Inspired by a true story from the life of my grandfather, who spent his last years working in the Middle East to support his family in the Philippines.
You work as a mechanic in a land of yellow sand and wind and nothing else, where at noon the people turn their faces to the place where Muhammad was born and drop to their knees and pray. You do not pray with them – you pray to a different God – but you do it in secret because if you do not do it in secret they will send you back to your own country, or worse. And you cannot afford to return to your country now, even though with every day that you are in this strange place, a small part of you stops breathing.
You were not always a mechanic. In a previous life you were a teacher, and in the life before that an engineer and a colonel in the army, and in the life before that – the life you remember more clearly than all the others – you were a young man shivering in the back of the only jeepney that would take you to the city. The moon leaked in through the open windows and burned your skin, and you looked over your shoulder, the left and then the right, and then the left again, afraid that out of the shadows would appear the dark face of the man who had kept you prisoner in his fields while your brothers and sisters escaped to the city. Your sisters had gone to the university but found good husbands anyway. Your brother, you heard, had become a doctor.
As you lie on your back and wrestle with a truck that reeks of rust and neglect, that really should not be in this garage but in a junkyard, a drop of oil or sweat or something else – you are not sure what it is – stings your eye. You blink hard. Twice. It is getting difficult to see. You ask the doctor every month if he can do something about your eyes, and every month he tells you to pray.
Boots scrape across the floor, sending brown dust into the corner of your eye. “Manong,” says the young man.
He is the only one who calls you manong instead of your first name, and the only one who puts his cigarette away when you sit on the bench outside to take your lunch. He talks to you sometimes. He is not very intelligent and not very wise either, but he works hard and he smiles at you when you come near. When he smiles he reminds you of your son, and for a while you forget his foolishness and his youth and you talk to him also.
“Manong,” says the young man again. “You look tired. Why don’t you come outside?”
“You should be working. The boss will catch you.”
He laughs. “Let him catch me. What will he do? Fire me?”
“You think he won’t?”
“Not unless he can find a Saudi cheaper than me.” He laughs again. “What about you, manong? Are you afraid of being fired?”
“No,” you tell him.
You are not afraid. You are afraid of some things, of many things, but not of being fired. Last year the boss sent many workers home, the ones who smoked in the garage and drank at night and came in late every morning, the ones who would peer under the hood of a car and scratch their heads and tinker with this part and that part and say at the end of it, I can’t do it. The lazy ones. But when the man who worked for the boss asked about you, the boss said, “Keep him. Keep the old man.”
“Come, manong,” says the young man. “It’s almost time for lunch.”
While you peel open a can of sardines and drain the thin oil over your rice, he asks about your wife.
“She is well,” you say.
“When did you meet her?”
“When she was eighteen.”
“Do you have a picture?”
You open your wallet and pull out her picture, faded except for the white of her teeth and the dark luster of her hair.
“She was pretty,” says the young man.
“She is still pretty, even now.”
“She sends you letters?”
“Every month. She says she misses me.”
“You’re lucky. I wish I had a woman who loved me that way.”
The young man is smiling wistfully. It is rare in this place for anyone to smile like that, so you hold your tongue and you do not tell him that your wife says such kind things only when you are away, that she will not speak to you when you are home, that she has never really loved you though you have loved her with all your strength.
“I remember that you said you had a son,” says the young man.
“How old is he?”
“As old as you.”
“What is he doing?” says the young man.
“He is studying to be a doctor.”
“A doctor? You’re very lucky indeed.”
Maybe you are. In this dry and barren place, it is easy to forget what you have. In a few months your son will be a doctor and you can go home and rest. And maybe when that day comes your wife will look at you with some gratitude and a little kindness, and she will speak to you when you are home and she will smile the way she used to smile when you were both still young and had no troubles.
For now, you wish you had a hat. The sun is burning your skin and making your head swim, and you can barely see the line between the sky and the desert.
You are finished in five minutes. When you stand up the young man says, “Where are you going?”
“Back to work.”
“On that old thing? Why not just leave it. If you tell the boss it can’t be fixed, he’ll believe you.”
“I have never left a car with a broken engine that could be repaired,” you tell him. “A good worker does not leave something broken if he can fix it. And that can be fixed.”
The young man shrugs. “All right, manong. But don’t hope too hard.”
You have been under the truck for maybe an hour when the young man’s boots scrape toward you and stop. You can see the splotches of oil staining the toes and the places where the leather and the rubber have begun to come apart. And you remember that you, too, need new boots.
“Telegram, manong,” says the young man in a hoarse whisper. “From your wife.”
You get up and take the paper from his hand. His fingers are shaking and he will not look at you.
Unfurling the paper, you see six words:
Ramon stabbed dead. Come home now.
Your throat dries. The truck, the young man, the dust on the floor fall away into darkness until nothing remains but those six words, huge and black and throbbing before your bleary eyes in time with the throbbing of your heart.
“Your son?” says the young man, in a voice you can barely hear.
“You’re leaving, then.”
“Maybe…” He glances at the truck, unsure. “Maybe the boss will give you a few days off. I can take over this one until you come back.”
“But you said -”
“Just leave it,” you tell him. “A good worker knows when something cannot be fixed.”
Later you will talk to the boss and he will give you five days off, just enough for the flight going and the flight coming back and the funeral in between. You will take your two good shirts and your good pants and the new shoes you were planning to wear to your son’s graduation, and you will pack them in your bag along with the Bible and the rosary you have been keeping in secret and the money you were saving to buy your wife a gold bracelet. And on the flight going and on the flight coming back, you will pray.
But for now you stand still, barely breathing, and you look out through the open door of the garage at the yellow sand that burns under the sun, and you listen to the wind as it gathers up the dust and hurls it senselessly across the desert and falls back, empty.
© J. Grace, 2015