughed.
In the middle of the aisle his Tito Vic made a deep guttural sound at Teresa, Noel’s mother, and they waved at a dainty woman across from them. His uncle was deaf, and he signed to his sister with sharp, tossing gestures, as if he were discarding unwanted items—spent lottery tickets or orange peels—on the ground. His mother looked back at him and smiled.
Noel followed his relatives past a long row of vendors selling bolts of fabric displayed on end like crayons in small boxes. The crowded market was difficult to navigate, and from every booth voices shouted for attention in Tagalog. It was both exotic and strangely familiar, and it seemed to Noel to typify Manila in mid-July. Here he was, his first trip outside the US sandwiched into his brief summer vacation. Before he had arrived here with his mother, he had imagined swaying palm trees, white-sand beaches, and grilled tuna steaks served with mango salsa. That was what he had hoped for and what his single mother, on her meager income, could not provide—fine dining and expensive resorts that his private school friends, whose parents were rich white doctors or technology entrepreneurs, enjoyed. Now that he had lived in the hard grip of Manila for a week, he had begun to realize how his notions had been flawed: he had always pictured Filipino objects, never people. The reality of this place was, more than anything else, throngs and throngs of homogeneous people. Brown arms, brown faces, hair wiry as his own and dark as the Charles River at night. Pausing beside a vendor hawking Chiclets and fragrant sampaguita necklaces, he watched his mother and Tito Vic bargain with strangers across the aisle. Vic pointed at a leather belt looped around a high bar, while his mother counted peso bills and sniped at her brother in Tagalog. He watched them indifferently, waiting for the end of the boring documentary. Other Filipinos clamored around his mother for the attention of the vendor. Noel felt ordinary. In Boston there were other Asian kids, of course, but not in these multitudes. Here, he thought, touching a carved bolo on the table, he looked exactly like everyone else. No white kids around to provide contrast or fill the space around him like Styrofoam peanuts.
His mother purchased the leather belt for Tito Vic and trotted ahead. Noel hurried to catch up to her.
“Do you know where we’re going?” he asked.
Teresa scowled, “I lived here for thirty years, Noel. I haven't lost all of my memory.”
She approached a fat, bearded vendor behind a table of dead fish. Melting ice dripped from the corners of the table into the street.
Nancy stood behind Noel and leaned collegially on his shoulder. “Tatay doesn't like to serve guests seafood. He thinks it is dirty.”
“Then why’s he letting Mom buy it?”
“He can't control her anymore. She's too American now.” Nancy pulled her sister to them. They hovered on either side of him, breathing lightly on his neck.
“Tita Teresa says Daddy always used to smell like fish,” Claudine added. “She called him her little bangus.”
In the shadow of another canopy, his mother and Tito Vic argued with the fishmonger. “Bangus?” he said, not looking at his cousins.
“Milkfish,” laughed Claudine. “Don't you know any Tagalog?”
He smiled. His cousins reached around him and locked hands. Nancy pulled her portly young sister away and they ran up to his mother and pointed to a spade-headed squid. Tito Vic whined, his lean arms crossed over his chest. Teresa nodded quickly at the vendor. The man reached across the table with great puffing noises, wrapping both the fresh bangus and the squid in the front page of The Philippine Inquirer.
Tito Vic walked up to Noel and tugged at his sleeve. He signed angrily, making stunted nasal sounds, but Noel didn’t understand.
“In Boston there were other Asian kids, of course, but not in these multitudes. Here, he thought, touching a carved bolo on the table, he looked exactly like everyone else. No white kids around to provide contrast or fill the space around him like Styrofoam peanuts.”
“Why do you call Tito Vic a deaf mute, Mom? Isn't it just deaf?”
She looked at him as if he’d uttered an obscenity.
“That is just what we called them, deaf mutes. It’s not meant negatively.”
Teresa zipped her clear makeup bag and placed it on a stained narra bench at the foot of Nancy and Claudine’s bed. Noel tipped his chair against the wall of the girls’ bedroom, which they had cleaned and vacated for Noel and his mother.
“But Tito Vic’s not mute, Mom. He can speak—sort of.”
“Ay, Noel. Don’t ask so many questions.”
Had he upset her? He knew his mother could sulk for days without saying a word, until he left a kitchen drawer open or a lid unscrewed and then she would explode at him in a sudden rage. Lately he had taken her moodiness as opportunity for sinking into his daydreams about Chad Kline, the red-haired boy on his wrestling team. Chad had recently moved to Boston from a suburb in Los Angeles. Some mornings, if his house was still asleep, Noel touched himself under the sheets, imagining the curves of the red-haired boy, until he came. Then he would join his mother and his sister, Maribel, for breakfast in the kitchen. Except for a loose bed joint, he tried to be as quiet as possible in his room. He never knew if they heard him. One of his nightmares was that his mother would find the T-shirt he hid under the mattress for cleaning himself after he masturbated.
Now, his mother slipped through the thin mosquito net covering the bed and lay down. She rested her palm dramatically on her forehead, her elbow pointed in the air.
Noel dragged a chair to the window and pulled his MP3 player from its case. He wrapped the ear-hook headphones around the back of his head, watching the bumper-to-bumper jeepneys along Roxas Boulevard, their passengers squatting in the bed of the old military trucks. In the middle of the boulevard a tricycle taxi with plastic streamers attached to its antenna inched for space. Noel closed his eyes and tried to feel the deep bass line of his music over the blaring horns and people outside. He felt far from home. In their triple-decker back in Cambridge, little more than a week ago, he had set up a hand-picked stereo system with surround sound and an expensive CD player that held five hundred CDs. He sat on the floor of their living room, listening to the speakers mounted from the corners of the ceiling. He’d saved up for a year to buy the stereo. His mother was packing a huge cardboard box with the word Balikbayan printed in angled letters on four sides. She was dwarfed by the box.
His mother was a small woman—a Keebler elf, his brother-in-law, Thomas, joked—with dark, permed hair and a certain aloofness toward waiters and cashiers that embarrassed him. When he shopped at Filene's Basement with his mother and Maribel, a clerk would inevitably say to the petite women, “You must be sisters,” and they would laugh and wave, as if it was the first time they’d ever heard the joke. On the thin Oriental rug in their living room, Teresa arranged items for the balikbayan box: softball-shaped eggs containing pantyhose, dozens of bargain bin lipsticks, reflective pencils, twelve-ounce bags of M&M’s.
“Why are you packing all this crap?” Noel asked.
“It’s not crap! This is pasalubong.”
His mother scowled, opening a package of pastel-colored M&M’s and putting him to work. Noel divided the chocolate candy into Ziploc bags while his mother wrote the names of his relatives on pieces of masking tape, sticking one on each plastic bag. The handwritten tags seemed as formal and generic as “Hello, My Name Is” badges.
“This pasalubong is for Tito Vic and his girls. They love knick-knacks from the States. It is a tradition.”
Filipinos had never struck Noel as people with tradition. The large Brazilian family that lived in the triple-decker across the street, sure, but Filipinos? His mother and her girlfriends made greasy egg rolls or deviled eggs and held potlucks to which they dragged their families on Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July. At those occasions they laughed at the same Tagalog jokes until dusk settled on them like a fine mist and Noel was called to set kerosene lamps on the shaky railing of the Borgos’s front porch.
The smell of jeepney exhaust and fried bananas on Roxas Boulevard repulsed him. Noel removed his wrap-around earphones and stood in Tito Vic’s second-floor window. What was Chad doing right now? It was exactly twelve hours’ difference in Boston, and he imagined Chad holding a wine cooler to his lips, at a pool party maybe, talking to his friends about boring jobs. Why had his mother forced him to come?
She snored loudly under the mosquito net. Nancy and Claudine shared this bed, as had Tito Vic and his mother years ago in the same dilapidated room. Was one bed cheaper than two, or was this familiarity another Filipino thing that he didn't understand? Noel parted the thin net and sat on the mattress. He felt tired in this heat and noise from the boulevard.
He closed his eyes and dozed. A few minutes later, Claudine knocked on the open door. “Tatay asked for your assistance in the garden. Are you asleep?”
Noel sighed. His mother rolled onto her stomach and mumbled for him to go. It was one of her tests, he knew. Either he heeded her wish or added to her long list of impertinences. What my father always taught us, she repeated when she was angry at him, was to respect your elders. And then she would smile, unable to remain angry. “You and your sister are spoiled by this country. When you were born, the doctor turned you over and stamped ‘Made in the USA’ on your powet.”
Noel got up, tied the laces of his ragged sneakers, and followed Claudine down the back stairs to the garden.
“On the thin Oriental rug in their living room, Teresa arranged items for the balikbayan box: softball-shaped eggs containing pantyhose, dozens of bargain bin lipsticks, reflective pencils, twelve-ounce bags of M&M’s.”
The numbers were easiest to understand. When Tito Vic held out his hand and counted backward from three, both men lifted the heavy oil drum in the middle of the garden and carried it to an alley outside Vic’s glass-sharded walls.
Noel liked his uncle. He was small and cagey, like his mother (Noel, on the other hand, was tall and studied, with careful gestures and an often-embarrassed face). Tito Vic also had a child-like whimsy that Noel admired. Once, unprovoked, he yelped at an orange blimp in the sky. When Noel’s cousins opened their umbrellas and complained of the relentless heat, he tickled them until the two girls laughed. Sometimes he punched his Army friends in the arm. He guessed Vic was in his early fifties, a few years younger than his mother, and he knew his uncle had manicured lawns at the Manila Country Club ever since his wife had left him a dozen years earlier. Nancy was the one who had kept Teresa Borgos apprised of her brother’s life and managed the house when her mother left. Tito Vic was also stubborn; he possessed the same proud chin, the same tight-lipped smile, as his mother and their seven siblings, who seemed to stare at Noel from old photographs in the family’s crumbling Spanish-style villa.
Now his uncle stood in a narrow sluice between hedges and motioned for Noel to come closer. He placed his hands on the young man’s shoulders and pointed to a withered bush.
“Pull it out?” Noel asked, mock-pulling the bush with two hands.
His uncle shook his hands no and grimaced. He crouched down and lifted a long branch. On the tip was a single, dried-out leaf, brittle and yellow on the underside. Noel was hot. He wanted to lie down.
“You want me to water it, Tito?”
Vic grabbed the boy by the wrist and pulled him down to him. Noel looked closely at the tiny leaf, to the spot where Tito Vic pointed a dirty fingernail. At the fork of the branch, a delicate green bud was just beginning to emerge. Tito Vic held onto his wrist, staring in his eyes. So the bud was rejuvenating at the end. Was he supposed to praise his uncle’s work?
His mother called to him from an upper window. Tito Vic gave him a friendly push, and Noel ran up the stairs and joined his mother in the bedroom. As he pulled off his sweaty T-shirt and changed into a clean one, his mother scolded him from beneath the mosquito net. “He was trying to explain his ideas for the garden, Noel. You just didn’t hear him.”
“His uncle shook his hands no and grimaced. He crouched down and lifted a long branch. On the tip was a single, dried-out leaf, brittle and yellow on the underside.”
In Tito Vic's humid kitchen, the whirring of electric fans—one slotted into the windowsill and one in the long cement hall—and Nancy’s quiet knife-chopping made the afternoon feel languid and soft. Noel sat at the round plastic table and ate pork rinds, watching Priscilla, the family’s maid, stir a cast-iron pot on the stove. Behind her, Claudine labored over the sink, scaling his mother’s bangus. In the way Claudine pressed Priscilla’s arm to pass by her, he sensed the girl’s affection for the age-spotted maid—and conversely, Priscilla's independence. His mother had told him that Priscilla had been with them since his Lolo and Lola—Noel’s grandparents—had given birth to Vic. Then Teresa recalled a tearful Priscilla on the day she had left for the airport, Priscilla holding a bag of floury polvorón candy for her during her long journey to the States.
Noel had never met his Lolo or Lola. Unlike Nancy and Claudine, elderly people were oddities to him, as disparate from his experience as a warm evening in December. But Nancy and Claudine were at ease with this old woman, and Noel felt suddenly ashamed of the crisp new Levi’s he’d planned to sell his young cousins for a profit.
Tito Vic, bare-chested, banged on the flimsy screen door. He’d been working in the clumpy garden the rest of the afternoon, and his tank top hung from his pants pocket like a dishrag. With a sharp cry he yelled at Claudine, who found a juice glass and filled it with water for her father. His uncle drank noisily. When he was finished, he handed her the glass (she was waiting), and signed brusquely to her. Noel thought he was beginning to recognize patterns, certain motions that kept recurring in his uncle’s gestures.
Claudine frowned. She held the glass in her right hand. “But Tita Teresa asked—”
Her father hit her squarely across the cheek, the empty glass shattering as it hit the floor. Tito Vic scowled as he pushed the squeaky door open and returned to his garden.
Nancy quickly moved to her sister, crouching in front of the refrigerator. Noel watched as his cousins picked up the large shards scattered on the floor. He wanted to be with his friends on the other side of the world, watching a horror flick like Night of Desire in the cool, lava-lamp glow of his room.
“No fish,” Claudine whispered to Priscilla, who stood over the girls. She nodded, removing a frozen pork rump from the freezer above their heads. She seemed to avoid Noel’s gaze, as if to meet his eyes would be to acknowledge his notion that she’d witnessed all of this before.
Noel felt sticky and strung out after their dinner of roast lechon, steaming sinigang soup without the bangus, and lecheflan that his mother had made with extra custard and served chilled from the refrigerator. In the second-floor bathroom, which reminded Noel of a highway rest stop because of its cinder-block walls and high, unscreened window, he turned on the water heater attached to the tub. Nancy had taught him how to operate the boxy contraption on the first day he had arrived.
Noel stood beside the tub and listened to the heater groan to life. He hadn’t mentioned Tito Vic’s violence to his mother, the crack of his hand on Claudine’s cheek. Was this normal? His mother had never laid a hand on him or his sister Maribel (except in affection, of course), and he wondered how this small, deaf man and his mother could have been raised by the same parents.
Cats mewed outside the high window. Naked, his teeth flossed, Noel climbed on top of the toilet seat and held onto the bottom of the sill. He peered out into the quiet clay yard where his mother, his Tito Vic, and their seven brothers and sisters had once played, imagining not a merienda of RC Cola and garlic peanuts, but his young titos and titas playing Hide and Go Seek or chasing one another under the clothesline. No, not Hide and Go Seek; Kick the Can. He had no idea what they had played, really. They were frozen in his mind as adults, had never been seventeen or applying to colleges, or been in love with a red-haired boy on the wrestling team and clueless about a career, much less the contents of the next day. He wondered if Chad Kline was sleeping in—it was Saturday morning in Boston—or wide awake, figuring out how to waste another vacation day.
The cat’s feet clicked on the shed’s tin roof. Noel counted the row of spindly camachile trees growing along the side of the shed. With a graceful leap, the cat jumped down and strode across the patio toward the house. Noel heard the fast, hollow clucking of a tongue.
When he raised himself on his toes, Noel saw his Tito Vic crouched on the stoop below, waving a chunk of bangus in the air. The emaciated cat was just a few feet from him, and when it made its move Tito Vic pulled the piece away and ate it, taunting the stray with delight.
The story “Deaf Mute” is taken from The Foley Artist by Ricco Villanueva Siasoco (Gaudy Boy, 2019). Reprinted by permission from publisher.
Singapore Unbound, an NYC-based literary non-profit, is holding its 4th Singapore Literature Festival from October 1-3, 2020. To be held online for the first time, this independent, biennial festival brings together Singaporean and American authors and audiences for lively conversations about literature and society. All events are free and open to everyone. The theme of this year's festival is "The Politics of Hope." Check the website for the full festival program.