A Hole In the Wall
FROM THE BOOK “BETEL NUTS & OTHER STORIES BY SIMEON G. SILVERIO, JR.
Ano ang ginagawa mo diyan (What are you doing there)? their newly-arrived maid, Milagros, shouted from the window of their apartment on the second floor of the printing press of Erics family on Platerias Street in Quiapo.
The girl across the street looked surprised and hurriedly went inside a three-foot wide alleyway. Milagros was puzzled. She could not fathom why her barrio mate, Marita, whom she had not seen for years, was avoiding her.
“You know why? Erics mom asked Milagros when the latter told her about the incident. “She was embarrassed because shes a prostitute in that brothel across the street!
Milagros could not believe it. Marita left their barrio more than a year ago after an agent had recruited her to work as a maid in Manila. How Marita ended up a prostitute was a mystery to Milagros.
MANG PACO WAS AN EIGHTY-YEAR-OLD MAN living on the mezzanine floor of a typesetting shop beside the printing press of Erics family. He was the father-in-law of Mr. Lianzares, the Spanish-speaking owner of On Time Typesetting. A retiree, Mang Paco lived in the shop and guarded it, especially on evenings and weekends when the business was closed. As a young boy, Mang Paco was astride a branch of a tree when he witnessed the Spanish guardia civiles (civil guards) execute Philippine National hero, Jose Rizal, at the Luneta, then known as “Bagumbayan. After business hours, Mang Paco would sit on a chair near the sidewalk and watch people go by. Occasionally, he would chat with some residents in the area including the prostitutes and pimps of a brothel across the street. The prostitutes and pimps were always on the street soliciting business, especially in the evenings, and for the most part they seemed polite. Sometimes Mang Paco would invite a prostitute to his mezzanine room, and Eric would wonder why.
ERICS KA MAWEL (“Ka is an address of respect to an elder cousin) worked as a compositor in the composing room on the mezzanine floor of their printing press. A compositor put together movable types, slags and cuts to compose the layout of a printing job. They only had letterpress machines then. Offset printing in the Philippines was rare.
Mawel was born on Christmas Eve, hence he was christened “Emmanuel. His close relative eventually shortened his nickname “Manuel to “Mawel. When Mawels father, Ikong, suddenly died of complications from diabetes in his early forties, his family was left without a breadwinner. Mawels older brother, Toy, was already working as an assistant manager in the printing press. His elder sister, Lita, later became a secretary. A few months after his father had died, Mawel quit high school to work in his aunts printing press.
Eric remembers the first day his Ka Mawel reported for work. It was already two oclock in the afternoon and he was hungry.
“Do you have any food left? he asked the maid.
“No, he was told.
“Do you have leftover rice?
“Do you have coffee?
It was the first time Eric saw somebody eat rice with coffee.
ONE EVENING, WHEN THE TYPESETTING SHOP WAS CLOSED, Eric saw one of the prostitutes, Marita, enter Mang Pacos quarters.
“I wonder what they are doing inside, Eric wondered aloud.
His Ka Mawel, who was working overtime, passed by and heard him.
“Do you want to know? he asked with a smile.
He motioned Eric to follow him in the composing room in the mezzanine and showed him a small hole on the wall between the printing press and the typesetting shop. A calendar covered the hole.
Eric looked through the hole and saw Mang Paco on a chair facing the girl sitting on the edge of a bed. Eric thought something he hadnt seen before would happen. He waited and waited until his Ka Mawel, who was working on a layout, gave him a chair to sit on. Eventually, Erics neck was strained and all the two did was talk for an hour until Mang Paco escorted the girl outside.
On a few occasions, when Eric would see Mang Paco go inside the typesetting shop with a prostitute, Eric would look through the hole only to see the two talk to each other. By that time, Marita had shed off her inhibitions and shame and openly plied Platerias Street to solicit customers. She still refused to talk to Milagros, the maid, and acknowledge her presence. Oftentimes, Marita would go up to MangPacos room in the mezzanine floor. As always, whenever Eric would take a peek, they would just spend the time talking to each other. One time, Eric saw Marita crying while Mang Paco was talking to her. A few weeks after that incident, Marita was no longer seen around the neighborhood. Even Milagros wondered way.
One morning, they learned Mang Paco had died in his sleep. Eric went up to the mezzanine floor to take a last look at him through the hole. Mang Paco was lying stiffly in his bed with people standing beside him. Thirty minutes later, his body was brought outside and placed in a hearse.
ERICS MOTHER LATER RECEIVED A LETTER from a sister of Milagros informing her that the maids mother had died. The letter advised his mother not to tell Milagros about the death and allow her to go home. Six months remained in Milagros contract with the Elga Employment Agency, which was a customer of the printing press and where his mother always got domestic help. But Erics mother was compassionate enough to release Milagros from the contract. In just two days from receiving the letter, she helped Milagros prepare for her trip. Erics mother gave the maid her six months pay, plus extra money, so she could buy things for her relatives back home.
“You buy this black dress, it looks good on you, Erics mother told the maid, knowing it would be handy during the funeral.
“What would I need that? Milagros asked. “I prefer this red one for our town fiesta.
Erics mom insisted but Milagros refused.
Finally, his mother bought the black dress for her maid as a gift.
They brought Milagros to the pier where an inter-island vessel that would take her home was docked. On the ship deck, cots were placed side by side for passengers to sleep on during the few days trip.
A year later, Erics mother received a letter from Milagros asking for money so she could go back to work. This time, Milagros wanted to enter into a work agreement directly with his mother, with no employment agency between them. Milagros wanted to keep the agency commission for herself.
It was the same old Milagros who came back to them that summer. She was her usual chatty and boisterous self, sometimes too talkative for her own good. She claimed she had worked as a teacher while she was in their barrio. When Erics mom probed further, she found out Milagros was a teacher, alright, but a “teacher of monay. She taught people how to bake the bread monay in a bakery store.
“Even my mother and my sisters became my students, she boasted.
“But I thought your mother died? Erics mom asked.
Milagros became quiet for a while, caught in her own lies. She later confessed the letter regarding her mothers death was just a ruse so she could go home before her contract expired because she was homesick.
Erics mom went berserk and exploded with a litany of accusations all directed at the lying Milagros.
“I even bought you a black dress, gave you extra money, and bit my tongue so I wouldnt slip and tell you about your mothers death. And all the while, you and your relatives were lying to me, taking me for a ride!
In an instant, the welcome mat unfurled before Milagros was taken back. It was an awkward moment, as Eric was holding on to a nice, native coin purse, a product of Milagros town, the maid gave him as pasalubong (welcome gift).
Finally, Milagros spoke.
“But I have good news, Manang.
While Erics mom was still mad at the unschooled girls scam, deep inside she welcomed the return of Milagros because she was a reliable domestic help.
“What? she asked, trying to show to Milagros she was still mad.
“Guess who owns the bakery where I worked?
“It was Marita!
“Marita the prostitute? The girl from across the street? Erics mother asked.
“Yes, Milagros answered. “Marita came back with a lot of money and established a bakery business.
“Where did she get the money? she was asked.
“You know Mang Paco, the old man who lived next door? He became her friend, and when she told him about her problems, he gave her the money to buy her freedom from the brothel operators. Mang Paco even gave her extra money to invest in a business back home.
Eric then realized that despite his vigilance and passionate crusade spending hours peeping through a hole to catch Mang Paco in the act, the old man was just giving grandfatherly advice to erring prostitutes, and eventually gave his remaining savings to one before he died.
It was not surprising when Milagros told them the name of Maritas business: “Mang Pacos Bakery!
“At least, its not Maritas Monay (breast-like buns), Eric thought, his mind still dirty to that day.
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