At the turn of the millennium, my father took me to his workplace and attempted to teach his trade secrets for me to become a woodworker. At that time, he was a master parquet setter and had been in the trade for more than fifteen years. He had assembled a thousand pieces of parquet tiles and was the owner of a well-known and reputable seasoned floor finisher.
It was the worst time to learn the parquet floor industry trade; it was on a steady decline because of the emergence of easy to install ceramic tiles, a practical alternative to the primitive parquet trade. The last thing my father wanted for me was to follow in his footsteps and while-away the years on a craft he knew was not going to recover. Projects became scarce, and one by one people who made a living setting parquet tiles ran away from the industry like it was a crumbling structure. Limited options in livelihood forced him to expedite my apprenticeship so we would benefit from the vacuum left by the former workers and so I could alleviate the family’s growing domestic expenses.
As a novice, I was delegated to separate the good wood from the bad, set out in the sun the damped, and put together the light ones away from the ones heavy in color.
My father would work on the rooms like completing a puzzle; putting together the parquet tiles so fast, so masterfully, that by the time I would return from the errand he delegated, he was already finished and starting again in another room. When all the parquet tiles were set, we would lift with our bare hands the sanding machine, dismount it from the boss’s red pick-up truck and weave it through the doorsteps, and step by step elevate it on stairs when the project house has an upper level.
As soon as my father squeezed the power button, the beast of a machine would let the floor exhale a cloud of sawdust; the occupational hazard wasn’t worth the compensation of a few kilos of rice, few packs of instant noodles and cans of sardines.
I recalled how I leaned on the windows to peek on my father who was gobbled by a cloud of sawdust, and effortlessly manhandling the sanding machine, his face covered with clothing wrapped around his head and the sleeves knotted at the back of his neck. I knew at a young age that was not good for the lungs. I observed after my father was done polishing the floors, he would emerge from the rooms bathed in sawdust and sweat and quickly take refuge into a corner to cough out the dust, and in his spittle, a cocoa-like color trapped in the amber of his saliva.
It was the episode in my young life I had retained in my memory, and perhaps could be the last moment I would remember with so much clarity, even on the day I will die. But it was that moment along with the rough ones I had with my mother that urged me to make amends for what they lacked in life, and I strived to do better, so when the day of their fragility comes, I am well-equipped to deal it with grace.
And my apprenticeship didn’t pass by the third session not because my father had a sudden change of heart but because the projects never came until many years later. I was a few weeks away from high school graduation when the brutality of poverty forced me on a corner and there was no way for me to continue schooling without starving the whole family to death. Out of personal conviction, in equal parts out of pity, I discontinued my studies, to the lament of my parents, so I could lessen the weight of the family ship that was quickly sinking into the proverbial depths of the ocean bed.
In that sequence, I served a difficult sentence and learned before my time the facility to maneuver shovels and wheelbarrows and dipped my tender feet prematurely in the punitive world of construction work.
I was initiated as among the army of construction laborers who laid the concrete floors on the present basketball court in our barrio in a food for work agreement.
A month away from school, a red pick-up truck appeared in the yard, the driver, wearing a thick glass, the hair shining styled in pomade, a mustache trimmed like that of Coach Ansay of Slam Dunk, disembarked from the wheel blurting out expletives in the inimitable fashion of the late Bong Garcia. He bagged the contract to renovate the market stalls in San Fernando Public Market, as he was back then, diversifying his source of income, as well as the forgotten trade of parquet setting was a thing of the past.
I was among those tasked to move loads of gravel and sand, carry bags of cement, feed all of it into the mouth of a concrete mixer, and when the materials mixed together, pour the finished product into the ground to made even the surface by moving a two by four by ten feet wood back and forth, up and down until the floor was levelled to the desired appearance by the engineers.
It turned out, I became the anchor tossed out of the ship to keep the ship together, and became the fighter against the fierce tides and winds of life.
Two years later, in the month of September, I made the biggest fortune of my life. I awakened my mother, in a voice almost a whisper, and remitted to her six thousand pesos, a fortune she never had in her life. She couldn’t believe it was true and she had to rub her eyes, thinking what a beautiful dream she was dreaming, and only when I validated she wasn’t tricked by her imagination she stood and prepared me a cup of coffee.
A few weeks more, I asked my father how much it would cost him if I would buy him the sanding machine he coveted most in his young life. He couldn’t believe either that it would be possible until, they rushed to go to Manila to order the manufacturer to assemble him a new one because they were no longer sold in the market pre-ordered.
Since then, our fortunes turned out for the better. We were never threatened to die of starvation again.
James Ryan Manalo is originally from the Philippines and has been an aspiring writer since elementary school. Now, he lives in Calgary with his wife and son.
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