Thursday, March 31, 2011
HE LOWERED THE newspaper he was reading. Looking at the man who had just stepped in front of his table, he smiled. He had been waiting for the arrival of the man who was now staring down at him.
“Attorney! So sorry for keeping you waiting,” the man said as he adjusted his wide black tie that almost reached his worn leather belt.
“No problem, Arnel. I have a free time today, no court hearings at all. You just arrived?”
Arnel beamed in a sheepish manner. “Yes, Attorney. Too much traffic along the way. Ah, what do you like to have, sir?”
The lawyer checked his watch. “The longganisa breakfast meal, is it still available?”
Nodding his head, Arnel said, “Oh, yes, sir. OK, what else would you have?” He turned his head, waving his hand at the counter.
“Coffee and hash brown, too.”
“OK, attorney. How about orange juice? McMuffin sandwich, sir? The longganisa meal might not be enough,” Arnel offered.
Thinking for a while, he folded the newspaper, then placed it on the edge of the table. “OK, OK, orange juice and McMuffin. Just pack them for carry out, just in case I don’t feel like consuming them, OK?”
“Yes, sir, just five minutes,” said Arnel, pulling a chair.
“OK, Arnel, so you may now start, Arnel,” the lawyer said.
Arnel, who had summoned one of the service crew to come over, said, “Wait, sir, I’ll just get your order done.”
Saying that, Arnel sat on the chair opposite the older man. “Well, sir, there was this old lady who came here last week. According to some of my people here, she’s a regular customer who comes here to eat often. That particular morning, she came, then sat there with her food,” said Arnel, his hand pointing to a corner table beside a life-size statue of Ronald McDonald.
“Old woman? Like how old is she?”
Breathing a sigh, the younger man replied, “Well, the crew here said she appears to be in her sixties.” As he was saying this, a service crew wearing a red McDonald shirt and a dark blue cap arrived who took the order and then left.
“OK,” the lawyer said. “Narrate exactly what had happened.”
Arnel told him. The old woman was quietly eating in the corner table. As she was almost done, there rose a commotion. A woman’s voice was in the air, seizing everyone’s attention. She was shouting at somebody. At a man. Everyone then came to know that he was her husband. She was bawling, screaming on top of her voice. Her fists dug at his chest, his belly. He tried to ward off her assault. She was stepping forward in her attack, he retreating back. Not seeing his direction, he blindly struck a table when he made a sudden step behind him. The violence of his movement was swift, catching the old lady who was seated at the table off guard. She seemed to have been oblivious to what was happening until that very moment. Maybe she was sort of deaf given her age, Arnel thought. That was why she did not appear to have been aware of the tumult. But at the time she probably came to realize what was going on, it was already too late. She tried to stand up from her seat, but the retreating man went off-balance; he fell, his back crashing against the poor old lady. Her body obviously frail and weak, she toppled down the floor. Suddenly, the man was lying on top of her. Horrified shrieks and cries shot up; everyone scrambled to help the fallen woman. For a moment, she appeared unconscious. Fortunately, she came to, was given water, and was carried by the able-bodied male customers to the nearby East Avenue Medical Center.
They were interrupted when a service crew member came bearing the lawyer’s ordered food. Setting the tray down on the table, the crew member asked Arnel, his supervisor, if there was any order still pending. The lawyer shook his head as he gently pulled the tray near him. Arnel, looking up, nodded to the crew member, who then left.
“The woman, the scorned wife. Where was she?” asked the lawyer. He opened the Styrofoam clamshell box which instantly emitted the strong garlicky smell of the fried sausage. Swiftly, he grabbed the plastic utensils, mopped them with the tissue and then started to jab and cut the longganisa in small pieces.
Shaking his head, Arnel smiled. “She disappeared suddenly. Maybe she sensed she would be blamed. She left behind her husband, who was profuse in his apology.” He tried to look away, ignoring the older man who, every time he chewed, gave out a loud, munching sound. Arnel’s eyes wandered around him, looking left and right, then drumming his fingers on the table.
“So, what happened next? What happened to the old lady?” asked the lawyer, his mouth continuously open as he crushed and ground the fried rice and sausage in his bulging jaws.
Arnel scratched his head; he was now looking at his thumping fingers. “We think she was OK. When I sent somebody to the hospital later that day, he was told that the old lady was discharged a little after lunch. Somebody fetched her. But then, a day after, we received a demand letter from a lawyer, well, from her lawyer, asking for damages for the pain and suffering that she supposedly underwent.”
His eyebrows raised, the lawyer said, “And for how much?” He slowly gripped the steaming cup of coffee, then brought it up. The slurping sound he made was even louder.
A wry smile appeared on Arnel’s face. “Half a million pesos, Attorney.” There was a feeling of embarrassment he suddenly felt when he heard a glugging sound. The man across the table was now taking large gulps of the orange juice; he purposely did not use the straw that was lying beside the juice cup. Arnel, hearing the older man give out an audible burp, raised a hand, turned his head and scratched the back of his neck.
The older man blew a soft whistle. He was holding the juice half-raised, his eyes wide, unbelieving at what he just had heard.
“We were stricken with surprise, sir. Actually, we were not expecting that. Heck, we never caused her any harm. It wasn’t our fault, right? How did we know that it would happen in the first place?” Arnel’s surprised eyes quickly stole a glance at the empty Styrofoam clamshell now being closed by the lawyer.
Smiling, the lawyer knitted his brows, looking sternly at Arnel. “It may not be your fault, but, you see,” he began as he unwrapped the McMuffin, “the lady does not care whether or not you had anything to do with the distraught wife who ran amok here. Thing is, it happened here, in your place.”
Arnel stiffened, raising a palm. “But, Attorney, it wasn’t our…”
“Listen, Arnel,” the lawyer interrupted. “It doesn’t matter whether it was your fault or not,” he repeated. He took a large bite of the sandwich, then began a new noisy munching ritual. He paused in his discourse, then leaned back, his tongue licking the corners of his mouth.
“But, Attorney,” Arnel began to repeat his protest, his elbows now resting atop the table. “We did not…”
The lawyer abruptly tapped the table with a hand, cutting Arnel short. “We have this thing called ‘tort’, Arnel. It’s a technical term in law, but, to tell you briefly about it, it’s a wrongdoing committed by someone. The person harmed by that tort can sue the tort doer. If it happens that the tort doer commits his act in some private place and someone gets injured, like what happened here, well, both the tort doer and the owner of the place can be sued by the injured person. Get it?” He crumpled the McMuffin wrapper in his hand as he expelled another loud belch.
Arnel, his eyes locked on the lawyer’s, breathed deeply. “So, I guess, we’re looking at a possible case here, a case against us.”
The lawyer nodded. “Exactly. I mean, if you don’t pay her the damages she is seeking. Of course, if you pay up, then this matter is finished.” He looked down on the tray, eyeing the soggy, greasy hash brown.
A moment of hesitation passed. Arnel, his eyes following the lawyer’s hand which had grasped the oily shredded, pan fried potatoes, began to ask, “How much do you charge, Attorney, if ever we hire you as our lawyer on this matter?”
The older man flashed a broad smile at Arnel. Leaning forward, he said, “Since you’re a friend, plus,” he raised an extended finger, “I like your place a lot, I’ll give you a discount.”
Beaming, Arnel replied, “Oh, great! How much would it be then, Attorney?”
Resting on his back, the lawyer pushed the tray away from him, gently gripped the table edge with both hands, saying, “I’ll charge you half of my usual acceptance fee. You’ll be paying me only ten thousand bucks. But, of course, you’ll have to pay the appearance fee for every court hearing that I will attend, that is, if this matter reaches the court.”
The smile on his face fading, Arnel softly asked, “OK, but how much the appearance fee then? For every court hearing?”
The older man nodded, saying, “Yes, for every court hearing. I’ll charge you only one thousand pesos per court appearance. But,” he again lifted an extended finger, “mind you, that’s already discounted. I usually charge twice that amount as my appearance fee.”
Arnel was examining the tray, not knowing what to say.
“Don’t worry, Arnel. This matter won’t last long,” the lawyer said in a reassuring tone. “I guarantee you, that lady will think twice, even thrice, once she and her lawyer receive our response to their demand letter.”
Showing a forced smile, Arnel said, “OK, Attorney, I’ll let you know tomorrow. You see, I still have to relay this matter to our head office.”
“You mean,” the lawyer suddenly asked, his voice rising a notch, “you weren’t authorized to handle this matter?” He was glaring at Arnel.
“I, ah, actually am authorized,” Arnel said, his voice now stuttering. “It’s just that, well, when it comes to the amount of fee, there has to be approval from the head office. An SOP. You know, Attorney, we have to follow some procedure.”
The lawyer scooped up the newspaper from the table. “I see. So tomorrow, I’ll just come back here.”
“Ah, yes, Attorney, I’ll meet you…” he stopped, turning his head toward the direction of the counter. “Oh, I have to leave, Attorney, I’m now needed there,” he said, pointing to the counter.
“OK, see you tomorrow. Wait, how much do I owe you for this?” the lawyer asked, his gaze at the food tray.
“No, no, Attorney. It’s on us.” Arnel had now half risen from his seat.
“All right,” the lawyer said, “could you give me a copy of the demand letter?”
Taking a folded paper from his breast pocket, Arnel said, “Here, Attorney, a photo copy.”
“By the way,” the older man said as he grabbed the folded paper from Arnel’s hand, “I’d like to have one order of chicken meal. It’s now available, right?”
“Yes, Attorney. For carry out?” Arnel asked.
Nodding his head, the lawyer stood up. “Yes, Arnel. How much?” he asked, raising his eyebrows.
Smiling thinly, Arnel said, “No, no, Attorney. It’s on us. Part of our arrangement. I’ll have the food brought here. Just wait for a while, sir.”
As soon as he got his packed meal, the lawyer hastily left the place, ignoring the cheerful “Thank you for coming, sir!” parting salutation uttered to him by the security guard at the entrance door.
Striding toward the parking lot, he suddenly stopped and pulled out his cell phone. After reading a text message, he took some more steps. He was now near the crude makeshift stand beside an old acacia tree that stood on the roadside. Looking at the newspapers and magazine displayed on the stand, he checked his watch. A moment later, he walked off, whistling. A minute or two, he stopped, then went inside a small internet café...
[Read the entire story in the forthcoming book TREE AND OTHER STORIES by AMADOR F. BRIOSO, JR., to be available in June, 2011, in selected bookstores in Manila. Another book, LOVE AND DESTINY, a novella written by the same author, will also be available in June, 2011. The author's previous book, "YOU FILIBINI?" Stories And Other Writings, is currently available at all Powerbooks bookstore outlets in Metro Manila.]