Noodles in his hair – Short Story

NOODLES IN HIS HAIR
by Maclean Patrick

There were noodles in the little boy’s hair and he chuckled as he reached over to pick them out. His son must have been playing too close to the entrance of the 7-ELEVEN convenient store just down the street from where they stayed. He had warned the young boy, not to pick through the garbage-bin when the customers left the store. The opening of the door would most certainly push him into the agape mouth of the garbage-bin and swallow his tiny head.

His son stirred a little, shifting to the right as he removed the last of somebody’s meal from his tangled hair. There was a bit of coal on his left cheek, which he gently rubbed off with his thumb. His son had been playing by the exhaust vent of the Chinese restaurant, two blocks from where the two normally bedded for the night. It was clear, he had not heeded his warning.

One day he’s going to get his eye-brows burnt, he thought to himself as the last bit of coal came off.

His son was naughty but he was a good kid in the pure sense of the word. Short for an eleven year old and skinny compared to the rest of the children living on the street. Too much junk food and the onset of a poor diet contributed to this gaunky stance. A hot complete meal was hard to come by in a city where the divide between the haves and have-nots was glaring like the noon sun. Last night’s meal was still tucked away in his siphon bag. It would last them another night or two and then he would need to find another meal.

Where am I going to find the money for that? He leaned back and exhaled. His gentle sigh went un-noticed by his sleeping son. He’s too young to face all these things. What can I do? I’ve got no money, barely can hold on to my job and there’s barely enough food for the two of us.

He buried his head in his hands and rub the lines on his forehead. His hair was receding at an alarming rate, soon he would lose it all. But loosing his hair was the least of his worries.

He was now a skeleton of a man compared to the chubby self of his younger days spent frolicking in the highlands of his village located several hours away from the capital of the Philippines, Manila City and nested in the mountain range that divided the province into two.

Village life was simple but tending to cows and harvesting pineapple from his father’s land could not curtail the lure of the city and one hot July afternoon, he found himself on board a jeepney heading for Manila City. He would find work, he would make his fortune, he would buy a house, send money back to his parents and be a man of the city. And he did become a man of the city minus the money and the house and everything else in between.

He met a girl from Mindanao, dancer at a local club he frequent after his hours at the construction yard, who moved in with him and a few months later she surprised him with the news.

She was pregnant. Add child to the the list of things in his life.

In the beginning, the prospect of life as a family man seemed welcoming, romantic even. His life seemed complete. Almost.

Then 1997 came along and everything seemed to ground to a stand still. Work became scarce and construction projects came to a stand still. He lost his job and worst still, his de-facto wife ran off with a sailor from Myanmar, leaving him with a young son and a perpetual migraine.

Why?

There was no point to rue over spilled milk but most mornings he could not help but feel sorry for himself. What else can a man do?

Yellow neon lights flashing CAESAR CASINO reflected off the dark tarmac in front of him. The sound of drunken laughter startled him. Drunken revellers with money to spare and time to pass streamed out of the casino and he wondered if they would walk down his way and give him a tip.

Not today, the group walked the opposite way, maybe tomorrow night he would have better luck.

There was movement from down the street and he knew that his neighbors were waking up. They would be making their way towards the water faucet to clean up before making their trip to the outskirts of the city. HIs neighbor looked in his direction and he gave her a slight nod. She returned the nod and managed a smile. Thanking him for allowing her first claims to the water. She gingerly brought her daughter to the faucet, turned the water on and gave her a cold morning bath.

His son knew how to count and could spell out his name, somewhat better than him, who neither knew how to count nor spell. But he knew the city and the roads and the people who called it home. He knew who lived on which street and who owned which water tap and who had first take on any food served out by the restaurants. There was respect for each other and noone cross the other for they had no need for quarrel. The city was big enough to support them. No-one would go hungry if they stuck to the unwritten code shared among those like him. They were the hidden nation, aliens in a strange land where they were citizens yet lived apart from their countrymen. They exist in silence, invisible yet visible to the populace. Often times only acknowledged when it came to festivities like Easter or Christmas. Often times, a means for corporations to gain additional tax-cuts from the government. They lived on the charity or kindness of people, whether sincere or not, it didn’t matter. All they needed was food to live another day. Motives mattered little.

His son stirred from his sleep and rub his eyes. The weiry father managed a smile. Start the day with a smile, keep their spirits up and maybe something good would come their way. His son smiled back and ran his small hand through the rough patch of hair on his head.

His father rub his back, much to his delight and quietly told him it was time to freshen up. It was their time at the water faucet by the street. The little boy sat up and watched as his father gathered their belongings and rolled up their bedding. The cardboard box had served them well and it was time they replaced it with a new one. The little boy had found the box by the 7-ELEVEN store and proudly showed it to his father. It had a bright red chicken painted across it and he found it funny that the last thing he saw as he slept was a smiling red chicken with a thumbs up sign that seems to say everything was going to be alright. The previous night his father had amused him with stories of the chickens from a place his father said was located in the mountains. One day, his father had promised him, they would go to that place in the mountains and he was sure he would find a bright red chicken living among the pineapples, giving him the thumbs up sign and telling him everything was going to be alright.

His son shivered as he poured water over his head and it washed down his chest, cascading over the form of his rib-cage and down his thighs.

“Cold?” The father asked.

“Cold,” his son replied.

“You got noodles in your hair. Stop playing by the store.”

“I just wanted to get the noodles,” he replied, wiping the water from his face. “Miquel almost got them before me.”

“Did you fight Miquel, again?”

“No. I took the cup and just ran.”

“Stay out of trouble. Fighting is not good. We don’t fight, we share as much as we can. Live at peace with everyone. You hear me?”

“Yes, daddy.”

“Good, we need to go early. Better be there earlier so we can start first. Remember what daddy told you we are looking for?”

“Cans and bottles.”

“Good boy,” father smiled and combed his son’s hair with his hand.

They packed their box with the smiling red chicken under a staircase and walked slowly down the street, hand in hand. This little boy and rough middle-age man were going to Payatas where hopefully they could make two dollars today. Two dollars to keep them full for another day and enough to keep his son out of the 7-ELEVEN garbage bin and no noodles in his hair.

Note: I spent 5 days in the Philippines last year and walked the streets around my hotel. I was struck by the human story I saw around me and the image of a father and son sleeping on the street never left me until today. This story is dedicated to the unnamed father and son I found sleeping just yards from the 7-ELEVEN store, where I had breakfast one morning in June of 2007.

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