By EDILBERTO K. TIEMPO
Five days of the week Mr. Mc Lure was a familiar figure trudging along the Rizal Boulevard that fronted the shoreline for more than a kilometer to the post office. There were no boats from Manila or Cebu Sunday and Wednesday; the only first-class mail he expected was the one containing his monthly pension as a Spanish-American War veteran. What he got regularly from his P.O. box was his subscription copy of the Manila Daily Bulletin and the Philippines Free Press, periodicals edited by Americans. The hook-handled camagon cane in his right hand was a third leg, its nickel-covered point tapping the asphalt like a heartbeat. Most striking about Mr. McLure was the oleander flower in his left hand.
The oleander came from one of three clumps he had planted more than a third of a century ago around his house. Only one trunk remained and this could be seen from his bed, tall and sturdy, so close to his window he could reach out for a cluster from one of the branches. On warm afternoons taking his siesta or on bright moon-lit nights lying wide awake or waking up from a dream he would see the poplar-like trunk, almost the size of his leg, silhouetted against the sky…
Half a world away in a trim little garden in front of a modest brick house was an oleander clump his mother had planted. She had a knack for growing things, creepers and unpotted African violets burgeoning profusely among daisies and under the lilac bush. The oleander she called the giraffe because she could pluck its flowers from her window. She died two years before the end of the first world war.
After so many steps, two hundred or so, the old man would lift his hand; it trembled a little and he would stare at the oleander with idiotic concentration, as though he were recounting the stamens or tracing the purple curve, and then he would bring the oleander under his nose—a thin, pointed nose it was—inhale deeply and drop the hand back to his side.
The last hundred fifty meters to the post office along the Rizal Boulevard bordered part of the eastern section of the university campus. Within this distance McLure had to cross two streets to the P.O., the first one, really an extension of the boulevard, swerving off right to the wharf, and the other bisecting it on the P.O.’s north side. This portion of the boulevard where the crossing streets converged behind the triangular island about thirty meters from the P.O. was visible from the office of the American president of the university, an institution founded by the U.S. Presbyterian Church in 1901, three years after the Treaty of Paris that ended the Spanish-American War. McLure was crossing the first junction when President Larsen saw him staring at the oleander. The man was oblivious to the traffic moving to and from the wharf.
A couple of minutes later there was a screeching of brakes. President Larsen stood up and walked to the window. A cargo truck coming from the wharf had jerked to a stop half a meter from McLure, who was in the middle of the street. The driver stuck out his head from the cab and shouted, “Do you want to get killed?”
The old man dropped his hand with the oleander to his side, turned to the driver, not seeming to understand him, and proceeded to the post office.
Before going home that noon President Larsen stopped at the office of Dr. Holtz, the minister of the university church. He told Holtz about McLure and the near-accident close to the post office. “I had the odd feeling the man wanted an accident to happen.”
Dr. Holtz was quiet. He was one of the old-timers among the fifteen American families in the university. He had written the lyrics of the school song whose music he had adapted from the “Old Nassau” of Princeton, where he had his theological training. When the college population was less than a thousand he knew every student by his first name. Outside of the American families on the campus he cultivated the friendship of three other Americans in town—one of them John McLure—who had arrived in Dumaguete within seven years of each other. The second was Theodore Fletcher, who owned two houses, one in Dumaguete and the other in Pamplona, forty kilometers to the north, where he owned the largest coconut plantation in the province. The third American was Charles Boynton, an engineer who had come as a tourist and a guest of a college classmate teaching in the university; he met and the daughter of a sugar cane farmer, established a construction firm, and co-founded the first Rotary Club in the province.
John McLure had brought some embarrassment to the small American community.
“I’ve known John McLure for twenty-six years. That’s how long I’ve been here. After his wife died about fifteen years ago, he started drinking heavily. About that time, too, he closed his bicycle store. He had good American bicycles, but he lost out to a competitor, a half-Chinese, who imported much cheaper bicycles from Japan. By the way, it was his wife’s inheritance that started the bicycle store. His wife was the only daughter of a prosperous farmer from Ayungon, some seventy kilometers north of here.”
“Does McLure have children?”
“A daughter who eloped with a drug salesman when she was seventeen. I understand she died giving birth to a baby who lived only a few hours.”
“How does he keep himself?”
“He gets a pension, he’s a Spanish-American War veteran. When he closed his bicycle store, he rented the space to a rice and corn dealer. Half of the second floor which he remodeled into an office he leased to a couple of lawyers. He’s all right financially. His pension converted to pesos takes care of his needs. The rent money he spends on alcohol.”
“What’s wrong with him, aside from his drinking?”
“You’re referring to the flower in his hand?”
President Larsen nodded. “But especially about his sight and hearing. He didn’t mind the traffic.”
“Reading is the only thing he does—when he is sober. He goes to the post office mainly for his papers. I had a talk with him a few weeks ago and he had no hearing problem.” He paused. “I’ll see him today.”
McClure’S house was across the southwest corner of the town plaza. Burgos Street on its north side hit the Rizal Boulevard three blocks to the east; on the west side Alfonso XIII, the town’s main street, cut through the university campus a kilometer to the north. Commercial stores lined both sides of Alfonso XIII for three blocks to the south. From the northwest window one had a good view of the park; concrete walks had been laid out under the acacia and trees; a line of tennis courts and a children’s playground just across Burgos Street; the statue of the national hero facing the east, and some twenty meters from it a kiosk which served as a stage for speakers at political and civic gatherings; facing the kiosk across Alfonso XIII was the Catholic church. Through the foliage of the trees beyond the eastern edge of the park, the City Hall and one wing of the East Central School were visible.
From his rattan-ribbed lounging chair in the narrow verandah overlooking the park, McLure could see, without being seen from the intersecting streets, several blocks of the town’s busiest section. Forty-one years ago, when he arrived, the park and the areas contiguous to it were just a carabao pasture. With the growth of the university the town expanded in all directions. To his idly observing eyes the ancient watch tower across the street looming beyond the verandah sill just a meter from his feet never ceased to be an anachronism. Of cut coral rocks it was built near the close of the seventeenth century like a section of a medieval fortress; it had originally been intended as a lookout for Moro pirates. The coastline from Dumaguete to the southern tip of Negros opens itself to the Sulu Sea, which for centuries had been dominated by roving marauders; neither the Spaniards nor the Americans after them were able to subdue the fanatical Moslems. The tower top served as a belfry of the Catholic church; at the bottom was a grotto with the image of Santa Catalina—the church itself was named Cathedral of St. Catherine—the town’s patron saint, who, it was believed, used to release a large swarm of bees to attack the Moro pirates as their vintas approached the Dumaguete shoreline. McLure had indeed seen a beehive hanging from a top branch of the acacia tree a few meters from the tower. As the only white infidel (he was not unhappy about this designation), he believed the beehive had been hung there and replenished from time to time by the Spanish friars in their desire to keep the superstition of Santa Catalina’s special power intact.
Someone was knocking on the door. He waited. The knocking persisted, so he stood up and crossed the living room and opened the door. Standing there was Dr. Holtz.
“Oh, Paul. Come in. It’s been months—three months—since your last visit.”
After he had closed the bicycle store nobody had dropped by to see him, except for the times Dr. Holtz came in for a chat. He felt all the other Americans in town treated him with condescension, were embarrassed by the notoriety of his drinking. As far as he was concerned, they were busybodies. All of them, except Paul Holtz. A year after his assignment as pastor, Dr. Holtz had invited McClure to attend the church services at the university. “What for? I don’t go to church. Any church. I have nothing to do with hypocrites. With sanctimonious people moving around with superior airs. Are you offended with what I’ve said?”
“You must have reasons for feeling that way.”
“Of course I have. Most of your people think I’m the plague. I drink, yes. On my money, nobody else’s. My drinking is nobody else’s business.”
“This is all probably in your head.”
“It’s not probably—it’s all there, all right. Because your people put it there.”
That first meeting Dr. Holtz was remembering as he sat in a large low rattan chair that had long needed a new coat of varnish.
“I hear you had a near-accident this morning.”
“Who told you that?”
“Dr. Larsen, our new president. A vehicle screeching loudly got him out of his chair. His office is just across the street where it happened.”
“So the man Larsen already knows the walking habits of John McLure.”
“It’s not like that, John. Anybody would be concerned.”
Dr. Holtz himself had known McLure’s peculiar habit with the oleander. President Larsen’s comment on what appeared to be the man’s suicidal behavior did not surprise him. And he was concerned. The man’s preoccupation with the flower, repeated after so many hundred steps, was a quirk that could cost him his life.
“That oleander outside, John, is like a tree. I thought the oleander is a shrub.”
The man’s chuckle, a rare sound from him, was a deep rumble that made his prominent Adam’s apple bounce under the loose skin of his scrawny throat.
“Yes, the oleander is a shrub, but I made that one into a tree. A simple matter of letting only one stem grow out of a cluster of three or four. The oleander is an Old World evergreen shrub of the North American dogbane family. A medicinal shrub. My grandmother, an unusual woman, took with her three oleander cuttings from Exeter in Southwest England all the way to Kansas. The root end of each cutting she wrapped in Devonshire soil. Three cuttings just to be sure. You of course know—or maybe you don’t—that the California vineyards were started by Basques who got the grape cuttings from Spain. And perhaps you don’t know—” there was the chuckle-rumble again the sharp valve bouncing in his turkey throat, “—that the Christian Brothers are famous producers of some of the best wines in the world.”
McLure fell quiet, as though to let that point sink in, about the winery of the Christian Brothers. “You, Paul, would consider my grandmother the more desirable immigrant. Oleander in Kansas sprouting from Devonshire soil. No greater Old World loyalty than that. Anyway, when I came here, I saw the oleander’s indigenous.”
The man’s reference to his grandmother recalled to Dr. Holtz a conversation he had with McLure a few years after he had known him, about the time the bicycle store was running down. The small American community had delegated him to speak to McLure; they we’re contributing money for his return home.
“Even if I had a place to go home to, how far will my pension go there? At least here it doubles. This is our home, my wife and me. We can manage. Our needs aren’t much.”
And he had gone on, suddenly conciliatory. “My father died in Kansas three years after I came here, the year Taft was inaugurated Philippine civil governor. My younger brother took over the farm—I sold my share of the farm to him. My only other kin now is a widowed sister in O’Keene, Oklahoma. The only time I had thought of going home was to visit my ailing mother. I was preparing to leave when the cable came. She’d died the week before. So you see, Paul, there’s nothing for me there.”
“What made you join the American troops for the Philippines?”
“I can ask you the same question: what made you come when you could have worked among our own people back home?”
He waited for a reply but none came. “Have you ever been through Kansas?”
Holtz shook his head.
“It’s mostly flat, unlike other prairie states like Iowa or Nebraska or Illinois. Finch is the village where my family lived, some thirty miles northwest of Topeka. In Finch all you see from anywhere you stand from one season to another is a flat horizon. No bumps of any kind for the eyes’ relief. And during the wheat season—as you know, Kansas produces the most wheat in America—you’re engulfed by wheat. And for me, anyway, breathing in the summer seemed difficult. The hottest day in Dumaguete is nothing like Kansas summer. My brother was never bothered by the Kansas landscape. I suppose I was an oddball. I had to get out, it seemed to be a constricting prison.
“Another thing. I don’t know how much of a reason it was for my leaving Kansas. My father fought in the Civil War. Bull Run Antietam, Shiloh—those places. You of course know the Kansas- Nebraska Act.”
Dr. Holtz looked at him with a new eye. “I forget the details.”
“That Act was passed by Congress in 1854, and it upset the balance of power between the slave and free states and helped to bring on the Civil War. Anti-slavery forces finally gained control. My father was among the first to volunteer. Not an educated man, but his sentiments were right. When he returned from the war, he farmed our land. Proved to be a good provider. He had stories for us about the war. And he was grateful for coming home alive. Hundreds of Kansas farmers never made it back. I suppose because he himself didn’t finish grade school he sent my brother Bill and me to a school in Topeka. I finished high school and Bill came home with me; he didn’t want to go back to Topeka by himself. When the Spanish-American War broke out I enlisted. My father didn’t say anything for or against my joining. But I knew how he felt; he didn’t want me to go through the same thing he had. I never told him about the Kansas horizon that could close you in—he thought I was enlisting for the same reason he had joined the Union troops. I knew how he felt when I didn’t go home after the end of the Spanish-American War.
“One other thing, Paul, and I’m done. I was very fortunate to be assigned to a peaceful province like Negros Oriental. Our U.S. military record in many other places in this country is something no American can be proud of. In places like Samar there was a lot of butchery. Not only of noncombatants, but also of animals. Horses and cows and carabaos and pigs—whatever moving thing the soldiers saw. The Spaniards had a term for it. Juez de cochillo. But we did that sort of thing to the Indians, too, didn’t we?”
Both were quiet. “I feel very much at home here, the way your people in the university feel at home. But I wish your people would leave me alone. My drinking is my business.”
He stood up. “I’ll make us some coffee.”
Dr. Holtz also stood up. “No, thanks, John. Two years ago my doctor said no more coffee for me. I must get going.”
“Thank you for coming. It’s good talking to you.”
“I wish you’d come to see me, too.”
“I know you mean that. Thank you. And you know you’re welcome here any time.” At the landing he said, “There was something I was going to tell you. I’ve left a letter for you with my lawyer.”
“What are you talking about?”
“There are two lawyers renting half of the second floor of this house. The older one, Atty. Orteza, is my lawyer. The rentals I get from the lawyers’ office and the store below aren’t much, but the money can probably take care of one or even two students.”
“This is no time yet to talk this way, John.”
“Anything can happen to John Mc Lure in his condition. When the time comes, you’ll know how to use this house. The fee, my friend, for a decent burial.”
In Dr. Holtz’s office, five months later, the telephone rang.
“Dr. Holtz? … This is Atty. Orteza. Twenty-five minutes ago Mr. Mc Lure was hit by a car. He was crossing the street to the house…”
Edilberto Kaindong Tiempo was born in Maasin, Southern Leyte in 1913. He obtained his BA in English at Silliman Institute [now Silliman University] in 1937. He enrolled for graduate studies in 1939 at University of the Philippines but did not finish. In 1940, after marrying Edith Lopez, he returned to Dumaguete to teach at Silliman. He would later be accepted to the Iowa Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa, where he would obtain his MA in 1951. In 1957, he earned his Ph.D. from the University of Denver. Upon returning to the Philippines in 1962, the couple established what is now the Silliman University National Writers Workshop. At Silliman, he served various positions, including chair of the English Department, graduate school dean, vice-president for academic affairs, and writer-in-residence. His novel, Cry Slaughter, published in 1957, was a revised version of his Watch in the Night, which he culled from his wartime experience in Negros Oriental. Cry Slaughter had four printings by Avon in New York, a hardbound edition in London, and six European translations. His other books include the novels To Be Free , More Than Conquerors , Cracked Mirror , The Standard Bearer , and Farah , the short story collections A Stream at Dalton Pass and Other Stories , Finality: A Novelette and Five Short Stories , Rainbow for Rima , Snake Twin and Other Stories , and The Paraplegics and Five Short Stories . He also authored Literary Criticism in the Philippines and Other Essays . He won the Cultural Center of the Philippines Prize, the Palanca, the U.P. Golden Anniversary Literary Contest, and the National Book Award. He died in 1996.
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