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Mading and Pepito

But when Mading spoke his mind, it was with all the subtlety of a cannonball. When Mading made an observation, it was with the jagged insight of a man who had seen heaven and hell and everything in between.

Pepito searched with no luck whatsoever all of one night and all of one day for the person who was the closest person to being his kumpadre. If there was anyone in this world who Pepito could count on to be a bastion of constancy even in the most tumultuous of times, it was Mading Gabriel. Mading wasn't the most friendly guy Pepito ever knew, nor the most empathetic. He was something of a solitary figure, not made for large crowds, bright lights, nor for tight spaces in between bodies. But when Mading spoke his mind, it was with all the subtlety of a cannonball. When Mading made an observation, it was with the jagged insight of a man who had seen heaven and hell and everything in between.

When martial law was decreed in 1972, democracy died an excruciating death in the heart of every freedom-loving Filipino. Mading was one among millions of such citizens who found themselves on the receiving end of democracy's visceral demise. For him, martial law was not just a death sentence for democracy, but an interlude to something worse perhaps. Who knew what still remained on Marcos's program for the nation. In walking the streets of the capital over the first few days of the new political reality, Mading felt as if Filipinos had not only missed their date with their deserved destiny, but had also not even begun to know the scope or depth of the trap they had walked into.

Armed with nothing more than his scathing wit, his bold propensity to breach protocols of all types, and his fearlessness in telling it like it is, Mading wasn't about to let martial law spill all over the precious script of justice and liberty that had taken Filipinos so long to compose without giving the perpetrators a piece of his mind.

While eating their dinner in a small, outdoor eatery in Manila's Chinatown-a dinner consisting of fried chicken, assorted vegetables, and rice covered by a topping of fried milk-Mading and Pepito got to talking about the imposition of a nightly curfew for all residents. The curfew lasted every night from one to four in the morning. Anyone caught outside during these hours were subject to arrest and who knew what afterwards if the Philippine Constabulary had its way. It was all part of Marcos's stunted sense of bringing law and order to an insecure society afraid of its own shadow. It was his way of reassuring Filipinos that he was doing what was best for the collective good. It was the darkest face of martial law being garlanded over by a path paved with ostensibly honorable aspirations.

"Why don't you send Marcos a thank you card? I can't believe you don't see through his bullshit. Get past the hot air and see that martial law is really Marcos's way of saying that he's gonna be president forever."

"This stupid curfew, it's like having your life taken from you. How can we play mahjongg all night at Auntie Salem's now? My wife will thrash me if she doesn't find me with both feet inside the house before she wakes up," Mading complained.

"It works out well for me. Lulu expects me back by one anyway." Pepito answered.

"Oh, I'm happy that it works out for you," Mading said sarcastically. "Why don't you send Marcos a thank you card? I can't believe you don't see through his bullshit. Get past the hot air and see that martial law is really Marcos's way of saying that he's gonna be president forever."

"Come on Ding, maybe the curfew will do some good."

"Aren't you listening to me? The curfew isn't the point. This country is going to hell and it's all because of Marcos. First he declares martial law because he needs to restore order. But it's his corruption that's causing all the trouble in the first place. I mean he makes it look so easy, as if the Philippines were his personal property to do with as he pleases. He even comes up with this "New Society" crap to distract us from his real intentions. And that wife of his. I hear she's doing George Hamilton right underneath her husband's nose."

"George Hamilton the actor?"

"No, the sari-sari store owner. Yeah, the actor. The American actor. And he's not even that big of a star at that."

"The prerogatives of the rich and powerful," Pepito sighed.

"Too bad that guy didn't kill her when he had the chance."

"George Hamilton?"

"No smart-ass, the idiot who tried to carve her up on that stage."

"Oh, that idiot. Lots to choose from nowadays."

"He should have used a gun instead of a knife since he managed to get so close. Why he used a knife and not a gun I'll never know. He was right in front of her! He could have killed her with a toothpick at that distance. He could have done a lot for everybody. Everyone knows that a bullet to Imelda's head would be the best thing that has happened to this country in the last twenty years."

Anyhow, they had all heard Mading mouth off many times before about Marcos, so what else was new? Why should any of them rat him out now?

"Jesus Christ Ding, you gotta be careful what you say."

"Who the hell cares what I say in this shithole-for-a-restaurant? Besides, everyone here agrees with me. Right?" he shouted out loud, placing the emphasis on the last word.

Other than a few momentary and bemused looks, nary a soul in the establishment responded.

"Puta! not for anything in this world would I hold my breath waiting for this group to stand up and be counted."

Pepito tried to recall who else was in the eatery when Mading was venting his contrarian views that evening. His memory remembered Renato, the rickety old man sitting at the table two tables behind them. He also pictured Raul and Jayvee eating three tables away, conversing inaudibly. There was also the eatery's single cook Noel and lone waitress Nola. And don't forget the barkada made up of Eddie, Randy, Oling, Lito, and Antonio which had a bite to eat after blowing their meager week's pay again at the cockfights.

But Pepito personally knew those who were accounted for that night; other than Noel the cook and Nola the waiter, the others were regulars in the eatery and staples in the barangay. He knew they always minded their own business when it came to politics, especially when it came to Marcos. Anyhow, they had all heard Mading mouth off many times before about Marcos, so what else was new? Why should any of them rat him out now?

Whenever they went out together for the evening, Mading would pick up Pepito to eat dinner at the eatery normally around eight-thirty or so. After dinner, they would split up and clean up at home before heading out again. Usually by about nine-thirty, they were both ready for an evening mahjongg session at Auntie Salem's nearby residence.

But on this night, the night of Mading's diatribe, it was almost eleven, and his wife hadn't seen him since he left to eat with Pepito earlier in the evening. She could only recall that Mading told her that he was on his way out to meet Pepito. She hadn't seen him since.

Pepito hoped against hope that he would find Mading at Auntie Salem's or at a common friend's house. By the late afternoon of the following day however, there was still no sign of Mading. Barangay friends, relatives, shopowners, taxi drivers, policemen, street beggars-none of them were of any help in tracking him down. Pepito half-in-jest concluded that Mading dropped off the face of the planet.

Randy added to the puzzle by saying he thought he saw an unidentified woman-a woman that no one else saw of course-while Eddie did nothing to help the situation due to his giggling and smirking during the entirety of Pepito's interrogation process.

At his reason's end, the thought suddenly occurred to Pepito that there might have been someone else in the eatery that he failed to account for in his recollections that evening. Wasn't there another person sitting in the corner on the far side of the eatery that night? Pepito pressed his memory for the answer, but it flickered inconclusively when it came to that shadowy figure who might have some knowledge of what happened to Mading.

Was someone else there, Pepito wondered to himself? I think so. Yes, What? Get out of here, there was no such person. Was there? Didn't I see him with my own two eyes? Come on, there were only a couple of people there that night. The place isn't even that big. No, you got to be leaving out someone. Damn, can't you remember?

Pepito's memory twisted and turned as he tried to nail it down with certainty. But his memory was stubborn in not revealing its secrets. Instead, it produced more questions than it answered.

After repeated questioning on the part of Pepito, neither the cook, the waiter, Raul, Jayvee, Renato, nor any of the cockfighting barkada could reach a consensus about seeing anyone else but Pepito and Mading and themselves that evening in the eatery. Lito said he might have seen an unknown man walking around that night, but he wasn't sure. Oling claimed Lito was making things up to get attention. Raul and Jayvee said they didn't notice anyone new that evening. Randy added to the puzzle by saying he thought he saw an unidentified woman-a woman that no one else saw of course-while Eddie did nothing to help the situation due to his giggling and smirking during the entirety of Pepito's interrogation process.

Short of any empirical proof, Pepito was forced to accept the mystery man as nothing more than a figment of his imagination. But Mading's decomposed corpse was anything but. A group of boys playing along water's edge on Manila Bay found it floating in the water weeks later, its visage disfigured by its long exposure to saltwater, its torso a revolting mass of putrefied organs and wrinkled flesh. The only means the authorities had to identify the corpse as that of the formerly-missing Mading Gabriel was the tattoo on his right bicep muscle. The tattoo consisted of one five-letter word: "Clara." It was the name of his mother.

© Allen Gaborro

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