ALBERTO FLORENTINO: PHILIPPINES WRITER
ALBERTO FLORENTINO photo by Rene Ner
A TRIPTYCH OF SHORT STORIES
a. The Seer from Garabandal
b. A Walk at Midnight with Mohandas Gandhi
c. Teleportation: An Apocryphal Story
BY ALBERTO FLORENTINO
The 3 pieces share a common heart: the two cities of Manila and New York, 2
cities of the Past and the Future, and a heart torn by the love for 2 homelands
and 2 countries.
THE SEER FROM GARABANDAL
by ALBERTO FLORENTINO
“The past is not dead. In fact it is not past .” —William Faulkner?
From the present in 2013,
Flash-back to 1961:
In 1946 a boy, born in the small town of Sta. Rosa (named in honor of the holy saint Santa Rosa de Lima), in the province of Nueva Ecija, north of the national capital, left after the war for Manila (1961) where he received a Fulbright travel grant to the U.S.
Asked to list down places to visit and the people to meet in the U.S., he wrote:
The Sequoia Trees in California, The Grand Canyon, The Crossroads of the World with its 41nd St., the Times Square, the Theater District, and Broadway, the MOMA, and Coney Island, and the U.S. Library of Congress in the national capitol.
Flash-forward to 2013:
Today, in the 3nd millennium, 52 years after the first trip to the U.S., he remembered his first visit to the Old Coney Island.
Flash-back to 1961:
In 1961 he traveled alone. He tried the Parachute Drop, the Ferris Wheel, the Merry-Go-Round, the Roller -coaster, and ate his lunch: a “Nathan hot dog” and a pop drink.
Suddenly, he remembered that he had entered a booth with the sign—
“The Seer from Garabandal!
Your fortune and your future told!
All your wishes come true!”
He found a wizened old man inside, with his traditional crystal ball.
“You may have your three wishes, young man. Not more than three. Write them down here (he ws given a small card) and all, all that you wish for, shall be yours.”
The young man had come to “America” as a visiting writerr, a playwright, to whom Broadway, then as now, was a powerful magnet.
He never dreamt of publishing a book on Book Row, appearing on the Broadway stage, or selling a movie script to Hollywood.
But he did wish for his firstborn daughter would one day be a star on Broadway. When a small shop in Manhattsan, selling replicas of the New York Times, asked what he wanted printed on the white space across the top page, he wrote down “Leila Sangueza Opens on Broadway!”
So he wrote down on the card that it be his first wish.
“And your second wish?” the old man asked, distracted by the crowd now forming outside.
The moment he landed on the new Sinatra Newark airport, he had fallen in love with the city with all its cultural fares: plays on and off Broadway; book stores; art film houses; muserum and galleries on the Museum Mile. Although he knew he would be back in Manila after a month, he wrote down “I wish to spend the rest of my life here with my family.”
He handed the card back to the old man who gave it a quick glance. “You did not put your third wish.”
Behind him a long line of people was growing longer by the minute, so he told the old man he wasn’t ready.
“All right, make your third wish later.”
“All my wishes will really happen?”
“Why not? That’s why you’re here that they all come true.”
He never forgot the first trip to New York and the rest of the country. But he barely remembered Coney Island and had forgotten the “Seer from Garabandal!” booth, the crystal ball, and thr three wishes.
He was reminded ot them only when he discovered among his travel papers the old seer’s card, brown and brittle with age, with only two wishes filled up.
In 1983 he visited New York and was in Queens with his daughter when Ninoy Aquino was assassinated in Manila.
His wife, with their daughter, witnessed the biggest funeral in the history of the country and sent him a cryptic wire: “Stay put. We’re coming.”
Flash-forward to 2013 July:
To make a “short-short” out of what would have been a short story, he “stayed put” in New York, waited for his wife and their daughter. He worked for Macy’s for 10 years and retired. His daughter grew up, studied in a music school got married, raised three kids of her own.
His wife died and left him alone in a senior home studio in mid-Manhattan. His daughter moved with his French husband and their daughter to Paris.
In the year 2013, in the 13th year of the 3rd millen-nium, he was 96: a stooped man leaning on his walking cane (a gift from his granddaughter), walking in mincing steps, his eyes rheumy, his ears ringing with tinnitus, his “restless legs” numb with neuropathy due to diabetes mellitus.
Today he took the “B” train to revisit, after 52 years, the newly rebuilt Coney Island after the city “made over” the 42nd Street in the late ‘90s.
On reaching the “Island” he found out that all that were in 1961 were torn down and replaced with a gaudy high-tech attractions, rivaling the New Las Vegas and the New Atlantic City.
But alas! at his age he could not now enjoy the new rides specially one where he was to be one of the passengers in the Crash of the Hindenberg which would fall to the ground with fake fire and smoke and sound effects that can scare a fainthearted to death.
The Rollercoaster, after several loops, drops from a 50-foot height like a rock. Just thinking of being in them and actually taking the ride made him sick and scared.
He walked to the seedy edge of the New Island where there still were the old
freak shows, shooting galleries, and fortune-tellers. He found and entered a
booth with the same old sign:
“The Seer from Garabandal!
Your fortune and your future told!
All your wishes come true!”
Inside everything was as it was in 1961—except there were no people lining up outside. He was all alone with the old seer sleeping behind his crystal ball. He looked the same and had not aged a bit—but was it him?
“Do you remember me?” he asked when the old seer woke up. “In 1961. You sold me my wishes.”
“Young man, I may charge a small amount, but I do not sell wishes.Those wishes are priceless—gifts from above to those who are most deserving.”
“But you do remember me?”
Of course the old man did not remember; after all, that was 52 years ago; but still he lied, and replied:
“I do remember you, yes. Did your three wishes come true?”
“Two of them, yes.”
“Only two?” The old man was crestfallen. “Your third wish didn’t—”
“I wrote down only two. You said I could have the third wish later.”
“I hope I didn’t tell you to make the third wish half-a-century later. Anyway, write it down and you shall have your third wish just as you had your first two.”
Flash-back to the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s in Manila:
During the Libera’ion years in war-torn Manila a fortune-teller in the plaza in front of the Quiapo Church read his palms and said, “I can see a blonde beauty in your future. Ten pesos please.”
In the next decades in Manila he hardly met a blonde because most of the women had black hair.
In his first visits and long sojourn in the U.S. he saw a lot of blondes in the streets but never met a blonde and none entered his life.
Too embarrassed to write it down, he asked the old seer, “Can I make a silent wish?”
The old seer said, “Sure, why not?”
He closed his eyes for a minute then opened them again.”There. I had my third wish. When will it come true? I’m not getting any younger—”
The old man chuckled. “It could happen anytime. Who knows?”
With time on his hands, he wanted to ask the old seer: Was he the same old man in 1961? Or was he his own son or grandson who took over?
The old man ignored his questions and instead asked how his first two wishes came true.
He told how his only daughter, who was waiting on tables in the Village, became a star in a Broadway musical.
He also talked of how he and his family eventually came to live in New York and hos they have enjoyed all that the city had to offer.
When he finished, the old seer had fallen asleep.
It was almost midnight when he left the old man’s booth and was met with the color and noise and glare of the New Coney Island.
He was about to take the “B” train back to his empty studio and remembered to make a call so he would not be locked out at the lobby entrance.
It was so dark inside the phone booth he could not pick out his senior discount card. He stepped out of the booth and under the glow of a street lamp, picked out his discount card and a quarter for his phone call.
He turned to re-enter the booth, but he could not. Inside was a young woman—tall, with flowing blonde hair, pretty as the models in his wife’s Victoria Secret catalogues which kept coming after her death.
The blonde woman must have been watching him and was holding the door open and looking him in the eye as if he were the young buck he was in 1961.
With a twinkle in her eyes, the blonde beauty purred, “Hello there… handsome!”
Two days later a news item appeared in the Daily News:
MUGGING AT NEW CONEY ISLAND
“An unidentified senior citizen was mugged near the site of the New Coney Island. Except for the loss of his AARP, ATM and METRO CARD, an old wedding ring, and some cash, he was unharmed. Asked if he could identify his “mugger,” he said it was too dark... After a medical check-up at the Elmhurst Hospital, he was accompanied home.”
A WALK AT MIDNIGHT WITH MOHANDAS GANDHI
by ALBERTO FLORENTINO.
At the Birla Shrine in New Delhi where Gandhi died, I took off my shoes and socks and, as if playing hopscotch, or our native “piko” in my childhood, traced his, Gandhi’s, last footsteps.
Slowly, firmly, precisely, I placed one foot after another on the red-stones that Gandhi’s followers had set on the garden lawn to mark the last footprints of his last walk on Earth before an assassin’s bullets struck him down.
When I reached the last footprint, my right foot up in the air, balanced like a dancer’s, right where he must have lost his balance and fell on the grass like a ragdoll, I heard in my head three gunshots and felt giddy from a vertigo or sunstroke and totteredf like a marionette suddenly released.
One of the shrine keepers nearby caught me and led me to where my shoes lay. He helped me put them back on.
IT WAS ONE of the hottest days in summer.
I returned to my hotel.
Towards afternoon I left the hotel again, to visit his memorial pantheon in another part of the city.
There was nothing much, or big or impressive, to mark the hallowed ground. I remember.… what? an obelisk? a plinth? a slab of marble carved with his name and inclusive dates marking his time on Earth? I could hardly remember.
I recently read somewhere that the plinth-with-a-dome in the Civic Center, from where King George’s V’s statue was removed in 1947 to give way to a Gandhi memorial, was still empty—50 years after Independence Day because the powers-that-be could not agree on the kind of memorial to put up.
I REACHED THE pantheon, sat down on a stone bench and contemplated the setting sun. I felt like falling into a deep sleep and was trying to fight it, but only half-succeeding.
Later I noticed him squatting on a straw mat a few feet from me, spinning cotton with the primitive spinning wheel that he was always shown in old stereoscopic sepia photos, or in black-and-white, vintage BBC newsreels.
“Here, son, give me a hand.”
I gripped his strong bony right hand, felt the living veins on his hand and arm, and pulled him up. Now face to face with him I saw his large eyes framed by wire-rimmed spectacles and his saucer-cup ears, reminding me of a gentle tarsier.
He wore his usual dhoti and shawl made from homespun Indian cotton that he wore almost all of his latter adult life.
Unmistakably, it was him. Yet, surprisingly, I was not a bit surprised. I wanted to break the ice by greeting him lightheartedly, “Mr. Gandhi, I presume?” but I was suddenly tongue-tied.
So, remembering the traditional Indian namaskar (or namaste) which I’ve learned but have rarely tried, I brought my palms together above the heart in greeting.
“Come, son, let’s take a walk.” And he strode ahead of me as I imagined Ichabod Crane would have walked. This was the man who had walked over much of India.
THE SUN HAD started to set behind the horizon, but a residual orange glow stayed on in the west, and the air suddenly cooled, as if airconditioned.
I caught up with him and we walked a few steps in silence until I regained my composure.
“Sir, it’s been 50 years since that fateful midnight in 1947—”
“Fifty years to this day, yes,” he said in a low, soft but firm voice.
“The same reason I chose this day to come,” I said.
“So did I. Where are you from?”
“Jose Rizal!” he exclaimed. For a moment I thought he had mistaken me for him!
“You knew him, didn’t you? You and Tagore and Sun Yat-Sen were contemporaries—”
“Well, you may say so, yes, yet I never really met him, your national hero.”
“A hundred years later our people are still debating about him—”
“About him, about what—?”
“About his being.… designated.… as a national hero. Like a designated driver.”
He did not quite catch on my attempt at wit.
“Tell your people, you get the hero—or heroine—you deserve.”
Then he continued. “Your country and mine.…had almost the same
problem. But Rizal, he started started it all. We, Tagore and probably Sun Yat-
Sen, we all drew inspiration from him.”
“You and he.… each one the father of his own country.”
“i’d give the credit to them, to the people, as i’m sure he would have… to his people. Wouldn’t you? To your own people? One man can only teach the first steps to a baby, lend a hand, point to a direction. Then.… they take over. As your own people did, too. Aren’t you celebrating something—”
“You got your independence—?”
“1946. One year before India.”
“Wait, you’d have been free 50 years last year, 1996—”
“We’re celebrating 100 years of independence—
”India’s celebrating only—”
“I know. Rather, we’re celebrating 100 years of the declaration of—”
“Oh, I see. I remember, you had almost routed the Spaniards. But the Norteamericanos—”
“Stepped into the breach and spoiled it for us. The American president—he had to run to his globe—wanted to Christianize us after 300 years being Christian. We spent the next 50 years under them, and three more under the boots of Hirohito’s army, before we truly became free.”
I didn’t know how to explain it any better. Sensing my embarrassment, he went on:
“Well, son, who am I to question your leaders or meddle in your affairs? I don’t want to start an international incident.” He chuckled. “Let’s keep this between us, okay?”
We walked on in silence.
“How’s your country coming along?”
“Not too badly.… but not too well either.”
“Just like India. Our two nations, like twins born within minutes of each other—now finally after many centuries and now well past turning over and crawling and standing up, only now learning to walk steadily and taking all the falls and bruises in stride—” he rambled on and on.
“I see you’ve kept.… up to date.”
“As much as I could.”
“What did you think of the Partition?”
“I pleaded—no, I cried out!—cut me in half, but spare the nation. I would not know what I would have done if the it happened on my watch.”
“By that time—”
“I’d.… gone. Thanks to Godse. … It would have literally broken my heart.”
He paused for a while.
“Seeing now what I never wanted and had tried my best to avoid—I sometimes feel that Godse, by dispatching me that day, actually did me a favor.”
“But things have finally healed, haven’t they?”
“I don’t know. I’m still too close to pass judgment. Maybe my reach exceeded my grasp.”
“But isn’t that what a heaven is for?”
“I only know I tried my best. I proposed, but the people disposed—they took over.”
The day was darkening. We paused in a corner of the field.
“Sir, the day’s going—would you mind signing on this?”
I handed him a 500-rupee banknote which I just got from the bank when I changed my money. I had specifically asked for legal tender with an engraving of his portrait. I was told only this large bill had it.
I handed him a Bic pen.
He hesitated for a second and stared at the ball pen as if seeing it for the first time. Quickly,I gave him the book under my armpit to sign it on.
He glanced at the book and flipped through it. It was the latest American university press title on his life and times, released to commemorate the half-century mark as a free nation.
As he signed the note: “I wonder what they write about me now?”
I wanted to gift him with the book, but I was too excited about his autograph on the banknote. I realized I could never spend that note. Ever. I’d have it framed and up on my wall. No, maybe buy a safe—.
“They put my face on this, but the masses never get to see it—much less touch it—a note this big. They should have put me on a 10-rupee note.”
“Maybe they thought it was a higher honor to have it on the highest denomination.”
“Do you know I never read or saw a copy of your hero’s novel—” He was still holding the book.
“Noli Me Tangere?”
“Yes. Great title.” He continued: “For which the Spaniards blundered into killing him.”
I wanted to offer to FedEx him the latest translation of the Noli, but I thought it was going to be.…problematic. I quickly dropped the idea.
“Sir, you.… drop in.… quite often?”
“Only on a round-figure anniversary. Like today.”
“Would you come on the 100th?”
“I might—yet I might not.”
“Because it’s so frustrating.”
“In what way, sir?”
“You move freely about and see and hear and know everything, yet cannot lift a finger to help. I was around during Indira’s term. I thought the lady needed.… some help. I tried to get to her, but I couldn’t. Maybe she refused to be helped. In 1984 I was standing between her and her assassin when it happened. I could not lift a finger or raise my voice to save her life!”
I was engrossed with the 500-rupee note, trying to make sure he signed on it. He did.
When I looked up again, he was gone.
I looked around and saw something in the distance. A disembodied dhoti and shawl disappearing in the unseasonable fog, in slow motion, like an ectoplasm, as in a dream, being blown by a gentle breeze on an unseen clothesline.
I was left alone in the dark. I sought the nearest bench and sat down to compose myself.
I didn’t know what to think or feel. A daydream? A daytime ghost? But I touched him! Talked with him! And the note! I reached into my pocket and felt it inside and never let it go.
Suddenly, someone was standing in front of me. I looked up, ready to faint if— It was the honor guard of the shrine.
He held out a book. The book!
“I believe this is yours.”
“You left it at the gate.”
IN THE DARKNESS I hurried back to my hotel, to my wife. My hand still in my pocket.
When I saw her at the hotel lobby, I pulled out the note and held it out to her, almost in her face.
She was furious. “Where have you been all this time?”
“Look!” I said, waving the note. “He signed it!”
“Who signed what?”
“Can’t you see his signature?”
She snatched the note from me.
“Can’t you see his signature?”
She waved the note at me. “You forgot—I said break it—I need small bills, quarters, for the laundromat—”
“No, dear, he signed it.”
She brought it up and glanced at it under the glare of the chandelier, then handed it back to me.
“Every 500-rupee has Gandhi’s signature printed on it. See?” She thrust it to my face.
I looked.… and saw.… she was right. My wife should know, she’s an Indian.
I NEVER TOLD her about the evening’s strange encounter for fear she’d
think I was seeingthings—again.
TELEPORTATION: AN APOCRYPHAL STORY
B Y ALBERTO FLORENTINO
apocryphal. (adj): of questionable authenticity; may be true or not.
A FILIPINO guardia civil—or a civil guard, a policeman—in 19th Century Intramuros had always wanted to travel to Madrid on the other side of the world.
But he did no even have a pouch of peseta to take one of the ships plying regularly between the two cities.
To him Madrid was so far away it might well have been another world.
But the guardia civil kept on dreaming and praying to go one day to Madrid.
ONE HOT summer day, as he stood guard on the plaza in front of the Manila Cathedral in Intramuros, the sun seemed to explode up over his head and a gust of hot wind almost blew him down.
When it was over, he found himself somewhere else. But as it was dark except for the light of some streetlamps, he could not tell where he was. He sat down and waited for morning.
The next day he discovered he was in the middle of a city not unlike Intramuros—yet so much like Intramuros. He told himself: I'm not in Intramuros anymore.
After roaming around the area, he discovered he was at the center of another plaza in Madrid. Dressed in his official uniform, he did not attract attention—until he began to ask questions.
Later, soldiers, or his counterparts in the city, came and took him to headquarters for questioning where he answered:
Yes he was a guardia civil in Intramuros
Yes he had come over by some means about which he had no idea
Yes he knew Madrid was thousands of kilometers from Intramuros
Yes it took a ship many months to cross that distance
What he knew for sure was that he had long wanted to visit Madrid and that his prayers were answered.
He was placed in custody and held incommunicado. Next day came more interrogations.
Yes he came with only one change of clothes (his uniform)
Yes he did not carry any money except a few pesetas
Yes he was not a bird who flew all that distance
Yes he was not a stowaway in the last ship which had shown up only now
No No No he was not a witch who could fly long dfistances using black magic
To prove he really came all the way from the other side of the world, he told them in Madrid some news from Intramuros that they would know only much later:
The day he was last in Intramuros, the governor-general had just died in the Walled City.
At last the guardia civil was happy. Now they have some evidence that he was not a fraud or an imposter or a spy or a stowaway or a village idiot in a play-uniform—and definitely not a witch!
To verify the bad news he had brought them, all they had to do now was wait for the ship to arrive next month with the news.
And arrive it did, the ship with its load of commercial cargo and passengers, and the official news that the governor-general did die as he had reported.
Now the evidence existed that he was an ordinary person who was brought over by extraordinary, if not supernatural, means.
Like teleportation. Something as real as levitation, of which there were many known cases in the world at that time, though not as well known.
Or—the thought struck him—he could indeed be a witch.
Or—God forbid—the Devil himself.
To make a long story shorter, they did not believe him in Madrid. After a trial, they burned him at the stake.
IS IT A true story? Or not?
No one at the time knew for sure and I, myself, at this time do not know.
I am only a writer, a storyteller, who, when he hears a good story, tells it to the next fellow.
All I know is this: this is what poeople would call an apocryphal story. And I don't know if an apocryphal story is true or not.
Like the guardia civil from Intramuros, I am only a teller of a story about a visitor to Madrid who was a messenger of bad news.
Since I told this story, I have been here in the Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Metro Manila and have been interrogated by people I don't know.
I am not a bit nervous because I am only a messenger, a storyteller, and in this age they don't shoot storytellers, fictionists, novelists, do they? Salman Rushdie? He's still alive.
Besides, this is not the 18th or 19th century. This is not 1896 in Intramuros when an eye doctor was executed by firing squad on the Luneta for writing a novel and its sequel.
This is the age of the jet engine and the 747 and the Concorde, when you can leave Manila, cross the international date line, and arrive in Madrid (or New York) on the same day.
Or, in the case of the British Concorde, where you can arrive in New York or London, by the watch on your wrist, earlier than when you left Heathrow or JFK airport—whichever be the case.
No more executions by garrote as in 1872 in Bagumbayan.
No more kangaroo trials, firing squads, public executions with a carnival atmosphere.
This is the last century, the last decade, the last year—in fact the last weekend, the last day of the past millennium.
Tomorrow it will be the year 2000 and the start of the next, the new, the third millennium.
I am writing this on my Apple laptop on my lap while I wait in the plane as it sits on the tarmac.
I look out the "porthole" window and see the outline immortalized in brass where Ninoy Aquino's body sprawled some twenty years ago.
Like a mantra or a prayer, I keep repeating to myself: there are
no more lynchings
no more witchhunts
no more mock trials for telling apocryphal stories
or tall tales
or writing and faxing and publishing fiction stories
like this that I'm doing right now.
In my mind I repeat my prayer and mantra:
Not any more, not anymore, not anymore…
Writer's Bio: Alberto Florentino, a naturalized citizen from Manila, Philippines, has lived 20 years in New York City, NYS, since 1983, and lives with his wife in the heart of Times Square (a senior home). He wrote hundreds of plays for TV, cinema, and the stage, but resumed an "old love" for the short story.
His first story in many decades, "Indian-Giver," was chosen by Cecilia M. Brainard in her book, "Growing Up Filipino."
His next book is "Alberto Florentino: An Anthology of Life, Lives and Works, written in exile and diaspora from '83 to the presnt in Manhattan NY, Portland ORE, Los Angeles CA. Those familiar with his plays since '54 (The World Is an Apple) will notice that his world has changed to include his sojourns in the cities of the present world and the "interesting times" the Chinese warned us about.
He has dedicated these stories to David Medalla.
Alberto Florentino's website is <www.geocities.com/bertflorentino/#html>
Copyright 2004 by Alberto S. Florentino; all rights reserved.
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