The Quarrel by Andres Cristobal Cruz

With half-shut eyes he tried in his mind, to make out other things of the objects in the still dim room. His shirt, for instance, hanging from a nail of the post between the bed and small altar of the Sagrada Familia, appeared, against the unmoving faint light of the oil wick, like a man’s severed body, armless in the dark, headless against the blackwood, and like the cellutex curtain drawn to side against the wall seemed cold and mute, as if driven there by the whole night’s darkness which would soon leave, allowing light outside to comment, through the blind eyes of their only window where sashpanes were missing, here and there upon the narrow room, defining in straight rays the reality of the things he had made out –– the still golden finger that was the oil lamp-wick which now looked more like a tiny slit of light, or a small bright leaf of light in the huge wall of darkness, the incomplete form of a man that was his shirt where it should not be, had it been noticed by Nina, on the nail –– all of these the outside light would slowly reintegrate into what they really were.

He heard the first trip dragging itself in the distance, leaving three tortured shrill whistle blasts and the irregular rumbling of iron-wheels to echo in whose consciousness lay listening, echo less and less until what had been one should became only a vague thought, as it was now with him as he turned on his side, getting under the mosquito net to lie beside Nina, his wife. She had her back to him; he had shaken her when she shriek in the nightmare, and since then he had not slept again. He pulled her lovingly by the shoulder, his hand passing over her breast as she turned, still asleep. Had the child lived, that was six months, seven? He tried to remember, had it lived, she would be cradling it now. She moaned, called: Ismael, Nina, he whispered; she yawned after a while, meeting him under the tightening sheet as they pressed the coldness. What time is it? He heard her say. It’s very cold, she said shivering against him. She was awake now; they lay on their backs. Above them, on the second floor, Mrs. Smith, their landlady was up, her cane, she had rheumatism, tapping in long intervals. There was the rent to pay.

“I’ll ask her to wait,” he said, rubbing his palms together. “When did she tell you?”

“Last night,” she said turning once more to him, “she’s very mean, the hag.” Her small laughter tickled his neck. She had little harmless curse worse, hag one of them.

“She’s not very old, nor very ugly,” he said, “forty? Forty-five?”

“I wonder if her husband still remember her,” she said in a little sarcastic voice, “she wants to be Missis Smith’ the wife of an American…”

“Was he a sergeant?” Until now he was not sure.

“A captain, so she told me,” she said, “how she could talk about him! You know, nothing-better-than-American-way talk,” she said “he’s now a civilian in business-s what’s that for?” she asked after he had kissed her on the mouth.

“Good morning,” he said turning on the other side and reaching out a hand for the radiophone on the headtable by the bed. The radio was silent for a while, then a soft tune came out. Chopin. It was Early Morning Classic time. It was the kind of music they liked. He turned back to her. She put her head on his arms and snuggled close…

“I’m asking up Wordsworth today,” he said. The image of the classroom appeared in his mind, there were the young faces before him.

“Do you still like him?” she asked. “In college she was one of your favorites.”

“I still do,” he said, Wordsworth and the rest, and the new ones.”

“Your class understands?”

“A little, and now and then,” he said. He had been having a hard time with the class.

“Pure water gone stale. And tasteless, etcetera,” she said in a mock lecturing voice, “Sir, you have me for an anxious student.” She laughed softly, teasingly.

He pulled her to him. “We’re still young,” he said. He remembered the scene in the City Hall. That was after he got the high school job right after graduation. But she was not able to finish her course. There was a child she was going to have and her parents, quite well-to-do and proper about things in the determined ways of the old, had found out too soon. “Are you sorry, Nina?”

“About what?”

“Us, the child, your parents,” he said. He had asked the same thing a long time ago. He felt like he wanted to really be sure, really sure.

“We have nothing to be sorry about,” she said and her lips on his confirmed deeply for him her words. He embraced her tightly.

“Get up, get up,” she said after a long while, playfully trying to push him off the bed. “We can’t live on it, alone.” She was in her joking mood, and he felt glad about it, sometimes he wondered if she had completely forgotten about the child. She was such a brave little woman…

Sunlight fell slicing through the narrow passages between the houses on the other side of the estero; it was warm on his face as he stood gurgling water inside the roofless makeshift bathroom that jutted over the sloping edge of the estero. Opening his mouth as his head bent the gurgled water splashed on the thick board flooring, the smell of dead animal rose from under –– it was bloated pig with a mass of active worms on its pale yellow and blue belly –– he looked around instinctively for something to dislodge it out with the post of the bathroom and mossy concrete edge. There was nothing handy for the purpose. He washed his face, he seldom took his bath here; seeing the black water moving under him he thought of the white-tiled bathroom in the school, and the shower, of the swimming pools and Nina went to Sunday mornings, the beach in the province; Nina and his mother preparing the picnic food while he and his kid brothers built sand castles while Judge, his father, stood nearby taking the sea wind… His face tightened, the dead pig under, worm and smell, assailed his nostrils; not this, he said to himself, somebody outside the door coughed; Not this! He flushed the water in the small coffee can he had dipped in gasoline drum that was half-filled ; the wall, a rusty sheet of corrugated iron dripped with the wash of water carrying the urine and rust. Another cough outside the door.

“Will they give up, Maestro?” It was Mang Jose, the old carpenter. He was standing out on the narrow lot between the back of the small four-door accesoria and the common bathroom.

“I don’t know,” he said opening the door wider and stepping out. It’s up to the President, I guess.”

“It’s up to us, Maestro,” Mang Jose said. “What I mean to say is it is really up to us, isn’t it Maestro?”. In the sunlight, the carpenter’s face appeared older, even pained where the wrinkles stood out. He always had something to say something: Huks, politics, the ‘merkanos, the fellowmen soldiers fighting in the far-away island. The old man was an ispiritista, Rizal, Quezon, Saint Peter, he had talked to them, and they all wanted peace, so Mang Jose told him. “Peace is what God wants,” the old man said pulling the door of the bathroom after him, “peace!” He must have seen the bloated pig. “The devil of a pig!” he heard the old man saying aloud. From the row of kitchens to each of the ground rooms of the accesoria, smoke floated in different shapes.

He stood out in the sunlight, wiping his face with a towel, in his mind reciting “The world is too much”– he wondered if the class understand the poem. But that is something he must see about it. A part of his job. He could hear the jeeps warming up on the small street in front of the accesoria. As usual Mrs. Smith was barking out orders to the men who were to take out her jeeps for the routes, “Sooner or later,” he recited aloud, “but stopped after we lay waste our powers.” Nina had appeared by the narrow backdoor, a coconut midrib broom in her hand fighting the hard earth with a regular swishing noise. Mrs. Smith’s passenger jeeps roared. “A phantom of delight,” he teased her loudly. She looked up from her sweeping and made a funny face. He walked up to her and giving her a pat on the cheek went up to their room asking, “What’s breakfast?” on the way.

“As-you-like-it eggs,” she said to him. He could hear her broom swishing on the ground towards the backyard. Inside the bedroom claimed from the kitchen-dining space by the cellutex curtain printed with blue birds in gay flight he listened to the music, turned the volume knob, and the rich voice of a tenor poured out louder song. Intermezzo. He took up the clean shirt lying on the already made-up bed. His shirt on the nail was no longer there. He smiled. Nina was such a fast housekeeper. She went about her chores with what he sometimes thought of as her punitive fury against disorder of any kind. She had never lost her next-to-Godliness mind she was brought up in. Everywhere in their room the mark of her hands was in the a chair was set, a pillow cased and smoothed out invitingly again, his lesson plan notebook and the books neatly placed on the small study table; she was humming in the kitchen; the shell of an egg distinctly broke on the edge of a frying pan… and then another. It was going to be as-you-like-it for them. He looked out of the window. He caught sight of a hand quickly disappearing on the upper edge of the bathroom wall of the house on the other side of the estero, there was the splash. On the scummy water a big ball of newspaper moved slowly, unfolding as it followed on the tide of procession of bits of driftwood and a mass of house manure from the nearby stables. A daily occurrence. Now, they seemed used to it. They could even tell, if they liked, what had been dropped or what had been thrown. He had felt sorry the first days they started living in this almost a slum place, but then, there was Nina. He put on his shirt.

“We need a little,” Nina had said, “let us not feel sorry about what we must face.” That face was also her, aside from the Nina that was his young wife with the large dark eyes, a dimple-slit on one cheek, long hair, lips that were full of flesh as they were with the soul of words.

You decided your life, Nina’s mother had said that evening when they found out about the baby she was going to have, live it then with him…And here ther were in a rented room she made with her heart and hands: into a room distinct from the others in the same accesoria, distinct from the just-so-there-are-walls-floor-to-lie-on others: a radiophono they bought after the child died, the books, the few but good clothes –– and there was her extracurricular job of teaching the kids in the accesoria, they came to her for extra lessons (I’m an educational system, she would tell him when he felt jealous of her attention to the kids), the wives who came now and then to borrow money and utensils. With the small salary he had, Nina managed commendably to make ends of their wants and means just meet. Except for the times, and they were so few and negligible, when he sent necessary amounts to his kid brothers, or when their friends didn’t live up to their promise to pay punctually – but they could always wait and make adjustments. And what a budget commissioner Nina could be at such times. She would always skimp; or haggle to the amused despair of the market vendors. Thanks to my charm! She would say and wink across their small round dining table, or you won’t be eating that. He tucked his shirt, zippered himself there, hearing Strauss? It must be Strauss, he guessed, gay, light, nymphy almost. There! He said looking at himself on the large round mirror of the dresser. From the kitchen she called.

“Coming,” he answered. He set the phono put several records. Breakfast music. That was what the modern science can do. The birds on the curtain seemed to fly as a stray wind flapped across and made little vertical waves. The table was set just for two, the as-you-like-it still smelled with the flavor of her cooking. He instantly felt hungry. Behind him she was patting in a bulge on his shirt. There! She said pushing him towards the chair.

“We thanked thee…” Nina’s voice saying the grace struck him as oddly beautiful each morning. They made the sign of the cross.

“you had a nightmare,” he said smiling as she poured him coffee in his cup. “Must be something you ate last night.”

“That’s superstition,” she answered reproaching with a distorted smile. She had pigtailed her hair and seeing her thus – the coffee was hot – he put down the cup, looked at her. There was a serves-you-right look in her eyes. She laughed softly. “Don’t forget to tell Missis Smith about the money,” she said, “it was due yesterday, you know.” Behind the curtain another record dropped.

“My pretty phantom of delight,” he said. He mashed the egg with the fried rice. The catsup was taking time to flow, he shook the bottle harder.

The jeeps had gone, and as he ate he could hear the voices of the other tenants. “Don’t be a bother!” that was Aling Pepang to her youngest child with the neck goiter and who was wailing. From the bathroom came the pouring of water for the clothes wash. Nina was half listening to the music while eating. An instant picture of her appeared in his thought. She was sweating as she worked without any expression in her face… Until she tapped his plate with a spoon he did not have an awareness of himself before the table. “What’s wrong?” Nina’s voice sounded frantic. He had opened his eyes. “Nothing,” he said. The dimple appeared on her cheek, her smile seemed to fight what he suddenly thought of. It was foolish thought. About getting Nina to live with his parents in the province. She would surely say No again. Mrs. Smith was on the sidewalk outside talking loudly to somebody. Gossiping, talking of how much she spent for marketing… Her voice came nearer and nearer in the narrow passage between the ground rooms. Nina looked at him. She was going to say something when, without knocking, Mrs. Smith came in by the backdoor, her cane tapping against the polished rungs of the low stairs.

“Come in,” Nina said, “have breakfast Missis.”

“I came for the rent, it’s due today.” The landlady’s voice was cutting.

“We would like to give it now,” Nina said with a humbly apologizing tone.

“Yes, Missis,” he said, “my friend forgot to pay me yesterday, and I just sent money to the province.”

“I’ve no business with your friend,” the landlady said putting a fist to her large ugly hip and keeping her head cocked.

“The school I’m teaching in is private, a small school, it so happened they couldn’t pay the full salaries,” he said. That was the truth.

“I have only one say, today’s today, I need the money!” the rise of the landldy’s voice shook him unguardedly, the cane kept tapping the floor with authority.

Under the table he stepped on Nina’s foot. “But tomorrow or next day I can give it,” he said trying to suppress an inexplicable mass of sudden hatred that rose in him, even as his legs shook for a moment beneath the table; he gripped the spoon and fork until his fists felt about to bursts, hearing: “Tomorrow! Tomorrow!” and other words, words that smashed the music turning behind the curtain of birds, falling past his ears, struck obscenely at the plates, the coffee cups, and amidst them he caught a glimpse of Nina’s face, her mouth open as if she had just been slapped, her eyes struck wide with a wordless astonishment; “Tomorrow! He says! Tomorrow!” he heard while he felt in his breast the tortured beatings of many wings in the hardening air of disgust and hate that welled and fell with words that were neither his nor Nina’s. “How long? How long?” his mind cried wanting to laugh and at the same time shout, just shout: “STOP IT!” he only heard words, he was no longer listening. Nina was struggling to free her foot. And there was the gasp.

Now he was only aware of holding Nina back, the two of them pushing each other away, bodily he tried to get her safely behind the curtain of birds. “Too much! Too much!” Nina was shouting too: words clashed with words, there was long ripping sound of something, and he found himself brushing away something that felt like a net on him or Nina.

“What good people you are! How clean! What saints!” the words came clear and insulting in his ears.

“You’re envious, you hag! Leech! LEECH!” and there was Nina faying him; now he was pulling her, now pushing her, the room seemed to be turning and he saw now and then the faces of anonymous people that appeared from nowhere, children, women, men, in the light and shadows of the walls and window then the door, here a sudden piece of nearby roofs and sky, hearing words, there the sudden fragment of dimming faces, colorless sky, dark, light, eyes that swept around; himself and Nina flashing off and on in the round mirror. “Nina! Nina!” He shouted, shaking her as if in a terrible nightmare, pushing and pulling, holding her in his frantic arms, noise and music scratched the air, rasped through him, other hands swiftly appeared and disappeared in the turning room. “You’re envious, you hag! Who comes to our kitchen and looks at our food! You give me this! Give me that! You! You think you’re the richest around! Leech! Let me go! Let me go! Ismael! Let me!” And when he was pulling Nina back, shouting: “Enough! Enough!” he saw Mang Jose holding Mrs. Smith back, her black cane cutting the air up and down as if she were a mad woman conducting noise; “Maestro! Missis! Nina, child!” His fingers reached wildly behind Nina, he twisted a knob and the music blared, hearing at the same instant Mrs. Smith’s: “Ha! Yes! Yes! Turn it loud! Turn it loud! I’ll shout! Shout! Everybody will hear!” Voices screeched and shrieked with his own. He had half-dragged and pushed Nina down on the bed when he felt something strike his shoulder with a sharp pain, and the music stopped dead while something clattered down the floor. “Leech! Leech!” Nina kept on shouting. Suddenly his palm stung on something soft. “Nina!” and then he was bursting his lungs. “Get out!” LEECH! GET OUT! Get out! Leech!”

He closed the window and the door, then sat down tired and weak on the edge of the bed, passing the small open bottle of ammonia spirit over Nina’s quivering nostrils as her head rolled from side to side; she was sobbing and tears and the sliver of saliva from her mouth mixed where she rubbed her face with agony on the pillow. “Nina,” he called, “Nina.”

Shivers crept and passed under her skin as if the closed room chilled him. He looked at the floor that was scratched and ugly with the pervading presence of crazy and formless streaks of dust and the dark smudges of feet. Through the spaces of the window light fell carrying a broad band of thin whirling smoke, a page on the volume of Wordsworth lying open on the floor stood upright and rigid as if an invisible hand were turning it, and then a page fell gray and looking blank, on the headtable by the bed the last record on the phono was broken, a black incomplete disc that carried a fragment of music, he ranged hid eyes around the room, feeling like a confused survivor of a nightmare that had racked his body; his eyes fell on the black cane that was leaning against the table, its shook coiled oddly on the neck of the phono arm, he disinterestedly gave it a short kick on its lower end and it fell clattering for a moment down the floor, he smirked bitterly at its rattling sound. Across the floor the curtain lay like a tent crushed by the stampede of beasts; he saw the birds only as a disordered mass of dark dots on white, a broken cup shone dully under the table, from its gaping shattered mouth was a dark pool.

He tightly shut his eyes for a moment, passing a cold palm breaking with sweat heavily across on his face, shaking vigorously his head because he wanted to uproot the images that struck out in his mind; but they were there: the torn, shattered, dirtied, smashed, and cluttered objects that were once whole and neat within their room’s privacy and order; the cries, the screaming, yelling, shouting, raging words that now seemed remote and vague under the splashing of water of kids bathing outside and the loud regular hammering of Mang Jose in the other room across the dim narrow passage. The floor was cold; he picked up the volume of poetry that he had thrown in fury blindly at the landlady, closed it between his hands and with it thrust open the window that almost slapped back on hinges that momentarily screamed in his hearing, the sudden light outside binding him with its harsh brightness.

It was not the rent to be paid that he could think about. The quarrel and the noise seemed to be intruding in the room. He remembered Mang Jose pulling away Mrs. Smith. He saw himself shouting. He had slapped Nina to quiet her, slapped her out of practical necessity. Had he struck the landlady? Leech, he thought, the dark whitish scabs on the surface of the ester moved slowly in the shadow of the house on the other side, then in the bright light, then another shadow blackened them before his eyes, a dead large trunk was drifting with bits of papers and leaves clinging on its emerged skeletal twigs. He looked back at Nina lying on the crumpled bed. He had never thought she could be that violent and strong. “Maestro,” somebody called behind him. It was Mang Jose washing his hands on the tap outside the bathroom. The old carpenter was approaching him walking under the shade of the eaves.

“Maestro, you can understand more, you know more,” the old man said.

He nodded, smiling bitterly to himself, “It’s useless,” he said, “it’s almost noon, I’m late.”

Mang Jose went into the bathroom. “I’ve taken out the dead pig.” He heard the old man saying aloud.

“Ismael, Ismael.”

He sat again on the edge of the bed. He patted her cheeks where her tears had dried. He helped her up off the bed. “Are you all right?” he asked. She nodded, she swayed a little against him, and after a while she straightened herself back. She walked away and picked up the curtain, spreading it as far as her hands could reach to the sides. His feet touched the black cane. He stooped and picked up the cane; it broke easily on his knees. “You’ll be late, Ismael,” he heard Nina saying, “I’ll pick up things.” He threw the broken pieces far out of the window. The pieces jabbed into the water of the estero. They made up of the surface and drifted with the ebb. Behind him, he was aware of Nina putting things in order. It was going to take a long time to clean up things again. Before they could go out and take a long walk. He knew that like him she was thinking of a new place. “I’ll help,” he said touching her hand that held one end of the curtain. He took the other end and pulled it across the room.

He saw fingering the torn edges of the rip that made an empty between them. He heard the sharp, clear sounds of many things outside. “We don’t need it anymore,” he said holding off the limp curtain from him. She was clearing her nose through the pinch of her fingers.


juanito said...

nice story

juanito said...

nice story
hope that you also have the summary of that story

earn online!