Charlie was a horrible sight: his whole face was swollen like a balloon, and his eyelids looked like a pair of watery, glistening lanzones with slits in them. His nose was completely blocked, and he could barely breathe through his mouth.
Tammy came into the room and put her shoulder bag on the sofa, next to Charlie, anxiety and concern written all over her face. “The moment I heard that you called the office I asked for emergency leave. I’m sorry I didn’t get here sooner, I was ‘on field’. Can you breathe?”
Charlie nodded slowly. The spit in his mouth was thick, as he choked out, “Barely. But I can breathe. I’m so glad you’re here.” He was wheezing through his half-open mouth.
Tammy stroked his hair unselfconsciously, as if Charlie were a six-year old. She had gone into mother-hen mode, clucking over Charlie. “Did you eat something bad?”
“I took a bit of medicine for fever. I was allergic to the medicine. As you can see,” Charlie said, trying to smile bravely.
“What was it?”
“I’ll have to remember that from now on. Your going to school is out of the question, of course-”
“No, no-” Charlie began, but Tammy’s mind was working double time and she didn’t hear him.
She said, “I’ll just draft a letter for you addressed to your Professor, saying that you’ve fallen seriously ill, and you can sign it. But that can wait until afterwards. Maybe I can drive you to Makati Med? I finally got my car back from the shop-”
“No, no letter. I have to go to school.”
“You’re in no condition to go anywhere, Charlie, except to the hospital. Is there a doctor you know, one who deals with this sort of thing? Or maybe the emergency ward will do-are you still breathing all right? Can I get you a glass of water? Okay, water coming up.”
When she came back with the water, Charlie took it gratefully, first filling his lungs with air so that he could swallow the water without suffocating.
“What’s your exam for today?” Tammy asked. She was a tall, gangly girl, with a weak chin and buck teeth, and a voice that fell on Charlie’s ear like a cool hand on a feverish brow.
“Tax,” he said. Tammy stopped moving for the first time since she had come in. “Oh. ‘The Bastard’.”
” ‘The Bastard’,” Charlie said, nodding in agreement. “He’s not going to allow a student’s own funeral as a valid excuse for non-attendance, let alone for missing an exam.”
Tammy kept saying “Uh-huh,” over and over while her mind tried to grapple with this. “But it’s not fair,” she said at last. “I’m sure the Dean will overrule him. She will, won’t she? You keep saying what a wonderful person the Dean is, and how fair she can be. I’m sure we can bring your case to the Dean after everything is done. The hospital comes first-”
“I don’t think I’ll need a hospital. This happened before, years ago, with another bit of medicine I was also allergic to, I don’t remember what. It’ll pass in a day. I think.”
Tammy sat down on the coffee table, facing Charlie. She leaned forward and stroked his hair again. “So what can we do now?”
“Like I said. We have to go see him first. I can’t go to the Dean without asking for consideration first from The Bastard. Protocol. And professional courtesy-you know The Bastard has always been gunning for the deanship.”
Tammy had heard it all before, and she knew what was coming, but she listened patiently anyway.
Tammy drove her aged Corona through heavy traffic on the way to the law school. Her windows had no tint, and passersby stared at the horrific sight of Charlie in the passenger seat as the car crawled through the mid-morning Makati gridlock.
“I might have a bit of trouble parking,” she said. Charlie knew it. Parking in Makati after 8:30 in the morning was an absolute bitch, and expensive, too. “Do you think you can find your way around? Can you see?”
“Uh, I can try. You have sunglasses or something?”
“I have a pair of wayfarers in the glove. It’s unisex, so you shouldn’t look dorky in them. Wait a minute. Are we sure The Bastard is in school? I understand your teachers don’t have to be around for their own exams. He might be at his office.”
“He might be.” Charlie hadn’t thought about it. Although The Bastard worked at the law firm of Romulo, Remo, and Reroma, which was also in Makati and not that far from the law school as the crow flies, Makati traffic made it a two hour trip, or a fifteen-minute plod on the sidewalk, choking on auto fumes. “At least we could try.”
“What about the Dean?”
“She’ll probably be at her office, too.” Except for the retired judges and justices, the faculty of the law school were all active members of the bar with big-buck practices. The school did not even give teachers rooms of their own, just a faculty lounge with no real facilities for working. It was something Charlie should have known, but as usual it was Tammy who was doing the thinking for him.
“Well, we’re here,” she said, pulling up the driveway of the school building. “I’ll park the car. I’ll just catch up with you. Are you sure you’ll be all right?” she asked.
“I’ll be fine. I’ll try looking for him in the Dean’s office. You know where that is? Second floor. Or the faculty lounge; that’s right beside the Assistant Dean’s office, also on the second floor.” Charlie got out wearing his girlfriend’s wayfarers, and almost tripped on the front steps which he could barely see through the slits of his eyelids and the darkness of the wayfarer’s lenses.
Charlie was lucky: Attorney de Villa, he was told, was in the faculty lounge. He asked the Assistant Dean’s secretary if she could relay the message to Attorney de Villa that one of his students in Tax II, Thomas Charles M. Maravillosa, wanted to talk to him. The secretary tried unsuccessfully to peer through the sunglasses to see Charlie’s eyes, but the dark lenses could not conceal the puffiness of the rest of his face.
Attorney de Villa was some time in emerging from the faculty lounge, although Charlie could hear his voice through the connecting door that led from the Assistant Dean’s office into the lounge. The voice was sharp, metallic, nasal, and always made Charlie think of a rusty scalpel. Every time Charlie so much as remembered the man’s voice, his innards turned into an icy mush, and his knees turned to water. Pretty much everyone else in all the man’s classes, through the years, felt the same way. It was a voice that was perfect for delivering the sardonic one-liners that characterized his mordant humor: “I’m getting paid for doing this. This isn’t a job, this is enjoyment. I enjoy terrorizing students.” And, “I told you to eat your textbooks. You’re not eating, eh! You eat!” And no one in the classroom would even venture to smile, not even to suck up to him, for fear of catching his eye and being made to stand in the spotlight during recitation. This was a man who never reconsidered borderline failing grades, who had a reputation for arbitrariness in his lack of mercy: one semester all the several failures in his Tax I class had surnames beginning with the letter “D” (if you counted de Guzman as beginning with “D”); another time in a Tax II class, all the failures had Chinese surnames. And so on and so on, and with every passing year the legend of the Holy Terror, of Tomas de Torquemada reincarnated, grew, and the stories chilled the bone no less with each retelling.
Tammy caught up with Charlie as he waited for him to come through the open door. The color drained from Tammy’s face when she heard that voice. She had had it described to her so many times, and it had been mimicked by too many victims, for her not to know that it was the voice of that man.
Charlie croaked to her, “He’ll be out in a while,” just as Attorney de Villa stepped through the door, laughing at a joke that a fellow teacher had just told him. The man was actually smiling, and he looked human. Charlie had never seen him this way before. Then the smile disappeared as he caught sight of Charlie in his wayfarers, and beside him, Tammy, an unfamiliar face: two scared, blanched faces looking into his own. Attorney de Villa jerked his head back, as if surprised to see them, although Charlie had sent in his request to see the man.
“Mr. Maravil-lo-sa,” came the voice, as if trying to recall something from the depths of dark memory. Then: “Today is the day of your exam,” he said, and the words took the breath out Charlie’s hard-laboring lungs like the pronouncement of a death sentence. The man looked into Tammy’s eyes. Tammy swallowed, nodded politely, her eyes wide with terror. Attorney de Villa decided that she was of absolutely no interest to him, and turned his attention back to his wretched puffer fish of a student. “Isn’t it?” Attorney de Villa’s tongue was absently nursing an aching, carious tooth, making him look like he was licking his chops.
“That’s, that’s what I would have, have wanted to talk, to talk about, to you, Sir,” Charlie said.
“What’s there to talk about?” Attorney de Villa said, his hands on his hips, chin now thrust out. Attorney de Villa was not a big man, and Charlie was even slightly taller than he, but this did not dismay the man. A wolf does not let the mere physical bulk of a potential meal put him off.
“Sir, can I talk to you in private?” Charlie said.
The man snorted, and dropped his arms to his sides from their akimbo position. Without asking for permission from the Assistant Dean’s secretary, he marched into the Assistant Dean’s office. Charlie followed, after telling Tammy to stay put.
Attorney de Villa made himself comfortable in the Assistant Dean’s armchair. “Close the door,” he said. The man did not lower his voice, though. Charlie worried about whether the conversation would be private enough, because the office they were in was really just a cubicle, and the walls of the office stopped well short of the ceiling. The voices of people in the adjoining office could be heard clearly coming over the plywood walls.
The man looked at Charlie’s face, and said, “You’re indoors. Take off your sunglasses.” Charlie complied, exposing the shiny eyelids moist with mucus. The man was unflustered. “So what’s the problem?”
“Sir,” Charlie began, “I was brushing up for the Tax exam last night when I started coming down with a fever. I thought I could bring the fever down with some antipyretics, and I took a tablet of Medicol. It turned out that I was allergic to it, and so now my face is all puffed up-” Charlie caught himself as he was about to say, “as you can see.”
The man waited silently.
“I can barely see, Sir,” he said. “Or breathe. Sir. So I don’t think I can take your exam, Sir,” he said, his voice trailing away.
The man blinked at him once, twice. Then he started telling a story from his past, as if he hadn’t seen or heard Charlie at all. He was behaving as if he were still back in the faculty lounge, talking to his fellow inquisitors and torturers.
“Do you know, I taught Spanish for a while, in UP? I taught for just a year after I graduated from my year at U. Penn. I thought I should take it easy for a while after years and years of law school, lawyering, and law school again, but I didn’t want to be entirely idle. So I said, what the hell, teach Spanish. The chairman of the Spanish Department is an old friend, and he took me in as Lecturer I. That was about, oh, seven years ago.”
He now looked at Charlie, as if asking him to confirm the accuracy of his recollection. Charlie’s puzzlement, though wild and frantic, did not, could not show up in his balloon of a face.
He went on. “I shared a room in the FC-Faculty Center, as if you didn’t know-”
Charlie was nonplused. Did Attorney de Villa actually know his students that well, know their backgrounds? Perhaps the information that Charlie had been to UP in his undergrad years had been in the 4 X 6 index cards with 1 X 1 ID photo that Attorney de Villa had ordered them to submit at the beginning of the semester. Charlie didn’t remember. Even if the information were there, the man’s memory must be astonishing-here in law school, Charlie was just another struggling student, nobody’s pet.
“-I shared a room in the FC with another teacher in Spanish. Younger than I, but much more senior in the Spanish Department, of course, since teaching was something he had done right from the start, after graduating from his undergraduate course.
“So I got to see a lot of things. Students wheedling him for a change of grade, for reconsideration, for removal exams. Pretty girls practically tearing their clothes off in front of him for a passing mark. I do believe they would have, if I hadn’t also been in the room at the time. Some students were more imaginative than others.”
Charlie was beginning to understand Attorney de Villa’s seeming omniscience. That sense of horror which was always bubbling under whenever he was in Attorney de Villa’s presence, became more vivid, became a tangible witch claw closing around his heart which was thudding insanely. His breathing became even more labored. He prayed that he would genuinely black out and be spared any more of the terror.
“One day,” Attorney de Villa said, his eyes vacantly scanning the ceiling, “a student came into my ‘room-mate’s’ office at about exam time. The student had taken some medicine, to which he was allergic. He could not go on with the exam as scheduled. Quite a sight, he was, too.”
Despite the thunder of tumbrels in his ears, there was a part of Charlie that could stand back and appreciate the way Attorney de Villa could lapse into an almost British idiom, and get away with it. Charlie felt a bit like Dostoyevsky’s condemned man, soaking up every irrelevant detail that he sees along his way as the tumbrel takes him to the place of his execution. And, despite himself, Charlie marveled at the man’s fastidious elegance of speech: the refusal to use split infinitives, terminal prepositions, and so on, even as he toyed with his students like a cat that keeps a mortally wounded mouse alive just a little longer for its own amusement.
“And do you know,” Attorney de Villa said, “he was granted a reprieve by my room-mate. The audacity of the fellow!” he said, now looking at Charlie. The man’s face was gaunt, his slightly curly hair as always in need of combing, rheumy eyes wide in disbelief.
The lids of the eyes blinked leadenly, and now his face assumed its familiar, baleful look. “You’ve been my student all throughout this semester, but I didn’t recognize you until now.”
Charlie would have bowed his head in shame, except that he badly needed to keep his throat passage clear so he could breathe. He stood there without moving, while Attorney de Villa just looked at him as one looks at a zoo specimen in its cage.
After a while, Charlie said, “Sir, I thought the tax exam was for Friday, and Spec Pro for today. Nobody told me that they had been switched around.” Charlie thought of what else he could possibly say. “I needed time to memorize the provisions in the Expanded VAT law. It’s impossible to take the tax exam at six hour’s notice. There’s just no way.”
Attorney de Villa studied him with the patience of a Mephistopheles who had nothing better to do but wait, watch, and enjoy the spectacle of a condemned man contemplating his fate.
“That girl outside,” the man began, the nasal voice kept low this time, and despite the desperate position he was in, Charlie bristled instinctively. “She’s not in on this, is she?”
Charlie felt like crying for shame. “No Sir. She doesn’t know. In fact, she took the day off from work just to help me. She doesn’t know.”
The man made a noncommittal “hmm!” sound. He seemed to be somewhere else, and there was a ghost of a smile that Charlie saw through bleary eyes, just for a short moment, and it was gone before Charlie realized it-a different kind of smile, not the mocking smile that everyone was used to seeing, but a gentle smile, as if a fond memory had just passed his mind.
“I’ve heard of people doing their damnedest to postpone the inevitable. Of course. That’s par for the course in the legal profession: worthless motions to dismiss, motions for reconsideration, dilatory petitions for certiorari, and on and on. But to postpone the unpostponable, well, Mr. Maravillosa-you’ve been quite imaginative.” The man’s mind was still far away.
The man stood up. The interview was over. Charlie was finished.
Charlie could not look him in the eye. It was impossible to see the pupils of Charlie’s eyes, anyway, and the man could not possibly tell where Charlie was looking. “Sir.”
“I will be in the office this Sunday. Report at ten o’clock to my secretary. She will be there. She will administer a make-up exam to you.”
Attorney de Villa left without another word, leaving Charlie standing in the Assistant Dean’s office, thunderstruck, just as the Assistant Dean himself walked in on the trespasser. Charlie, who had not yet put the wayfarers back on, mumbled an apology and wove a way around the twerp, who was standing in the open doorway, startled out of his mind at this apparition of a denizen of hell.
Tammy was still standing where he had left her in the foyer. “What happened?” “A miracle,” Charlie said.
“A miracle. He’s going to give me a make-up exam this Sunday.”
Tammy’s jaw dropped. “Why? I mean, that’s wonderful! But why?”
Charlie shook his head. “Only God knows.” He put his arm around her, and they were about to leave when Attorney Romano, one of the “kinder” professors, emerged from the faculty lounge.
“O! What happened to you?” he said upon seeing Charlie.
“Allergy, Sir,” Charlie said, taking his arm from around Tammy and putting the shades on.
Attorney Romano tsk-tsked. “I have a nephew who gets that way from eating pineapple. He takes something for it, but I don’t remember what it was called. Don’t you have an exam to take today?”
“Yes Sir. Attorney de Villa’s subject. But he’s going to give me a make-up exam.”
“Ha?” Now it was Attorney Romano who was shaking his head. “That’s a first, ha. Old coot’s not quite himself today. But it won’t last.” He called Attorney de Villa an “old coot” although actually, Attorney de Villa was about two years younger than he.
“What could have gotten into him, Sir?”
“He’s getting married.”
Charlie was incredulous, but it did not register on his face. Who would want to marry The Bastard?
“He was telling everybody in the faculty lounge about it,” Attorney Romano said casually. “The girl’s only twenty-two. He’s old enough to be her father. You may have heard of her.” And he named a society-page regular, a dim bulb scion of an old haciendero family. Although the girl had Brigitte Bardot’s IQ, she was also possessed of some of Bardot’s more famous qualities and was the object of ardent pursuit by young bucks in high society. She was quite a catch, especially for The Bastard.
So how did they meet?” Charlie said, wanting more than anything to lie down. The roof of his mouth felt like it had been boarded up, all the way back to his nasal passages. Breathing through the nose was still impossible.
“They go back a long way. Gerry’s an old family friend of theirs. Probably saved them millions and millions in taxes over the years. He’s known her ever since she was growing up. Old carabao and young grass, and all that,” Attorney Romano said, dismissing the cliché with a wave of the hand. “You’re in a bad way. Take something for that.”
Back in the car, Tammy was saying, “I guess you feel like kissing the guy, huh?”
“Nah. I’m still not out of the woods yet. He could make the exam really difficult. I could still flunk the whole semester and I’d still have to take Tax II all over again, maybe still under him.”
“Don’t say that. Besides, that’s not the point. The point is, he’s given you a chance where he’s never given anybody a chance before. Yes, we just happened to have caught him in a rare good mood, and yes, he’s a dirty old man. But let’s take this chance for what it is, a heavensend.”
Charlie felt tremendous relief about the exam, but having lied to Tammy was weighing him down, especially since she skipped work, with a corresponding pay deduction, all for him. It was a weight on his chest, restricting his already labored breathing even further.
“Tammy, I have to tell you,” he said. He took off the shades, and turned his head to look at her.
The car was barely moving, and she turned to look at him.
“I-” he began, and tears rolled down his cheek. “I-”
“Your eyes are watering,” she said, and she reached for the box of tissues on the dashboard. “Here.”
“I-I really appreciate this,” he said.
“Anytime, Darling,” she said.