By Lysley Tenorio
Illustration by Brynn Metheney
An excerpt from the short story by Lysley Tenorio, associate professor of English and winner of a prestigious 2008 Whiting Writers’ Award.
Checkers stepped into the kitchen. “The great Checkers Rosario,” Gaz said.
Checkers stared at Gaz with bloodshot eyes. “Used to be,” he said, then sat down.
Gaz explained himself: he was in Manila visiting an ex-girlfriend, a make-up artist for CocoLoco. He toured the
studio, went through their vaults, and found copies of Checkers’ movies. “I watched them all, and I thought, jackpot-eureka! This is the real deal. They said if I wanted
to use them, I should find you.” He pulled four canisters of film from his canvas bag and stacked them on the table.
“And now you’re found.”
Checkers took the reels from the canisters. I could hear him whisper their titles like the names of women he once loved and still did — The Creature in the Cane, Cathedral of Dread, DraculaDracula, The House on Dead Filipino Road. “Use them,” he said. “What for?”
“Three words,” Gaz said. “Motion. Picture. History.” He got up, circled the table as he explained his movie: en route to earth from a distant star system, the crew of The Valedictorian crash lands on a hostile planet inhabited by bat-winged pygmies, lobster-clawed cannibals, two-headed vampires. “That’s where your stuff comes in. I’m going to splice your movies with mine.” He went on about the mixing-up of genres, chop-suey cinema, bringing together east and west. “We’d be the ambassadors of international film!”
“What’s your thinking on this?” Checkers asked me in Tagalog. “Is this man serious? Is he just an American fool?”
“Ask how much he’ll pay,” I said, “get twenty percent more, give him the movies and show him to the door.”
“All our hard work for a few pesos?” Checkers said. “That’s their worth to you?” He asked if I’d forgotten the ten-star reviews, the long lines on opening night, but I didn’t want to hear about our life back then, so I started about our life now — the hours he wasted while I worked hard, the constant mess of our apartment, his never-ending reminiscing of our CocoLoco days.
“I come in peace!” Gaz said. “Don’t fight because of me.”
I switched back to English. “We are discussing, not fighting. We don’t have lawyers or agents to counsel us over these matters. There is corruption and dishonesty in the movie business here in Manila. It’s not like in Hollywood.”
“But I’m one of the good guys,” Gaz said, and to prove it, he made an offer: “Come to America. Just for a week. You can see a rough cut, visit the set, meet the cast. Plenty of room at my pad. I’ll even take the couch. And if you don’t like what you see, I’ll reimburse you the airfare and you won’t ever hear from me again.”
Then Checkers said, “Reva will come too.”
I shook my head. “This is your business.” I spoke in English, so that Gaz would understand me too. “The two of you. Not the three of us.”
“But I need you,” Checkers said. He came to me, put his hands on my shoulders. “You must be with me.”
“Awww. You’re just an old softie, aren’t you Chex?” Gaz winked at me. “How can you say no to that?”
I put my hands on Checkers’ face. He looked neater than he had in a long time, but he was still a mess: his shirt was misbuttoned at the top, there were patches of stubble he missed when he shaved, and his Elvis-style pompadour showed more gray than I’d realized was there.
“I can’t,” I told Gaz.
“Someone in America is dead.” This was the lie I told my boss when I asked for a week off from work. “Someone close to me.” It was easy to say — I told him over the phone — but part of me hoped he would deny my request. That way, I would have to stay, and maybe Checkers would stay behind too. But my boss let me go, and he gave me fatherly advice: “Take all the time you need for final good-byes with dead loved ones.” I promised I would.
We left Monday morning, and our flight to California felt like backwards travel through time. In Manila it was night but outside the plane the sky was packed with clouds so white they looked fake, like the clouds painted on the cinderblock walls of the La Luna. Checkers and I began our courtship there, thirteen years before. I was sixteen, he was twenty-two, and every Saturday night we held hands in the second row for the midnight double creature feature. Checkers would marvel at what he called “the beauty of the beast” — he confirmed the expert craftsmanship of a well-made monster with a quiet “Yes” (he gave a standing ovation for Creature From the Black Lagoon) and let out exasperated sighs for the lesser ones. The more menacing the monster, he said, the better. But I preferred the monster that could be tamed. Like Fay Wray, I wanted to lay on the leathery palm of my gorilla suitor, soothe his rage with my calming, loving gaze. “You’ll be on screen one day,” Checkers said. “I’ll put you there. Just keep faith in me.”
So I did. After high school, I moved in with Checkers, took odd jobs sewing and cleaning while he worked on his treatment for The Creature In the Cane. The night CocoLoco Studios bought it, I was rewarded for my faith: Checkers gave me a white box tied with pink ribbon. “Wear this,” he whispered, “for me.” I expected a nightgown with a broken strap and tattered neckline — standard attire for a woman in peril — but when I opened it I found a pair of wolf ears, a rubber forehead covered with boils, several plastic eyeballs. “You will be The Creature,” he said, near tears and smiling. “You.”
The night we started filming, as I rubber glued eyeballs to my face, I told myself this was a first step, that even great actresses have unglamorous starts. I told myself this again the night of the premiere, when audiences cheered wildly as a dozen sugarcane farmers descended upon The Creature with sticks and buckets of holy water. This is only the beginning — I repeated it, like a prayer, through all the films I did for Checkers.
The plane shook hard when we landed in America, and Checkers woke in a panic, hitting his head on my chin. “We’re here?” he said, breathing heavy. “We finally arrived?” I rubbed the back of his neck to calm him. But my lip was bleeding. I could taste it.
Gaz didn’t live in Holly-wood. He lived east of it, in Los Feliz, in a gray building called The Paradise. “This is it,” he said, unlocking the door. “the home of Gaz Gazman and DoubleG Productions.” It was a tiny apartment furnished a sinking couch and a pair of yellow beanbags, and the offices of DoubleG Productions were a walk-in closet with a metal desk crammed inside, a telephone and a student film trophy — second place — on top of it. A junior college diploma hung above the fake fireplace, and it was then that I learned Gaz Gazman was not his real name. “Who the hay wants to see a movie by Gazwick Goosmahn? But Gaz Gazman” — he snapped twice — “that’s a director’s name.”
“It’s the same with me!” Checkers said. “My real name? Chekiquinto. Can you believe?” He shook his head and laughed. “Chekiquinto. My gosh!”
“Horrible!” Gaz laughed along. “And you? Is Reva Gogo for real?” He said it like he already knew that I wasn’t. My real name was Revanena Magogolang. I never liked it, so right before The Creature In the Cane, I de-clunked it down to its smoothest sound. And Reva Gogo, my credit read, as The Creature.
I took Checkers’ hand and made him sit with me on a beanbag. “Show us your movie,” I said. The sooner we saw Gaz’s clips, I thought, the sooner we could get our money and hurry home.
Gaz wheeled in a film projector from his bedroom, loaded a sixteen millimeter reel, then hung a white bed sheet on the wall. “There are rough spots,” he said, “but I think you’ll like what you see.” He drew the curtains, turned off the lights, filled a bowl with pretzels, then showed us what he had.
The film opened with a view of earth from outer space, and a voice (Gaz’s) began: “The year is 1999. The world and all its good citizens have never been better. World peace has been achieved, no child goes hungry, disease has been gotten rid of. Man is free to contemplate the human condition, and more importantly, colonize outer space.” Entering the picture was a bottle-shaped spaceship, THE VALEDICTORIAN glittering in blue letters along its hull. “There she is,” Gaz whispered, “the smartest ship in the fleet.” A whistle blew, and then a weird, psychedelic montage of oddly-angled stills began: there was Captain Vance Banner, the square-jawed fearless leader; Ace Trevor, the hot-headed helmsman; the Intelli-Bot 4-26-35 (“My birthday,” Gaz said); and finally Lorena Valdez, the raven-haired, olive-skinned meteor scientist. “Eyes darker than the cosmic void, lips redder than human blood,” Gaz quoted from his script. “Beauty and brains. Lorena’s got ’em in spades.”
Gaz loaded a second reel, quick scenes of the actors running in a nearby canyon, which would be the planet inhabited by Checkers’ monsters. “That’s where I’ll splice your footage in,” Gaz said. The canyon scenes were comprised of reaction shots, extreme close-ups of the actors shouting, “Look out!,” “Duck, Captain, duck!” and “They’re hideous!” “I had them take expressions lessons in West Hollywood.” Gaz said. “They’ve definitely done their homework.”
I looked at Checkers. There were pretzel crumbs on the corner of his mouth, but when I tried to wipe them off he brushed my hand away. “Ssshh,” he said. His face glowed blue from the movie on the wall, just like it did back in the CocoLoco editing room, late at night after a long day’s shoot. I would end up asleep on the floor, sometimes until morning, waiting for him.
Gaz turned off the projector. “And that’s just the beginning,” he smiled. “So, are we in?”
Even before Gaz turned on the lights, Checkers was on his feet, searching his pockets for a pen. “Let’s do it,” he said. His breathing was quick and heavy, almost desperate, and his forehead was drippy with sweat. “I’m ready,” he said, “we’re in.”