Francis started the day with a busted rice cooker. It was half past noon when the youth woke up to a grumbling stomach. They spent the last three nights transcribing a thousand-paged medical reference for an online client and finally sent the copy at sunrise. Then, they had the tacky fairytale-esque write up for Nortia’s website that they didn’t bother checking.
The rice was washed, refilled with water, and ready to cook. But as soon as Francis plugged the appliance in the nearby socket above the tiny countertop, it sent sparks flying. They backed away with a shriek, hands close to their chest.
“No way,” they croaked. Taking cautious steps to the outlet, they gingerly attempted to unplug the cooker but it decided to startle them with more sparks and wisps of smoke. More shrieking and backing away. There was a rapid knocking from a wall.
“Hoy! May natutulog dito!” an irritated neighbor grumbled. “Sorry!” Francis squeaked. They groped around the drawers across the kitchen for old thick towels. With towels wrapped around their hands, they pried the plug off the socket. They took a closer look. The exposed wires were singed, its cover warped. An acrid odor of burnt plastic hit their nostrils. Francis coughed while they put the offending object away.
“Should I get a new rice cooker at this hour?” they thought aloud. There were three options. One, they could give Auntie Faye a ring and tell her about the rice cooker. However, they could hear what she’d probably say.
“Anak, you should learn to cook rice with a pot on the stove.”
However, the apartment they lived in didn’t allow stovetops, not even the butane-fueled ones because the landlord despised possible fire hazards. Also, they were embarrassingly bad at keeping tabs on whatever they cooked. They literally learned to cook a few basics with the rice cooker like boiled eggs, instant noodles, and the occasional rice porridge and hotdogs. The appliance was one of the few things they brought with them when they moved out of their aunt’s home in Cuambogan to an apartment in Purok Narra, Briz District which is closer to the city center.
The second choice was to buy some food from a nearby carinderia. But the portions were too little for the price they usually paid and most dishes were sold out after lunch.
Or third, they could simply buy a new one. Most malls sold rice cookers for one person for less than seven hundred pesos. They hadn’t bought anything other than groceries for the last two weeks. The paycheck from the online job was on its way before 3 p.m.
Maybe they could make it.
In a flurry of bathing and getting dressed, Francis stepped out of the apartment gate in a baggy shirt and cargo shorts wider than their legs. Damp hair was stuffed inside a baseball cap and they were ready to go. Hailing a tricycle ride nowadays was an exercise of haggling.
“’Nong, JS Gaisano! Bale kinse!” they hollered at the first empty tricycle. The driver rapidly shook his head at the fare offer of Php15 and sped away. Another tricycle, with a passenger seated in front, stopped where Francis raised an arm out. They repeated their directions.
“Singkwenta.” Driver number two haggled.
Driver number two drove past Francis. “Fuck you,” they hissed. “Just because you lot got a taste of their payouts.”
The sudden burst of wealth in the city left a bad taste in their mouth. Sure, they had days where customers bought out an entire day’s supply of puto maya and sikwate before the 5 p.m. blaring alarm from the old City Hall on Rizal Street. But it also meant dealing with inconsolable customers who demanded to be served despite their repeated explaining that they had just sold out and were about to close the shop.
“What’s the point of opening a store if you can’t serve the customers?” Shrieking Old Lady demanded. It took Auntie Faye flashing her deathly glare and a firm, “We’re closed” before the former harrumphed her way out of the store.
A motorcycle stopped in front of a frowning Francis. “Where are you heading?” the driver asked. “JS Gaisano, fifteen pesos,” they drawled.
“Baynte,” he haggled. Francis groaned and all but threw the twenty-peso bill on the driver’s awaiting palm before they rode off to the shopping center. As soon as they hopped off the motorbike, they made a beeline to the appliances area of the one-floor mall. Fewer people shopped there, with its bigger and more sophisticated counterpart existing across the highway. But to their surprise, the section for rice cookers were empty.
“Kuya?” Francis called the salesclerk arranging boxes of glassware across the rice cooker section. “Do you still have any rice cookers left?” they asked when they got the person’s attention. “Sorry Ma’am/Sir, we just sold the last fifty units last night,” The young man apologized while Francis’s jaw dropped.
“Who bought them?” Francis demanded.
“Some businessman. Presents for his employees, he said.” The salesclerk squeaked. “Ahh, you might want to visit other stores,” he continued, making himself small before the livid customer. “Oh, I will.” Francis muttered as they stomped out of the store.
Francis’s next stop was Gaisano Mall of Tagum (GMall for short), begrudgingly paying fifty pesos for a rush trip. There was no way a humongous place would not have a simple rice cooker. While riding the escalator, they eavesdropped on a gaggle of eager middle-aged women in front of them.
“Mare, Nortia just gave me my first payout.” Loud Lady announced to her crew. She relished the sounds of friends wanting a treat or three from her. “Rice cooker or whatever, I’ll buy it for you!” She boomed. How Francis wanted to be one of that lady’s friend just for the damned appliance.
“Sorry, Ma’am/Sir. We ran out of them right after Nortia’s monthly payout last night,” Salesclerk number three bowed to Francis. The gnawing hunger in their stomach and the added stress of not being able to buy a stupid rice cooker soured their mood by the minute. They stormed out of the appliance store and passed by the crowded food court on the 3rdfloor. There were no empty seats. And in almost every table, they saw a person in black collared shirt with an olive tree embroidered on their chest. Nortia’s company logo. To them, it looked like squiggles and a waste of thread.
A hand landed on their shoulder and Francis all but jolted. “Ma’am, do you want to hear today’s gospel?” Random Nortia agent asked in a saccharine tone. The other person shoved them out of the way and turned to another direction.
“What? Gospel about how to swindle money? No, thank you!” Francis hissed under their breath, arms protectively braced over their chest.
As soon as Francis stepped out of GMall, they opted to walk to Gaisano Grand Mall. The roads were dusty and the vehicles were loud but they only cared for one thing: to get their hands on a rice cooker today or die trying.
Gaisano Grand Mall was not as grand as the name made it out to be with most of the stalls closed down and replaced by displays of their wares. They went up to the third floor of the department store. And from meters away, Francis could see a modestly sized rice cooker sitting atop a shelf. They speed walked towards the good and asked the salesclerk in the aisle.
“Can I have this tested before paying?” Francis all but bounced in their place. “Sorry, but that’s reserved.” Salesclerk number five spoke. “I’m buying that because I just got my first payout from Nortia.” Francis’s face fell. Body in autopilot, they left the store in a daze.
It was past three p.m. The client from before decided to send an untimely message over their phone.
To: Francesca Rico
Greetings Mrs. Rico!
We’re sorry if we cannot send you your paycheck because we had some issues to resolve before we could get to your mail. We might be able to deliver your payment within two or three days.
More power and Godspeed!
Francis hastily stuffed the phone in the front pocket of the shorts. With a deep inhale, they bellowed, “Putang-ina, I just want to eat!” Unbothered by the passersby glancing at them, their gaze was trained on the 7-Eleven across the street. Of course. They could approach him.
“Oh, Sir Pat’s on leave. He said he had things to sort out at home,” Connie answered when they asked about Patrick Ruiz’s whereabouts. “Is he in Kapalong?” Connie shook her head. “He’s probably in J Village. I can give you his phone number if you want,” she offered.
“It’s okay, I already have it.” Francis quipped. Connie excused herself to clean the tables, clearing them of trash and wiping them. Phone in hand and with Patrick’s number onscreen, they shot a quick text.
To: Business Geek
It’s Frankie. Mind if I crash ur place? Gutom na kaayo.
Patrick replied with “Okay.” With the last hundred-peso bill in hand, Francis hailed a tricycle to J Village. “Twenty pesos ‘kol.” The driver’s beady eyes were on the purple bill in Francis’s fist before he reluctantly let the other person ride. The drive going to Patrick’s house was slow with the traffic. Hunger threatened to rip a hole in their stomach.
Francis was in front of the peeling black gate when Patrick, dressed in a blue shirt and grey shorts, greeted them. They all but tackled the man, babbling a mix of “My savior” and “God, I’m starving.” Patrick caught them in a hold and tried not to laugh when Francis began to retell their crazed day, letting them be ushered inside.
“And the damn plug just had to do a mini fireworks show in my apartment!” they groaned. “You could’ve learned to cook with a pot on the stove.” Patrick replied while he scooped a generous bit of steamed rice in a bowl and ignored Francis’s glare. “Landlord won’t let us use stoves but he has one in his home. Hypocrite.” They pouted. But as soon as Patrick laid the food, a bit of squid adobo and hot steamed rice in front of Francis, they all but attacked the meal. He fixed himself a cup of coffee while he watched the other polish the food off their bowls and plate.
At last, Francis finished eating. “That was good, Pat. Thanks a lot.” Patrick ran a nervous hand on the back of his head. “It was my first time cooking that dish so I’m glad you liked it,” he stammered. The other snickered.
“So about that rice cooker thing, I happen to have an old one lying around,” Patrick continued. Francis listened raptly. “I haven’t used it for a few weeks since I have to get a bigger one, now that Enzo’s staying here. It’s still good though.”
“Do you mean…”
“Yeah, you can have it if you want.”
“How much?” Francis began to pull out the last bits of their allowance from the pocket. “No need to pay. You need it more than I do.” Patrick affirmed.
“You’re serious,” Francis deadpanned. The other nodded as he tried to find the rice cooker from the kitchen cabinets. Minutes later, he handed the small and well-used appliance to Francis.
“Guess I should leave? It’s your day off.” Francis mumbled as they headed to the door. “I could use a movie buddy for a few hours. Join me?” Patrick asked.
Francis placed the unexpected gift on the dining table, sitting beside Patrick to watch Shake, Rattle, and Roll.
Sarika Rey completed her BA English-Creative Writing degree in the University of the Philippines Mindanao.