A short story

In 1966 the president of CocoLoco Studios broke the news to us in English: "As the Americanos say, it is time to listen to the music. Your movies are shit." He unrolled a poster for The Squid Children of Cebu, our latest picture for CocoLoco. Our names were written in drippy, bloody letters. "A Checkers Rosario Film" was printed above the title, and my credit was at the bottom. "Reva Gogo," it read, "as the Squid Mother."

In its first week in release Squid Children played in just one theater in all of Manila; it was the midnight show at the La Luna. "A place for peasants and their whores," the president said, tearing the poster in half, "and is it true they use a bed sheet for a screen?" Then, speaking in Tagalog, he fired us.

From CocoLoco we walked toward home, and when we passed The Oasis, one of the English-only movie theaters that had been sprouting up all over Manila, Checkers threw a stone at Doris Day's face. Send Me No Flowers was playing, and above the box office Doris Day and Rock Hudson traded sexy glances and knowing smiles. "Their fault!" he said, and I understood what he meant. Imported Hollywood romance was what Manila moviegoers were paying to see, and Checkers's low-budget horror could no longer compete. "All that overacting, that corny shit!" But here was the truth: those were the movies I longed for Checkers to make, where men fall in love with women and stay there, and tearful partings are only preludes to tearful reunions. Real life—that's what I wanted to play, but my only roles were Bat-Winged Pygmy Queen, Werewolf Girl, Two-Headed Bride of Two-Headed Dracula, Squid Mother—all those monstrous girls that Checkers dreamed up just for me.

I took the second stone from his hand and put it in my purse. "Time to go home," I said.

But we did not give up. Checkers shopped around his latest (and last) screenplay, Dino-Ladies Get Quezon City, to all the Manila studios and even one in Guam; every answer was no. I auditioned and auditioned, and although casting agents liked my look (one called me a Filipina Sophia Loren), cold readings made me seem like an amateur. I shouted out dialogue that should have been whispered, and made tears of sorrow look like tears of joy.

For the next three years this was our life: I worked as a dentist's secretary, and Checkers lamented. One night I woke to the sound of thwacking, and found him drunk on the balcony, cracking open coconuts with a machete. "Was I no good?" he asked, his grunts turning to sniffles. I rested my head against the back of his neck. "Your chance will come again," I said. "Just come back to bed."

Sometimes, when I play that night over in my head, I give it a new ending. I answer Checkers with the truth: that the most he ever achieved was minor local fame; that his movies were shoddily produced, illogically plotted, clumsily directed. This hurts Checkers—it hurts me, too—but the next morning we go on with our life. I marvel at the possibilities. We might have married, we might have had children. Maybe then we wouldn't have needed Gaz Gazman the way we did that Saturday morning in January of 1970, when he rang our doorbell.

"Who are you?" I asked. Through the peephole I saw a stranger in a safari hat wipe his feet on our doormat as though we had already welcomed him.

"Name's Gazman. From Hollywood, USA. I'm here for a Checkers"—he looked at the name written on his palm—"Rosario."

I put my hand on the doorknob and made sure the door was locked. "What do you want?"

He leaned toward the peephole and grinned so widely that I saw fillings and crowns. "His monsters," he said.

From the bedroom I heard Checkers starting his day the usual way, with a phlegmy cough from the previous night's bourbon. I went to him. "Someone is here," I said, poking his shoulder. "From Hollywood."

He lifted his head.

"Get up," I said. "Be ready." I returned to the front door. I didn't want to, but I did. For Checkers. I unlocked the lock and let Gaz Gazman in.

I led him to the kitchen and offered him a plate of Ritz crackers and a square of margarine. I stood by the sink, watching him as he ate. His shirt and shorts were covered with palm trees, and his purple sandals clashed with the orange lenses of his sunglasses. A large canvas bag was on the floor beside him, and his hat was still on.

Checkers stepped into the kitchen. "The great Checkers Rosario," Gaz said.

Checkers stared at Gaz with bloodshot eyes. "Used to be," he said, and sat down.

Gaz explained himself: he was in Manila visiting an ex-girlfriend, a makeup artist for CocoLoco. He had toured the studio, gone through its vaults, and found copies of Checkers's 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 had 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 and circled the table as he explained his movie: en route back 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 in on our life now—the hours he wasted while I worked hard, the constant mess of our apartment, his never-ending reminiscing about 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 in these matters. The movie business here in Manila is corrupt and dishonest. 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."

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