St. Peter is the saint with the rooster. The Patron Saint of the Cockers, the Guardian of the Gates, the Accountant of Sins with the giant leather-bound ledger in the sky.
In front of the Legislative Building is the Cathedral Drive, so named because of the cathedral across the street. At night Cathedral Drive turns into Chicken Avenue.
Chicken Avenue is where all the market vendors who sell undressed chicken at daytime barbecue their unsold chicken at night.
The sweet carcass and fowl smell of barbecued chicken marinated in cheap ketchup, soy sauce and calamansi mixes with the smog of half-dead Auto Calesas to produce an “ambiance” worthy of local tourists, unoccupied prostitutes, hungry midnight snackers, and other such common folk.
There is where Chicken Lady lives. Rather, this is where Jorge believes the Chicken Lady lives. In all truth he is not sure the Chicken Lady exists for anyone but him.
He has made a mental note to check with St. Peter first chance he gets though as yet reluctant to make first-hand acquaintance with the saint.
His meeting with the Chicken Lady, however, has led him to believe that a meeting with St. Peter may not be too far away at all.
Let us turn back the hands of the cathedral clock mounted on a tower donated by a sister city in Japan that we might witness the fateful meeting of Jorge and the Chicken Lady.
It is 12 midnight once again, no big deal to Jorge as he takes his usual stroll to Chicken Avenue, from the beer joint where he sings halfhearted American folksongs for a living and a cold plate of rice plus a toasted milkfish head.
He removes a faded tubao from his neck and wraps it on his head to ward off the midnight dewfall. There were no white jeeps with uniformed men to make him hesitate from looking like a proverbial rebel, communist or otherwise.
“Chicken leg or breast. Chicken leg or breast. Chicken leg or…” runs the automatic refrain in Jorge’s head as he makes for his suki’s stall in the middle of the long line of coconut-charcoal rotisseries.
“Here. Eat here. Here,” intones a tired waitress. “Tomorrow,” answers Jorge.
He feels in his unwashed pocket for the fifty-peso bill, his wage for the night, that will soon be decimated by chicken leg or breast, depending on which foot, the left or the right, he lands on as he reaches Miguela’s stall. Miguella is the stall-owner and also the president of the Chicken Barbecue Association that the chicken business community decided to set up to delay any distasteful actions City Hall may initiate against them for littering and vagrancy.
“Leg or breast?” asks a familiar voice.
Jorge stops in his tracks, looks at the voice, up at the sign, and down at his leading foot, the left one.
The voice belongs to Rosita, Miguela’s chief cook, wielder of the fan over charcoal, infallible judge of cooked or raw chicken.
“Try the liver. Try the neck. Try the heart. Why always leg or breast?” nags Rosita in her fat voice, incongruous for her bony body.
“Tomorrow,” says Jorge as he steps off the sidewalk and floats on a cloud of chicken soul over to his usual spot under Miguela’s collapsible rice-sack awning.
“Livers, hearts and necks remind me of too much living creatures,” Jorge mutters to himself. “One beer,” he adds in a louder voice. Dead chickens and scrawny women all around, need the beer. Need a cig, ought to quit. Jorge lights up and waits for his dead chicken to be served up.
One and a half sticks later his order arrives with a lump of cold rice. He mashes the sili in the sauce dish, squeezes the calamansi and reaches over for the toyo bottle.
At that precise moment when nothing in anyone’s life could ever go wrong, the Chicken Lady plumps down on the bench across from him on the other side of the greasy red table.
In the 10-watt light designated to make all dead chickens look fit to eat, Jorge sees this dumpy old lady with white hair. She’s grinning at Jorge, revealing a severe disregard for dental hygiene. She has on a man’s polo shirt that must have been sky blue, held together by an assortment of buttons, bent safety pins, and soggy, laminated scapulars. In her breast pocket is a fascinating collection of chicken bones.
Jorge freezes in time and space for a split second. His mind blank, his hand in a yet-to-be-completed trajectory towards the toyo bottle.
“You going to eat that?” rasps the Chicken Lady, gesturing with her suffocating chin at Jorge’s charcoal-charred chicken leg.
The sound of her voice spurs Jorge to complete his toyo-bound movement and go through the business of sauce-making as if nobody had spoken. “Maybe she’ll go away,” Jorge thinks.
“You think I’ll just stand up and go away, right?” cackles the Chicken Lady.
Jorge digs his fingers into the chicken flesh only to discover that it is too hot to handle. But he cannot afford to show his discomfort so he rips off a slab of meat, dips it into the sauce and places the whole wad in his mouth, keeping his fingers there a wee longer than usual in order to avail of the cooling properties of his breath.
He regrets this move however, due to the presence of the searing acid from the sili he has just atomized with those very same digits. He gropes for the beer bottle through his many tears and takes a huge swallow, his epiglottis just barely allowing the unchewed chicken to get past.
“That’s it! Eat fast!” laughs the Chicken Lady. “Good healthy appetite!”
Jorge realized that the Chicken Lady wanted something and was not going to leave until she got it. What could it be? Food! Of course! What else could this person want? He makes lighting-quick calculations on his fifty bucks and decides he can spare enough for another lump of rice for the old lady provided she leave him alone to enjoy his dead chicken in peace. He clears his throat to place the order with Rosita.
“I want your bones,” says the Chicken Lady as she places her leathery elbows on the table, setting down like she was going to live there. “Your chicken bones are what I’m after,” she says.
“Take your time,” she added.
Jorge now figures he has three options. First, he can just pay and leave. This option, he feels would not be wise for one in his financial condition.
Second, he could act the outraged customer and demand that Rosita wave her fan and make the Chicken Lady disappear then realized that making a fuss would make him look weak and unable to handle such a simple situation.
So, Jorge decides to take the third option open to him. He relaxes and slips into an amicable, non-violent and highly benevolent mode of being akin to the buzz that good bahala-na gives the seasoned drinker – which Jorge was not. This is a trip. Have to make it a good one, a good trip.
Jorge’s senses automatically zoom in on the Chicken Lady, adding detail and depth to what was only a moment ago, a vastly irritating force contained in a vaguely human form. He notices that she has blue-grey eyes, very bright and sharp, more vigorous than the sagging face that houses them. Her hands look powerful. Short, thick and curved fingers with sturdy-looking nails. Talons of a bird or prey. She is still grinning, watching him watch her.
Jorge commences to eat. Slowly. Taking his time. She’s just a crazy old woman. Humor her. Talk to her. Draw her out. She just wants some human warmth in this cold cruel world.
“Where do you live, Manang?” asks Jorge, feeling the rush of warmth that True- Concern-For-Fellow-Man gives one engaged in such delusions.
“What’s your name!” demands the Chicken Lady, “Your name boy!”
“Huh? E, mmm…” Jorge stuffs his mouth with rice and chicken.
“Your name I say! Your complete name!”
“Mmm, uh, ahem… Jorge…”
“Your real name! Your full name!” The Chicken Lady, Jorge feels, is intent on stripping him naked. “Your family name!”
“Ah! Santos, Jorge Santos, po.”
“Ayan, ba! That’s better!” cackles the Chicken Lady. “Now we can talk. Like equals. No fooling around. Eat!”
Jorge eats. He does not taste what he eats though. He is only aware of how this Chicken Lady, this total stranger, has, in the span of one minute reduced him to a helpless child, devoid of all the defenses he has acquired in thirty-odd years of growing up and coping with the world. It’s a horrible feeling that Jorge is experiencing. He is a frog on a dissecting board, a chicken on the chopping block. His jugular is wide open. He eats. He watches. He listens. Helpless.
Jose L. Ayala is the songwriter and musician son of Joe and Tita Ayala.
Illustration by Rick Villafuerte.