Between gritting his teeth, mopping his forehead, and scratching his upper lip, Manalo Tagumpay clung dearly to the last four thousand pesos to his name. He had been at the Hyatt Casino for the last 12 hours, practically his home for the last decade. The dealer, so cool and in control, dealt him a card – an ace of spade to add to his four of diamonds and contemplated on his next move. His name’s literal translation is ‘to win’ and ‘success”, but that did not seem to be his case.
Growing up in a sleepy agricultural town north of Manila called La Esperanza, meant that his future was foretold – Tsismis (rumor mongering), gambling, and drinking would be a way of life. At thirteen, he discovered the pleasure of black jack, courtesy of the town’s stay at home husband, Billy who cooked, cleaned and fed the kids while his wife, a school teacher, tried to disassociate herself from him. Billy was notorious for running an illegal gambling den in his backyard 24 hours a day. He was friends with the town mayor and was tipped in advance for raids by the vice squad. In return, the mayor received “grease money” so slick, that he could slide with a grin all the way to the bank. Like a little boy who was taught new tricks, Manalo came to Billy night after night, gambling his school allowance. Just the idea of winning outweighed the reality of losing.
That night, he eluded the security personnel at the Hotel casino’s entrance. With a fake mustache and a backcombed pomade- glossed hair, he made sure that his appearance did not match the photo his wife filed and posted on the bulletin board dominated by card counters and scammers. As a public service, requests from wives to have their husbands’ photos posted to embarrass them and have their addiction thwarted were accepted. The “bitch” also known as his wife, put a ban order on him a couple of months back. He had to cool it, played at private gambling dens and avoided the hotel casino route for awhile. Manalo tapped his flattened stomach and was pleased with his new look. Thanks to a diet of peanuts and gin tonics, he had lost a lot of weight.
He motioned to the dealer for another card, scratching the lower part his cards on the green felt table. It was an eight of hearts. He can make the ace count as one so he motioned for one more. It was a ten of diamonds! “Fuck!” Manalo clenched his fist, pounded the table and stormed out of the casino. He lighted a cigarette, his last stick, and inhaled deeply, as his life depended on it.
“I can be of help,” a man in white tuxedo startled him.
“I’ve lost everything. I have nothing to pawn.”
“I have the power. You have the desire.”
“Are you queer? Get lost!”
“Don’t get me wrong. I am from the world-renowned company known as RECOVERY INC. We have the greatest track record. We had Henry Ford, Walt Disney, Larry King and Donald Trump to name a few of our satisfied clients. This is a business preposition. You can recover all your losses and I promise you’ll be back at the gaming table in five minutes.”
The man in tux looked straight to him alright. He looked at his gold plated business card and thought that he could just be another bored Robert Redford with an indecent proposal. He smirked and thought that this “Demi Moore” was willing to play along. He was street smart. He knew karate. He can disable the man in one clean and swift chop if he needed to. Having nothing else to lose, he boarded the elevator up to the penthouse. It opened to a Greek-inspired suite with endless and seamless picture windows from left to right and from floor to ceiling. The vista of the Manila Bay at sunset cast an orange shadow on the man in tux. Both stared motionless across the sea and to the faint flickering lights from the little fishing boats from afar. The sodium lamp posts dotted the span of the boulevard from Rizal Park to the Coastal road. He felt dizzy looking down the multi-storey building with all the gins and scotches he had drunk, non-stop. The man in tux suggested a drink but he refused. The last thing he needed was to be hoodwinked by intoxication. He should at least know what he is signing up for. He leaned against the Ionic columns for support.
“You are a very sad man, I can tell.”
“I lost my job. I lost my wife. I lost everything. Now let’s cut the bull shit and get down to business.” His voice was full of machismo and street-wise savagery. He wanted to be sure that the man in tux would keep his hands to himself.
The man in tux placed a brown paper bag at the center of an expensive black marbled coffee table with strange golden lion paws.
Manalo unfolded the brown bag and peered inside. One by one, he took out wads of crisp and neatly stacked one thousand peso bills. The smell of one million freshly cut paper bills soothed his frayed nerves.
“Play for me.”
“What’s the catch?”
“You can say that we are a very generous company. We have rescued thousands of beleaguered companies and people on the brink of bankruptcy. We like to help people in need and we need to have a guarantee that people we help will help themselves in recovering their losses. Sign this.”
“What does it say?”
“Terms and conditions. We give you the money. You play. When you win, we divide the take.”
“And when I lose…?”
“You recover your loss. Either way, you win.”
“Does it say I can go to jail or something?”
“I am an honest person. Are you?”
“Yes…” Manalo sounded as if he needed more to convince himself than assure the man in tux. .
“Then we have a deal.”
Manalo hurriedly signed the papers and went down to the casino and got his chips. With much bravado, he bet P10, 000.00 and won. Followed by P50, 000.00 and won; then another P100, 000.00 and won. With each winning, he became bolder. Luck was never this sweet before.
“Did you see me at the table? I was very good!” Manalo handed the 1.5 Million back to the man in tux.
“Roll half of it. We’ve only just begun.”
At six in the morning, he cashed all his winnings and headed to the penthouse. The man in tux took half of the three million winnings. Manalo once again tried the roulette, the high and low and won. Before he knew it, he was playing for 24 hours straight. He checked the bank. He had P5.2 Million. He had a choice to return half and go home or he could play. He chose to play.
At the black jack table he lost P500, 000.00. He decided to slow down, checked in at the hotel and rested. Soon, he was awakened by the telephone.
“Mr. Goldwater is hiring you back. Please report tomorrow.”
“Who needs work? I have 4.7 Million in the bank!” He yelled at the woman on the other end of the line and threw the phone.
After an hour’s sleep, Manalo returned to the casino. He lost another P300, 000.00 at the high and low, P400, 000.00 at Baccarat, and P500, 000.00 at the roulette. He had to figure a way to put an end to his losses. Thinking of his next strategy made him hungry. At the Italian Restaurant within the hotel, he ordered four large pizzas, 2 plates of pasta, one plate of sausages, and two pitchers of beer. Losing 1.7 million was not new to him. He had lost more than that in the past.
Thanks to the steady kickbacks he got from Mr. Goldwater’s coconut suppliers, he was able to sustain a gambling lifestyle. The lack of guilt or morals justified his actions with the thought that he was providing a valuable service to Mr. Goldwater for connecting him with the suppliers and vice versa. He felt that his efforts should be well compensated, on top of his salary, bonuses and commissions. The Philippines is a premier coconut republic and as long as the country produces coconuts and export them, he will be gambling forever. The word “forever” seemed to be real, until one day, his lies were found, and an ugly confrontation between him and Mr. Goldwater followed. Next thing he knew, he owed people and gambled money he did not even have. With these new losses, he was just worried that the man in tux would not keep up the end of his bargain.
The food could not seem to fill up his hunger. He ordered more. In the middle of his sixth pizza, a sweet female voice whispered his name.
“Darling….” He looked sideways and there she was, the bitch. Not too long ago, she whined about the most important thing that mattered in his life, his gambling. He kicked her out and she kicked him hard too, right in his balls.
“I’m back…I’ll never go away. I promise“. She planted wet kisses on his cheeks. Goose pimples made their presence felt on his arms up to his nape and the mere sight of her was revolting.
“I don’t want you back!”
“I’m your wife and I’m yours forever.”
A waitress came with a hand phone.
“Mr. Goldwater wants you back. Please report to work today.”
“I don’t want my job back!” Once again, he yelled at the voice on the other end of the line.
The wife threw the phone and massaged his back. The pressure of her kneading felt good, but half way through his ooohhs and ahhhs, he stopped his wife.
“I have some business to attend to. Stay here.”
“I’ll go with you.”
The wife was causing a scandal so he dragged her with him. At the hotel lobby, he was being paged.
“Mr. Goldwater wants you back. Please report to work today.”
They went up to the penthouse. The phone rang.
“Mr. Goldwater wants you back. Please report to work today.”
“How many times do I need to tell you that I don’t want my job back?”
The man in tux entered the room.
“I see that you have your wife and your job back.”
“I lost 1.7 Million. Will you replace it?”
“No. But you can try gambling again. You might win it back. Win or lose, you win. I keep my promises.”
He returned to the gaming tables and lost half of his money.
“You are causing this bad luck. Go shopping…! Get away from me!”
“No way will I leave you darling. Never again!”
The electronic media board flashed the message: Mr. Goldwater wants you back. Please report to work today. He completely ignored the message and gambled. He lost all his remaining money. With a loud primal cry, he slugged the dealer, slipped away to the bathroom, and washed his blood stained hands. Tension was creeping in and his head was pulsating. He noticed a little tightening of his facial skin and his eyes seemed to be bulging out of their sockets.
He had the urged to pee, went to the stall, pulled out his penis, closed his eyes and waited forever to finish. He looked down and saw two big arms and fat fingers holding a very enormous penis. The penis was attached to his body so it was his all right; he thought that it was the illusion of alcohol and laughed. If it was real, the bitch would be extremely happy. But why did his arms and fingers tripled in size? His clothing ripped from the seams and the buttons popped. He felt like a balloon being inflated rapidly. He could not zip up his pants, his brief garters snapped. His reflection at the mirror was like one of a sumo wrestler bobbing up and down ready to attack his opponent.
Blood gushed out of his mouth and all his milk teeth reappeared, overlapping his permanent teeth. Fuzzy hair on his head had grown knee length and his body was completely covered with hair. Panic seized him. With his tattered clothing, he walked out to the aisle, to the lobby on the way to the penthouse. A bell boy was handing him a hand phone.
“A call from Mr. Goldwater. He wants you back. Please report to work today.”
“Honey, slow down, please don’t leave me…” His wife was trailing him. He pushed his wife and boarded the elevator alone. Childhood memories plagued him and out of nowhere, his baby crib appeared, followed by his diapers, rattle, teether, walker, baseball trading cards, deflated basketball, dented tops, rubber bands, marbles, DC and Marvel comics, school books, photos, and a smashed ukulele.
He remembered his lost investments. The computer monitors and keyboards shattered in their landing. Land titles and shares of stocks flew. Panels of wrought-iron gilded gate of his house multi-million house encircled the elevator walls. The leather covered steering wheel of his BMW hit his head so hard that he instantly fell unconscious. All the things from his past piled and crowded him one on top of the other. He was pushed on top of his things until there was no more room left. In limbo, he thought of his Mom, the only person who could make all things right.
At the penthouse, the elevator door opened and he cascaded with his things. His face crashed into the carpet and when he came to, he saw three people who were dear to him in his life – his mother who had cancer, his ex-girlfriend with a premature baby, and his best friend with a gunshot wound on his chest and a gaping hole on his head. All were dead within the last decade and in various states of decomposition. They gathered to him at once and welcomed him. The sight and stench made him puke. He tried to run away but they embraced him tight.
“What a reunion!” Isn’t this a time for celebration?”
“This is not a part of the deal. You promised…”
“You signed the contract. You gambled our money. You lost. Now, you have recovered your losses. My work is finished.”
“I have become a monster.”
“You were already one when I met you.”
Manalo lunged at the man in tux, missed and landed on the floor. Because of his weight, he couldn’t get up. He kept on rolling from side to side. Then he felt so drowsy. His mother came to him and put his head on her lap. His ex-girlfriend cradled their premature baby and sang a sweet lullaby. His best friend loosened up his clothing and made sure that he was comfortable. In no time, he was snoring. Sleep, which was long denied, was finally catching up with him.
“Let him dream for a while.” The man in tux smiled and walked away, satisfied with the thought of another client’s loss, recovered.
Maria Cristina Mata is a Carlos Palanca awardee for literature and a fellow of the University of the Philippines National Writers Workshop. She is on sabbatical, currently travelling in Asia.