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Marcelo's Place by N.G. Ray

ARCELO'S PLACE. Well, that's not the actual name, but that's how it was called by most of its occupants. Tata Celo was long gone. No, not that he died. But the place "changed hands" and the old timer just didn't come around anymore.

One day, not too long ago, the school of Blueies whose tank was closest to the window, thought they spotted Tata Celo peering through the glassy pane. They swished around twice to alert Chiquita, whose cage was situated kitty corner facing the room where most of the occupants slept. And Chiquita, without even verifying the information she picked up, did circles around the cage, and by her yipping sounds, the sighting of old Tata Celo traveled all over the shop—from cage to cage, aquarium tank to aquarium tank, and from front room to back rooms. Tails wagged. Treadmills spun, pellets were spilled, feathers flew out of cages. Occupants camouflaged by rocks hissed "Are you ssssure itssss him?", and water containers were turned over, as each head turned in the direction of the shop's windowpane.

Marcelo was nobody to anyone in the world, but he was Best Friend Numero Uno to Chiquita, to Jacob, to Hey-Jude, to Sandy, to Po and Rue and to practically every transient who came and stayed at this place. Chiquita happened to constantly return for one reason or another so she could be considered the most permanent resident, if one had to measure residency by length of time. Hamlet, on the other hand, was devoted to Tata Celo. The Albino Quints adored him. He nursed Simpatico and Paper Clip when they arrived dehydrated and scared after spending a turbulent ride in a hot closed steel box. Magastos, Pinto and So-Much all traded stories about him and sang his praises to newcomers. Nobody at Marcelo's Place-and there were more than seventy-two if you count every fin and tail-nobody thought otherwise.

In fact, come to think of it, there wasn't a critter who left the place without a personal whisper of encouragement from the old timer himself. Chiquita ought to know. Each time she thought she was going home. Before she was placed in a carrier basket, Tata Celo would nuzzle her (oh, how she loved the feel of his stubbly chin against her wet nose!). He would say goodbye as if it was the first time even though it was her seventh. And whenever she was brought back, he never questioned whether she behaved badly. He would simply say the same thing each time "Did you miss us, Chiquita, dear?" And when all she could do was react guiltily, he would say "Don't worry, dear. There is someone out there just for you."

Where did the old man go and why did he leave?

How do you explain to innocents the dynamics and logistics involved in a merger and acquisition, dear intelligent sophisticated reader? I tried. But all they would tell me was, "No, he's just sick for a few days. There's trankaso in the neighborhood. He probably picked up the virus from a customer. He'll be back!" or "He's on a long vacation because he needs some rest." (Typical of those in the process of grief to resort to denial.) And they're all still waiting for him to reappear!

Was it really him now, out there peering in? Come on in, Celo, we've missed you. Where have you been? But it wasn't him. Just someone who looked like their old friend. Same stubbled chin, same weary eyes. Even the checkered lumberjack shirt looked like his.

You could almost feel and follow the collective sigh that went around the room. Togetherness and camaraderie were natural by-products among them, brought about by the old man himself. His gentleness and his gracious ways were infectious.

One couldn't help liking one's neighbor especially when each morning, the old man would say things like "I see you slept well last night, that's because you have such a nice and thoughtful neighbor." And if you just happened to be barking all night, you felt sheepish and apologetic, intent on being more thoughtful. Or "I'm sorry, children, did I forget to fill your water bowl? Thank you for turning it over to remind me." The man was unbelievable! He knew they played too roughly in the pen and here he was taking the blame.

Human beings had to be just like him. So all of them could hardly wait to meet up with their caring human counterpart.

The old man never forgot that his place was a way station. That everyone who arrived was prepared to leave on short notice. For precisely the reason that their stay was temporary, it was near amazing for the old man to be so caring, so single-hearted in thinking about their welfare.

Tata Celo seemed possessed of an intuition to ferret out their anxieties, especially when it seemed as if they would never find their destined homes. Before a sense of anxiety could creep up on them, Celo would find a way to hurry the process of destiny. At a section of the store could be heard "Hey, guess what-we're on sale this week!" To which a ripple of "Hurray!" resounded.

The night before a sale, everyone cleaned his space in his own way. Sprucing time would take place. You could hear rustling among the wood shavings as the Albinos tidied up their place. There was a symphony of tongues licking their coats till every hair shone in place. Each would help the other nibble out the matted nodules on their fur. Celo would leave cage doors open, so whoever needed a dunking could fly to the aquarium tanks. In return, those in the tanks would peck at any floating debris and be of assistance to the whirring filters. Many a morning before a sale, the old man would pass through the aisle between aquarium tanks, humming and picking out a floating feather here and there, all the while mumbling "Thank you, thank you."

It was Hamlet who broke the news one day. The news that would create a vacuum in their lives; would remove this one joy of a human who filled their days. Hamlet had overheard a conversation and didn't understand, couldn't break the code of the mumbo-jumbos he became privy to. So he simply spilled the beans.

Of course, this is second-hand information. So I can't verify or confirm exactly how it all happened. I was incredulous that someone like Hamlet would be the bearer of such tidings.

"You sure it wasn't Coquette who heard the conversation?" I asked. Coquette, at least, could imitate perfectly a human conversation even if she didn't catch on.

"Nah-ah!" Said Tammy & Trudy. "Mrs. Coquette was being taught by Tata Celo to sing the new Pepsi jingle to impress the customers. And that's what she was doing at that time."

To which, Hamlet gave me a hurt look, as if to say, "You investigative reporters are all alike. All savvy, no tact."

Hamlet was a strange one. For some crazy reason, whenever he got on the treadmill, "things" happened to him. Some say, the rote of the treadmill carried Hamlet away to a different realm. The longer he rode on the treadmill, the more he floated on a rhythm, a contemplative rhythm which allowed him to pierce through the thick sound wall and listen to human conversation. Uh-huh, word for word! All other times when not on the treadmill, Hamlet only heard gargling sounds when humans opened their mouths to each other.

The first time he watched a human being with an appendage on its ear-mouth moving, about to chew on it, but not quite-Hamlet was petrified. He refused to come out of a mound of wood shavings, insisting instead on sending a facsimile to Heaven because he had changed his mind and would they please respect his reneging on the Plans of His Heart. He honestly didn't think he could live with these barbarians. To which, of course, the Presence broke out in a hearty laugh! All Three of Them shook all of heaven. And the angels giggled. And the saints bounced up and down. Poor Hamlet . . .

As time went by, Hamlet discovered his talent. He rarely repeated what he heard. Mainly because, it was like a private one-on-one Walkman for his ears. The treadmill became his magic carpet. But not without a price. On that particular day, the price for listening exacted a toll.

Listening does that to all of us. Our ability to listen brings on a plethora of wonder as well as darkness. We can't choose. We listen to dreams and to garbage. We hear the angels but we listen to the devil. Listening can be music to our ears, but also lightning in our hearts.

Hamlet overheard this conversation:

"I told the old man even before they changed the tax law not to put all his eggs in one basket." What eggs? Hamlet stood at attention. And where is the basket? Hamlet snapped out of his trance but couldn't figure it out. The conversation continued. "Well, that's how it happens. . ."

"He should have gone into partnership. Or divested before the stock market started plunging."

"I told him to diversify his holdings."

"But, no, he trusted his nest egg in a savings plan. How much did you say he lost when the bank went defunct?"

"Sixty-Five Thousand, I think."

"I heard it was closer to a hundred and twenty."

"Well, he can always sell this place. I know Hennessy & Son will buy him out. They're big enough to take this, merge it with their own outfit, or sell the stock bit by bit."

"Hey, Celo won't sell without some agreement that this place remain as is until every little itsy-bitsy critter is sold. Which is impossible!"

"What's the old man gonna do without this place? His whole life is right here." On hearing this, Hamlet slipped and fell off the treadmill and the next sounds he heard were a lot of deep gargling.

He repeated all of the above to the Albino Quints who translated it in five different directions all over the shop. Po and Rue were stunned. Schools of angels, blueies, yellowtails, and sand carps pressed on the glass of their tanks to listen, and their tears colored the waters they swam in. Tangerine wailed. So-Much slumped in her cage. The friskies on display by the window sat silently still. Hey-Jude shed his blue feathers in tears. Chiquita was heartbroken. Mrs. Coquette stopped repeating the Pepsi jingle.

Without exception, not a one thought about their personal predicament. They all focused their sadness on the realization that the old man was being buffeted on all sides, and they couldn't do a thing to help him. And worst of all, they never said a proper goodbye. He had been gone for a while but they took that as a sign that he was away on business, and his return would bring in more of their kind.

They never said goodbye. They never told him how much they loved him. How exceptional he was. How grateful they were to be picked by him to come to this place. They never said a proper goodbye and that fact tore at their hearts. All they could do was wait and pray for second chances.

How long had it been? Until this peering face appeared in the window, they had all been patiently waiting.

Up in Heaven, the angels absorbed the prayers below. The Presence pondered. The Mother whispered to her Son as she did in Cana. Then, Second Chance glanced and caught the Presence's Eye . . .

Actually, Marcelo had been pacing up and down the shopping center for more than an hour. Then he decided to check the old store window. He peered in. Then tore himself away to wipe his tears on a sleeve. Sure, he was being dealt a blow. So, he had to give up his life here and move upstate to live with his daughter and her family. No reason for him to walk out on his friends this way. Without even saying goodbye!

He walked to the door, hesitated, then pushed in and heard the familiar "ding-dong" announce a customer. As the door opened, on cue, Mrs. Coquette did her Pepsi jingle. He stared at her and threw his head back and laughed. Charlie, the salesclerk saw him.

"Tata Celo!"

Celo made a reply but he couldn't be heard. At the sound of his name, the place went wild. Every love sound in creation filled the place. The most beautiful melodies still to be humanly composed wafted in harmonious whistles. Chirpings, rhythmic taps from wagging tails on cages, treadmill whirrings, rattling tails waved joyfully, all syncopated in one symphonic sound. And the waters in the aquarium tanks moved in waves and spilled over the carpet as schools danced a water ballet.

When prayers are answered, something bursts in exuberance and this prayer had been beating in seventy-two little hearts.

The old timer's tears couldn't mask his wide smile. He went from friend to friend. And each waited patiently for their turn to say how much they missed him and to say goodbye.

To each he had a special word.

"Pasensya lang, Hamlet. He will come. He's about this high. Wait for him."

He whispered to Hey-Jude and Jacob.

'Took his time with Po and Rue.

He praised Coquette, who showed off with two new jingles Charlie taught her.

He wandered over to the tanks and pressed his hands on every glass side. He shook every paw, caressed each head in every cage, and tickled and scratched every outstretched neck. He played with the friskies' tails.

Told Magastos she would have a great big yard to romp in.

The Quints would be separated but he assured them that all of them, he included, would meet again somewhere.

Then he went to Chiquita's cage.

"Awright, iha, you're coming with me. No eighth time around for you. No law against your kind where we're going."

Chiquita couldn't believe her ears. She filled his face with kisses. Meanwhile, Charlie rang up the register.

"This one's on me, Sir! So long, Chiquita."

* * * *

Yesterday morning, Mrs. P walked into Hennessy & Sons with her seven-year-old son. They walked past the aquarium tanks. She bent down to have a word with him but the boy shook his head slowly. The same thing happened when they stopped at the cages. Charlie came over and she stopped to ask for some suggestions. Meanwhile, the boy wandered around the store. He stopped to watch a treadmill slowly turning. Knelt and pressed his nose on the glass.

"This one, Mom. I want this one."

They both turned in his direction. Charlie shrugged his shoulders.

"Are you sure, David?" She asked.

"Uh-huh. I'll call him Hamlet."

© N.G. Ray

back to toptop | about the author | back to cover

Tales Warmed Over, Thrice Told (April 2001)
The Summers We Left Behind (June 2001)
They Who Draw Out Our Caring (Maiden Issue)
"I Am The Head Who Only Eats Bodies" (2001 Poetry Implosion issue)
"Snow" (2001 Poetry Implosion issue)
Princess of the Mountain (Sept 2001 issue)
Villaluz Bibliography of Children's Books (Sept 2001 issue)

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