El Pollo Loco, West Los Angeles
A Restaurant in Makati
El Pollo Loco, West Los Angeles
they split the tibia, sucking out / the dense marrow. / They use up love, they swallow / every dark grain
— Ellen Bass, “Eating the Bones”
And why wouldn’t he—crack
open each wing & suck out
what he found? He was my host
but not by blood: for me bones
were like relations—uncle, ulna,
tito, tibia—a class whittled down
to a core. Bakit ka nasa Los Angeles
was what it looked like he wanted
to ask instead of making small
talk about God & God
particles, the purported source
of all mass. Because of a girl!
Because a girl said I seemed to suck
the marrow out of wherever
I happened to be. I watched him lick
each knuckle & whorl. Then he slapped
a bus token down on formica—for me—
to cover the sights (one way at least) & buy
his apartment a few hours walang
intrusion. There were locks
on both sides of his doors—deadbolts, pin
& disc tumblers (kasi if they get in
I’ll be damned if they can get out); a jungle
potted & hanging; & the bear he claimed
to’ve put down himself—knotted
cascades of fur; as hungry for sound
as a black hole for light—a fucking
bear! We gaped at each other
the next morning, when I woke
with the flu & the landline
ringing like tinnitus behind his bedroom
so was the front. Uncle Buddy had gone
to work—whatever work was—& forgot
to leave a key. The beach was brighter
& colder than I’d thought, the climates
compact, unpredictable as zip codes.
I looked out across the Pacific—far
across that crushed up recycled light
sprawled untold acres of
that if struck would make mine
sing out too—
A Restaurant in Makati
The stink of patîs & vinegar must make
the blind mariachis blinder.
They belt anyway: harmonies
stacked & strummed on steel-
strung chords, charro-svelte, except
for the bass player, who might be
a nesting doll for a native god.
It’s a fashionable neighborhood
with even an Hermés
patrolled by a guard slung with a grin
& an AK-47. We eat with our hands
kamayan style—innards & knuckles, bone
hole, kare-kare, sizzling sisig—
my uncle, the dissident
turned capitalist, & me, a backpacker
afraid of the ice. God only knows
is what they sing & dahil sa iyo &
the currency calls for. Praised
& paid, they shuffle out in single file
the blind leading
the ostensibly blind & I wonder
why this fear I’m being conned?
Even the harelipped boy
the day before outside the KFC— the way he’d chanted out his hands.
Had his own mother
maimed him so we’d give
what little we gave? On warmed towels we wipe our hands, before
my uncle takes me back
to the terminal, before he asks if I’ve got any yen to spare
for his schemes & he peels out into the lawless traffic
through which the mariachis wade to the spaces they’ve hollowed out
or leaned against someone else’s, doffing the accoutrements of mariachi
becoming in sleep indistinguishable from
all that isn’t blind.
The Ibong Adarna: a bird, Rose explains in delicate English, that a dying king sends his sons into the forest to capture: its song can make him young again. It lulls the sons to sleep & with its droppings turns each to stone.
Rose can’t believe I’ve never heard it—it’s as basic as bread or Coke. We’ve just met. We’re related somehow; blood.
The father gets worse. He doesn’t want the youngest to follow but of course the son goes anyway: takes a flute. Some coins. A knife. The jungle presses down until he feels a dream coming on — grey shores — gulls —
but he shakes it off — sleep’s whole note & thrall — by gouging his arm with the knife, by dousing the wounds with calamansi. (A hybrid of citrus & fortunella. Like lime but sweeter. More delicate).
The scars on my arm make her think of it: spaced like a tally; a guardian angel’s. She waits for the host to call our name. Silence is easy: from Manila to Kalibo, I kept my mouth shut to pass — on buses, jeepneys, ferries — though the next passenger could’ve been kin.
The first time I came to these islands, I chased my older cousins down to the trees. I was three; Rose hadn’t been born. Funeral clothes—for our lolo — mud. We chucked rocks & sticks at some monkeys until one scraped me up to its jaws—
Aunts rushed out a door & carried me to the next town
—strangers fitted a mask to my—a white-
hot sprouting below my shoulder like the first limb of a new body—
Neither Rose nor her mother recalls if the boy saves his brothers, if some countermelody turns them back to meat, if their napes still green with moss. We eat. Something at the table takes root in me, begins to knot me up like poison. I will fold & unfold all night & dream the islands I passed through to get here:
The island of clove smoke & metallophones; the one with houses made of rain; the twenty dollars out of each paycheck I plan to set aside so Rose & her mother can rely that much less on the father who will never come home—
the father, queued up at a window in Abu Dhabi, chewing on a pencil, clutching what might be a race- day program, a remittance form. I pay for parking tickets, overdraft fees, a son, and then another, & in between a stillness. I send no money abroad.
The boy catches the bird & his father spends the rest of his days devising notation. Or, the bird takes pity on the boy & goes into the cage to stop the damage. Or the boy has three sons of his own who suffer from insomnia & tinnitus. He lets the bird go & the bird turns him into an island covered with forests—