Biting Mouths, Bitten Hands

During the day I am an employee of a budding fast-food chain, the one on Magsaysay Street. I deliver orders to tables. I appease complaints. I attend to trivial requests, things I thought customers could do themselves, but I guess their listless bodies hinder them from doing so. Sometimes I think the customers just want to exercise that little power they get at restaurants, an asking of convenience, fully knowing that we are just there at the corner waiting to be ordered. At night I help tend the small stall my father set up at our local food hub. We serve drinks, mostly liquor, and if it is a forgiving night, an occasional foreigner would drop by for some glass and pay us an extra amount. This has been the cycle of my everyday ever since I got out of prison. My father reminded me about doing good in both of those jobs, told me to behave if I really want to help the family pay the debt I caused. 

Some say we haven’t earned our rage yet, people like me, people who tire their body in abusing ways. I remember my workmate, her uniform stained by the day’s busyness, asking about the impossibility of it all, Di ka pa ba kontento hit kaguol dinhi? Are you not contented of the weariness here, she asked. I knew the bareness of her question, how it did not ask for any response, but I still did respond. I wanted to tell her this is all it ever does, but part of me wanted to spark her passive rage; I mean it was easier then since we were both tired. I told her how our wage is never enough, and how the owner likes to keep it that way so we still find ourselves in this same job tomorrow. She smiled, acknowledging this. Upaya la magyaman ka hito, make sure you become rich doing all these, she said in her dry humor. 

My father told me that this is my new beginning, a sly implication that part of my life ended back at the prison cell. My mother thought I could never be hired for any professional job again, that this was my wall. She spent nights crying about it, she told me this the first night I got out. We were both at the balcony trying to reconcile something; that something, I do not know: maybe trust, maybe optimism, I do not know. She told me to stop being a hero for everyone, that my activism would lead me nowhere. When I heard it, something curled inside me, a pain I couldn’t say, and worse, I felt I had no right to say it. My mother wiped the tears from my face, she too was crying. The weight of that moment  bore unto me and made its own unique hole. Since then I’ve been doing things that would fill that hole. The moment my mother heard that I got hired for the fast-food job, she moved about the house with this ruddy expression, drumming her feet against the wooden floor. I know she wants something more from  me, but being a busboy is a start. 

When I started my work at the restaurant, I mostly did not know what to do. I waited for the higher people to tell me where to work, what to do next. It was all overwhelming. The way everything moved had this own distinct pace. Things are pitted  against each other, all trying to catch your attention: a glass of water here, this table needs wiping, clean the litter there. Over time, I learned how to work with my eyes, managing to get things done before our manager points his mouth to something. By dusk, when it’s no longer my shift, when the pain has finally caught on, my feet and legs would feel this tenderness, a pulsating pain right under me. I would stretch my legs out and believe that it lessens the pain. Not long enough, we are a band of stretching people caged in our own potential. 

The only consolation I get from everyday is the ride back home: the wind splashing in my face, the view of the sunset dissolving behind the mountain’s crest, and the changing scenery of people walking and seizing what little possibility the day has left. This calms me. When I arrive home I retain that same calmness and greets my family in smiles I thought I couldn’t muster.  They never ask me how tired I am. They just know I’m tired, but they never bring it up.  

At the food hub, the gaiety that casually consumes the place every night is displaced by the forlorn rustles of tents, the silent keeping of tabletops and stools from vendors who try to withhold their whimpers by their throats. An official notice from the local government was sent down just this morning ordering vendors to relocate to a spot away from the gushes of buyers, a spot hidden from the rest of the city. 

Aanhon na manla ini dinhi? I ask my father what the government will do with the vacated space. 

He sighs, Hihimuon daw nga mall, an tag-iya sangkay han Mayor, It will be turned into a mall, owned by a friend of the Mayor, my father replies, defeated. 

I scan the surroundings again. I see how weak everyone moves. The popcorn and ice scream seller next to ours sluggishly place his rickety signs to a wooden pushcart; the old woman who sells handicrafts slowly place her seashells and religious relics in a crammed sack; the tattoooist, from whom I got this “raised fist” symbol near my shoulder blades, leisurely unpins the tattoo designs she flaunted at the front of her store. It is as if the life that belonged to the place has been smothered by the tight eyes of the militia, observing the peaceful surrender of people who only wanted to live. 

Kita, sano kit’ mabalhin? I ask. Father exchanges a stare. The question of moving only hit him now. When are we going to move, I ask again. 

Bangin buwas pa, probably tomorrow, he answers; but tomorrow is the last day, he adds. I nod and serve the lone customer we have for the night. 

 

A month into my fast-food work, our manager pastes a letter on the wall, its ripped ecru paint an index of how many things were sticked and unsticked there. He says the letter came from top management. I go near it as I hold the mop with me. “NOTICE of DOWNSIZING,” it says in such oppressive size. I instantly look at the woman who mans the counter, then to the other woman who sends out spitted receipts, then to the cook, and to another busboy. We will lose someone in the coming days, and goodbyes are hard for hard jobs, and all I think I could do now is shield them from this awful news. But the truth is this: businesses can discard us like this, like a toothbrush that’s worn down by the mouth. To get close to fairness, I must fight for it, we must fight for it. 

Last year I joined an assembly of sugar workers who rallied for things that were not granted to them: a safe working environment, better wages, health benefits. I hurtled towards the mob, all of them chanting in unison and with force, Hataasa an sweldo! Iubos an presyo! Raise our wages, lower the prices! We punched our fists in the air, waved it like leaves under a ravaging storm. In front of us were surging policemen geared in riot shields. We braved even with such sight. 

Hino gud iyo inuugupan?, Who do you really side to, howled Mano Tomas to the police. 

Ayaw niyo balabagi an naggapos ha amon, Stop protecting the person that chains us, yelled Mana Duday who was in front of me, not even alarmed by the sight of the batons. 

The police rounded us up and blocked any known corners. Batons were out, almost in nonchalance, extended at arm’s length. The chants receded. I saw fear crawl on everyone’s faces. One of the women was brave enough to pick up the chant, I did not know her but it was enough likeness that she was also there, Hataasa an sweldo! Iubos an presyo! She looked around, convincing others to pick up the chant and not be menaced by the violence the police were capable of. Her hair was crinkly, her body gaunt, probably from the years of exploitation we had suffered. We regained the vigor of the screams. The protest continued, now louder than before. I liked being there, in a sea full of people, shouting. For a time, I thought we were winning. 

The woman who rekindled the chant positioned herself in front of a police officer and yelled, Ano nga adi kamo, diri kamo amon tuyo! Why are you here, you are not what we’re here for!, she protested, veins popped out. The officer, in all his redness, found the act purely provocative, insulted that he was not feared by any of the protesters. He dropped his shield, then pulled the woman’s hair and threw her, face-first, to the ground. The workers retaliated in all their might, trying to protect the woman and harbor her to safety; others ran to find an exit, but everywhere batons rose, like deadly cobras cornering the preys. A moment of grievous violence. I looked to the left and saw an officer charged toward me. I yelled. I yelled harder. He swung his baton and stroke my forehead, which knocked me at once to the ground. I woke up in a hospital, and few days after, when my wounds just started clotting, I received information that the police already filed charges against us. 

Now I am here again on this very same spot. I thought I already resigned myself from any vestiges of resistance but here it is again, pulsing, telling me to gather all the strength and voices that is within this restaurant. I snatch the letter from the wall. Later, before everyone leaves their shift, I will talk about power. We will do it outside, near a construction site where rebars and columns stick out of the cement. When we know our power, that’s when we can wield it. 

Ano man aton hihimuon, what are we going to do, asks Dante. He rushes to the discussion right away because he has a family waiting for him. 

I tell them the power of negotiating, but in order to clinch a seat in the negotiating table, we must assert our worth. 

Aanhon man ito, asks Deborah. 

We threaten them that we stop production, that’s the only way they’ll listen to us. Undangon naton panilhig, undangon naton panluto, undangon pagserbi, cease everything! I say to them, my voice firm with the wind. They all nod. 

I don’t get why they’re downsizing, claims Marisa. She’s one of the cashiers. Our sales have gone way up this month so I don’t get the cut on spending, she adds.
Kun magtanggal hira, cuts Isabelo, sigurado magdodoble aton trabahuon. The downsizing will mean more work for the remaining workers, and we’re tired enough already.

Leave it to me to talk to the manager tomorrow, I say, but make sure that we are all united in this. We have worked honestly, some of us here have worked right from the moment this business was built, so we have a claim to the decisions. We don’t want anyone to lose a job, especially with our situation now where everyone fights over limited opportunities.

Everyone nods, more decisively this time. We offer our plans to the night, hoping our interest will be whispered to the day. Everyone bids farewell, parting with smiles that will be stowed to the depths of our sympathy, an assurance that our bonds have only grown closer as workers. 

I wait by the sidewalk, taxed by the whoosh of vehicles speeding past me. The stoplight is in glorious red. And I think for a while, red… I know these pockets of resistance would lead me somewhere, I just know. For now I will take this as a sign.

This entry was posted in Fiction on by .

About Kent Reymark Toyacon

Kent Reymark Suela Tocayon is a part-time instructor in a state university based in Ormoc City, Leyte. He graduated from UP Tacloban with a degree in BA Communication Arts. His interests include geohumanities, queer literature, as well as folk and postcolonial studies. To further his cultural work, Reymark believes that centering our narratives on the plights of workers not only attracts solidarity, but also enables the agency of the proletariat characters. For him, it is vital to fill the cultural sphere with narratives that challenge the decadent elite and oppose the ploys of imperialist agents. What he is now is a winding road, rugged and unknowing. He wants to be someone’s destination when he grows up.

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