So here he was sitting on a log in his backyard because he was retired. At forty-seven years of age, not bad.
He no longer occupied the office of Justice of the Peace. He was no longer Judge Molina. He was no longer Justice of the Peace Molina. He was not even Justice Molina. He was Just Molina.
He’d awakened at seven o’clock that morning and remembered he’d been officially retired as of five p.m. the previous day. He’d lain back in bed and gone back to sleep. The next time he was up, it was ten a.m.
His parents (long deceased) had named him Justiniano Molina. That got him the dueling childhood nicknames of Osting and Nano, used by family and a special someone in his past. In law school, he developed a phobia for “Justiniano” when a professor with a stutter could not say it right, and the mangled version became a classroom joke to be repeated again and again by wiseasses. Friends fixed the problem one Pub Night by dubbing him “Just Molina” (“Justin” was voted out as “sissy”). They toasted his new name with bottles of San Miguel beer. They predicted that this moniker would make him a fair-minded judge someday, a just one.
The unforgiving Philippine sun beat down on his scalp. He should have worn a hat. But it was too late now because he was nicely settled on his log, whittled flat on top for comfort by his hired hand, Isagani. Chocks of wood fit nicely beneath the log to give it stability. It was a good spot to sit on all day. His loose Hawaiian shirt, bermuda shorts and flip-flops accommodated the cooling breeze. A hat, though, would have helped to stave off the tropical sun.
Two puppies, about three months old, came out of the nearby dog shelter to gnaw at his toes. The first one was Coco, mostly brown and pudgy. The second one was Salty, bristly white with premature whiskers sticking out of his snout in all directions. They were litter-mates from different fathers. Coco looked like the neighbor’s big brown dog, and Salty was a baby version of a mangy white thing that had made a brief appearance during their mother’s fertile period.
He sat in the backyard of his two-story three-bedroom house that came with a hobby farm he’d purchased at the edge of a barrio early in his tenure as a judge. Originally of beautiful wooden parts, his house had developed termite rot of late and had to be re-done all in cement by a posse of carpenters. He blamed this predicament on greedy loggers who had robbed the Philippines of its forests, and greedy termites that took care of what wood there was left. Wooden houses were an endangered species in the land that he loved.
To add insult to injury, one of the carpenters contracted to work on his house had eloped with his only housemaid two weeks ago right after the renovations. Now he faced his retirement without even a maid in the house.
The dog shelter was a wide sheet of galvanized iron roofing propped up by bamboo poles in the backyard. Both his house and the dog house were at a front corner of his coconut plantation, fourteen hectares of copra-yielding land fenced-in with wire-mesh and managed by his man Isagani who lived in a hut toward the rear end of the property. (The only privacy walls were at the front yard where the judge parked his old canvas-topped jeep).
By default, Isagani’s wife now looked after the judge, a confirmed bachelor without a maid. The caretaker’s wife came over to cook his meals, clean up his mess and do his laundry, delegating two older girls from her brood of four to mind the chores at home. It was a temporary situation to end as soon as a suitable maid was found for Molina.
A cacophony of barking shattered the peace. Dogs were going amuck around the shed, Giselle the bitch, her three grown-up offspring and the two pups. They streamed toward the side-gate that gave him easy access to the outside when he preferred not to go through the main entrance up front.
A wiry man sporting a soiled t-shirt that complemented his grimy denims, muddy rubber boots and weathered straw hat, was coming down the path outside in a hurry. It was Bitoy, the official garbage collector for the barrio of which the judge’s property was nominally a part.
“Judge Molina! Judge Molina!” Bitoy cried above the ruckus of the dogs.
“Just Molina,” Molina corrected though he doubted Bitoy could hear him above the din. The judge left his comfortable spot to see what was so urgent.
Bitoy stood huffing and puffing at the gate to await Molina taking his time in his usual calm and collected way. Justice, it seemed, deserved the full measure of time.
When they were finally facing each other on opposite sides of the gate, the retired judge peered through the wire mesh. He could see that the garbage collector had his hands oddly extended, palms up.
Then it all became clear.
On Bitoy’s palms was a banana leaf displaying a freshly cut penis.
“Letsugas!” Molina swore.
Molina contacted his friend, Dr. Paco Lacorte, by landline.
They spoke in Filipino English, an admixture of local dialect and English, the legacy of teachers brought in by the Americans in 1901 to replace Spanish as the medium of instruction in Filipino schools. Having won the Spanish-American War, the new occupiers transformed the Spanish colony into a protectorate of the United States, and therefore English became the accepted way the locals communicated. Even after their Independence, this lingua franca among the multi-tribal Filipinos prevailed.
“Doc, I need you here quickly,” Molina told his friend over the telephone. “I have a human organ in my fridge.”
“A human organ?” Dr. Lacorte repeated, disbelieving.
“A male sex organ freshly cut.”
“No kidding. Is this an early April Fool’s joke?” It was late March. Dr. Lacorte started to laugh. They were old high school buddies, and pulling pranks on each other was something they’d done before.
“A penis in my fridge is no joking matter.” Molina’s serious tone stopped the doctor in mid giggle.
“Freshly cut, you say,” Dr. Lacorte said. “That sounds serious. Who’s the owner?”
“I don’t know. Bitoy the trash man brought it to me. He found it after he left his garbage cart by the side of the road to grab a loaded trashcan from someone’s yard. There were a number of cars that passed by. He thinks it came from one of the cars. Someone tossed it into his cart.”
“Okay, this sounds like an emergency. Keep the penis in your fridge. I’m coming to examine its condition. We might have to ask the authorities to issue a city-wide alert for someone missing his organ.”
“If he’s still alive.”
“Let’s pray he is.”
“Amen to that.”
Molina was happy to see his friend and former high school classmate. A tennis fanatic, Dr. Lacorte looked trim and fit in his white polo shirt and tan slacks, his compact frame vibrating with energy. The retired judge was taller and also in good shape (from long walks and puttering around the farm), but was no match to his friend’s glowing vitality.
They were seated across from each other at the kitchen table, discussing the two-inch portion of a penis Dr. Lacorte had examined the moment he’d arrived. The judge had provided a Glad sandwich bag for the “specimen,” and the precious package was now swaddled in a towel, safely back in the refrigerator.
“Still fresh,” Dr. Lacorte decided. “I’d say separated from its owner about three or four hours ago.”
“How long will it stay good?” Molina asked.
“It will last a couple of days if refrigerated. I’ve heard of cases where a dismembered body part survived for as long as four days before being reattached to its owner.”
“If there’s an owner alive.”
“Good point. It could be the result of a terrorist execution.”
“If that’s the case, we’ve got the wrong end of the anatomy. A head is normally what these killers produce.”
“Let’s give the mystery a bit of time to clear up, Just,” Dr. Lacorte said. “I’ve alerted my hospital and police contacts to watch out for any amputation report that might crop up.”
“Won’t be good news any way you look at it,” Molina said. “Either we end up with an emasculated patient or a defiled corpse.”
The doctor smacked the table top with the flat of his hand, as an inspiration struck him. “This brings Thailand to mind.”
“Thailand? Why are we in Thailand all of a sudden?”
“Thai men who feel guilty about carousing with friends, use this exit line – ‘I better get home or the ducks will have something to eat.’”
“Meaning?” Molina puzzled.
“The traditional home in Thailand sits on stilts with pigs, chickens and ducks living underneath. So here’s a common scenario: a Thai man who indulges in extra-marital activity, gets his penis cut off with a kitchen knife by his wife while he’s asleep. She tosses the dismembered part out the window to where a duck is likely to catch it.”
“I get the picture,” Molina said, shaking his head and crossing his arms while suppressing a grin.
“Thailand experienced an epidemic of penile amputations during the seventies and eighties, alarming the medical community. Though the practice is less prevalent now, Thai men continue to expect this type of behavior from women who are humiliated. The same thing could very well happen here in the Philippines.”
“You’re saying our penile amputation could be the work of a disgruntled housewife?”
“A strong possibility.”
A loud buzzing, like that of an angry bee, filled the room. The doctor reached into his trouser pocket and brought out a cell phone, which continued to sound off with added intensity. He swiped the answer icon, eliminating the noise, and raised the device to his ear. “Hello?”
Molina leaned forward on his elbows at the table edge, as he tried to decipher the static of the source at the other end. “Well?” he asked when his friend finally ended the call.
“Bingo!” Dr. Lacorte exclaimed. “Help’s on the way.”
“My contact at Davao General says that they’ve admitted a patient who might be our amputee. Lab guys are on their way here to retrieve the organ.” The doctor hesitated, then added, “My contact wasn’t at liberty to reveal the patient’s identity.”
“Your contact won’t tell you who the victim is?”
“Might be political or a police matter.”
“Or just some guy with a privacy issue.”
“So let’s wait in my den and see what develops.”
Molina’s den was a mini library with cushioned rattan chairs, between the living room and kitchen. On a side table was a crystal decanter of brandy and a matching tray of snifter glasses. The judge made the requisite offer of a drink and the doctor accepted.
“You’re retired, after all, and I can’t have you drink alone,” Dr. Lacorte laughed.
“Spoken like a true friend.”
As they stood sipping together, their eyes wandered toward an ornately framed picture on a marble pedestal that dominated a corner of the library. It was an altar of sorts. The waist-up picture was of a woman with lush raven hair that tumbled down to her shoulders bared modestly between the butterfly sleeves of a terno. Her eyes were as soft as her smile, her overall expression wistful. The photograph was sepia brown of decades past.
“Still grieving?” Dr. Lacorte asked, probing but tactful. His friend was also his patient, after all. Molina’s mental wellbeing deserved as much consideration as his physical fitness.
“I talk to her sometimes, as if she were still alive.”
Company arrived before Dr. Lacorte could probe further. Molina looked relieved.
He moved to a window to watch his man Isagani admit a neon-green ambulance van through the front gate. The hired hand guided the ambulance driver to an open spot between the judge’s olive jeep and Dr. Lacorte’s beige Isuzu sport-utility vehicle within the adobe enclosure of the front yard.
Three men emerged from the ambulance, two attendants in white coats and a slick character in a stylish bush jacket, prompting the retired judge to say, “Why, it’s our congressman’s aide, Attorney Adan Cabugao.”
“An interesting turn of events,” Dr. Lacorte said, peering over his friend’s shoulder.
With greetings exchanged, Molina guided the newcomers through the living room into the kitchen. His questioning stare was not lost on the congressman’s aide, a publicity hound who liked to preen for television cameras.
“Judge Molina,” Atty. Cabugao said, “I’m here on behalf of Congressman Tamares.”
So says the front man for the busy representative of our Davao City district, thought Molina while interjecting, “Just Molina now, I’m retired.”
“Yes,” Atty. Cabugao said, barely acknowledging the correction. “And I’m here to see that this errand proceeds smoothly to completion.”
“What does the congressman have to do with this er- errand? And where is he?”
“He has his reasons. He’s in seclusion right now.”
Molina waited but no additional information was forthcoming. So he exchanged glances with Dr. Lacorte and got to work, showing the white-coated attendants the wrapped organ in the refrigerator. They transferred the precious parcel into their sterile container, which looked suspiciously like an upgraded beer cooler, and were ready to return to the hospital.
Like a clucking hen, Atty. Cabugao hurried his companions back to the van. Everything happened so fast that his cursory goodbye and strong cologne still lingered in the house after he’d gone.
“Atty. Cabugao shows up with the guys sent to retrieve the organ, and his boss is in seclusion,” Molina mused aloud. “What does that mean?”
“How about we include the congressman’s wife in our discussion,” the doctor ventured. “What do we know about her? Is she the jealous type? Is she a closet harpy perhaps?”
He woke up in a cold sweat, his heart palpitating, but not because of a nightmare. He felt an overwhelming desire to throw off sleep as if it were a blanket suffocating him.
Groaning, he glanced at the clock radio on his bedside table. The digital display told him that it was 2:37 a.m.
He sat up, sliding his feet into the foam slippers on the floor. Still in his camiseta and boxer shorts, he trudged down the stairs to the kitchen, switched on the light and ran water from the tap into an electric kettle. It was a routine he’d developed to cope with the nightmares or the sudden urges to get up. Though the maid’s room was along a hallway from the kitchen to the back door, all the maids he hired got to learn of his pre-dawn ritual and not to interfere with it.
The water boiled and the kettle clicked off. He took a box of green tea from a cabinet above the counter and made himself a cup. Then he walked into his den, balancing cup and saucer to avoid spillage.
He flicked on the room switch, and the wall lamp glowed above her picture.
Sinking into his favorite rattan chair, he faced the picture and sipped his tea. “Just you and me,” he said.
The picture reflected the lamplight back at him as if in mute response.
Over twenty years had elapsed since she’d been snatched from him. The spate of troubled dreams that followed, gradually dissipated over time. He would still get the odd nightmare, but more often than not, just awaken to a feeling of restlessness. Could it be guilt for being alive when she was not?
The press of the crowd at the Manila International Airport was stifling. With her carry-on canvas bag in his hand, he followed her to a couple of empty spots on a bank of steel chairs in the waiting area. It was a lucky break as most of the seating was taken.
Marisol turned to him when they were comfortably settled. “Will you be dating other girls while I’m gone?” she asked teasingly.
“Well, two years is such a long time,” he said, pretending to consider the option.
“Pilyo!” she exclaimed, her fist bouncing lightly on his bicep.
“Okay, okay, I’ll be a monk, just for you. And I’ll write you every week. Maybe even visit you at Christmas if I can scrape the money together.”
He was a young lawyer struggling to gain a decent foothold in the dog-eat-dog world of litigation. She was a bachelor of science graduate with a government scholarship grant for a master’s degree in public health at Loma Linda University in California, U.S.A. Her idealistic dream was to return an educator to address the health concerns of the Filipino masses. They would get married then.
She’d been enthusiastic about her choice of a university. “Do you know that Loma Linda made medical history in 1984 with a cross-species heart transplant?” he remembered her telling him. “A newborn named Baby Fae was implanted with the heart of a juvenile baboon.” Though Baby Fae only lived for twenty days, her breakthrough case paved the way for successful human heart transplants…
“Don’t you dare forget me,” Marisol said when they hugged each other at the departure gate.
“I won’t,” he said, startled by the tears welling up in her eyes. His heart ached and a lump developed in his throat. “I promise.”
She broke away from his embrace, scooped up her bag and walked into her sectioned half of the hall. She turned to wave at him several times as she made her way to the door that would take her out of his sight. He waved back in response each and every time.
Then she was gone.
The next day, it was headline news. Her plane had crashed into the sea.
Cha-Cha Vergara was having her breakfast of one poached egg, two pan-de-sal buns, a slice of papaya and ginger tea. She was an ovo vegetarian, meaning, a vegetarian who ate eggs but shunned dairy products like milk, cheese, ice cream and butter. People who watched her show “Tsismisan,” learned to associate her clear complexion, svelte figure and sunny disposition with her strict food regimen, which she liked to prattle about.
It was almost eleven a.m. She’d slept in, going the full eight hours she needed to be fully rested for the one o’clock taping of her show. To her own amazement, she neither felt dog-tired nor dragged out (even though she’d come home in the wee hours of the morning from her love tryst). She’d become incredibly resilient in the last little while.
She was seated in her breakfast nook by a large picture window that showcased a breath-taking view of Davao Gulf with the green tadpole shape of Samal Island as its centerpiece. The window at the other side of her penthouse suite captured the majestic flat-topped cone of Mount Apo, the highest peak in the Philippines. She felt as if she were on an elevated perch above all this wonderful vista.
After her stint as a budding starlet in racy films, she’d matured into a talk-show host with a respectable following. Then her on-again-off-again relationship with a prominent married person got her embroiled in speculative gossip. Some media pundits gave her the middle name “Scandal,” though, on hindsight, being Cha-Cha “Scandal” Vergara was a boon. It boosted her television ratings.
The intercom device by the door, beeped. Was her limo driver picking her up too early? In her line of work, miscommunication and scheduling screw-ups took place often enough.
She sighed, slid her shapely posterior off her leather-cushioned stool and padded toward the door at the end of a short corridor. On the way, she caught a glimpse of herself on a full-sized mirror strategically placed for her perusal as she came and went. She was in curlers, wore a Japanese kimono and had silk slippers on, indulgences during her time-out in peace and quiet.
She got the concierge on the intercom. Two policemen were on their way up to see her, he said. Though he could provide no additional information, he’d taken it upon himself to alert her when they’d stepped into the elevator.
What could they want? She was a television personality, and drawing all kinds of attention, even that of the authorities, was a consequence of fame. However, their coming to her home was definitely annoying, an invasion of her private space. She fumed.
When she answered the polite knock on her door, she found herself confronting two policemen, one middle-aged, the other fresh-looking in his twenties. Their deeply tanned faces contrasted sharply with their starched white uniform shirts.
“Miss Vergara, you will come with us to the station for questioning,” the middle-aged one said, his firm countenance allowing no room for debate.
(TO BE CONTINUED)