Friday, June 08, 2007

Loneliness of a Long Shot Winner (fiction)







Newly graduated with a BS Accounting degree from the Pamantasan Ng Maynila, a place of learning that was not quite among the top institutions in the country but had a better reputation than most downtown universities, Ton Macarajos found himself in a pared-down number of aspirants to join the management trainee program of a major multinational company.

The board exams for accountancy for that year was still several months away and with this new development he put this on hold until the results of the recruitment in to the management training program came out.

When he received the telegram summoning him to be in the personnel office on the thirtieth of April at 8:30 in the morning he heaved a sigh of relief. He had not expected reaching this far in the recruitment process. He felt as if he was on top of the world and was breathing in gasps in the vast whiteness of a strange landscape feeling heady in the thin but exhilarating air. Days of waiting has heightened his anxiety. A week earlier he couldn’t believe his luck when he was contacted by a personnel officer of a multinational company inviting him to apply for a trainee position in their management development program. He was now in the finals. “Am I really here?”, he exclaimed with veiled vanity.

Only a few days ago he was shattered to find out that the other finalists were made up of some of the finest student leaders and were creme de la creme of the 1980 batch of graduates in the country. Gloria Indice and Gian Zalameda were standouts in the debating team when they represented the country in the ASEAN meet pitting their talents with the best debaters from Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and guest country, India. With impeccable scholastic records, both of them were, also known for their active participation in civic projects as youth managers of Rotary and Jaycee sponsored projects. The three others were Joe Valencia, an honors graduate in Chemical Engineering from the state university while the other two, Bino de los Reyes and Carl Gotengco were graduates of better known stateside universities.

He was sorry that he inquired from the personnel department about the backgrounds of the other finalists. It would have been less daunting if he just kept himself ignorant. But there was no way he could quiet his curiosity. His excitement at being given this fine opportunity made him almost obsessed with the idea of winning. Why not? Of the almost a thousand graduates in the university that year he placed second, losing only to a girl who had straight "A"s from first year to fourth. She had an exceptional memory, almost photographic, and "idiot savant" like in extent.

Ton was the compleat student who not only excelled in his scholastic activities but was an active leader in most of the high profile guilds and clubs in the university. He was an unequalled big man on campus. But only in the Pamantasan campus.

Realizing that he may not be good enough he consoled himself with the thought that he could always return to his job as busboy in a Jollibee outlet while waiting for a clerical job in a rural bank promised by a rich uncle in Calumpit and save enough to pay for a review course for the board exams. Before he was contacted by a personnel officer of the company he was quite content with the few prospects he had after school. A job in a bank, being a white collar one, was considered by most of his batch mates as a plum one. It was really fortunate that the multinational company for that year chose to cast its net wider to include other schools in their search for management trainee candidates. It seemed that they have not been happy with the results of the recruitment of earlier training programs which limited itself to a few well known schools. A number of the recruits did not complete the program; some were pirated by other companies after a year, while others, after gaining some experience in a multinational organization joined their fathers in family businesses. There were some who opted to pursue their masterals after chalking up the required business experience. Young men and women with impressive credentials have several options and could not be expected to be committed to any particular pursuit so early in their development. What Ton did not know was he very well typified the ideal management trainee recruit that went with the new recruitment thinking.

The last stage in the selection process was a group dynamics situation wherein the half dozen remnants of about 200 aspirants at the starting gate were to be pitted against each other. The finalists were herded to a room somewhat similar to the police interrogation rooms that you see in the movies, only bigger. There was a long table with six chairs clustered at the half end of it. On the wall was a big one way mirror on the other side of which was a viewing room where the board of selectors disappeared into after giving a briefing to the group on the conduct of the exercise and the introduction of topics and issues that they may choose to take up. The board of selectors is composed of senior managers in the department seeking recruits and the head of Personnel. Occasionally a guest selector would be asked to join either as an expert on issues for discussion or a department head who would have an interest in hiring from the less successful candidates but not as management trainees. They were first asked to discuss current events issues and then theoretical issues all designed to bring out the capability of each candidate to argue their respective stands on the given issues. The group exercise was also supposed to bring out the individual personalities and how each one is able to prevail on the others using wit, aggression, communications skills, organized thought and other subtleties, subterfuges included. The final selection process would normally take from morning till late afternoon. Despite their youth the candidates would all look spent and worn out after the rigors of the ordeal. At the end, a presentation of the summation of their arguments was asked of each candidate.

The absence of the selectors in the rooms during the goings on was designed to make the candidates less inhibited and to allow the selectors to observe body language, quirks and discuss amongst themselves the issues emerging from the discussions without disturbing the finalists. During the observation in the opposite room they may mediate, interrupt and make clarifications whenever asked for by the finalists or when they themselves find the need to do so.

The remnants would most of the time be from Ateneo, Lasalle and UP and since they would be of the same age range they would be acquainted with each other socially or as classmates and/or batch-mates in school or as members of prominent national youth organizations. Often times, the selectors had to remind them that they are vying for only a few slots and that they shouldn’t be too kind with each other in the ensuing discussions. It was not the time to be chummy, if they miss this year’s program they have to compete with next year's batch of new grads, if they are lucky enough to be invited again, but they would have the stigma of having been a loser the first time around.

This would be the first instance where they will face the realities of job seeking. If one gets taken in another loses the opportunity…a zero sum world. Some ploys involve having to ally with another one or two and when the intended victim or victims are disposed of they now have limited the fight among themselves and they now turn on each other to finish off the two or one other. It must have felt lowly when one came to the realization that one must look after “numero uno” only. One had to set aside friendships and some idealistic notions inculcated through all those years of education in respectable and religious schools. At a heated juncture of the discussions it seemed that there was a collaboration of two of the candidates to gang up on him. After deftly avoiding the squeeze play the recurring question “…what am I doing here?” flashed somberly in his mind.

Invariably the kids coming from these schools are happy, privileged kids with the exception of some UP graduates or other less elite learning institutions most of whom may come from lower middle to low economic class families. The disadvantage of those not from the upper class families is that the selectors, who themselves were selected under the same system would tend to look for their clones as they judge the aspirants according to their standards. For instance a bright fellow from UP might be mentally stricken off by a selector for having mispronounced a word or had a singsong accent as opposed to an “Arrneow” one. This happens a lot of times. Perpetuation of species may be the dynamics involved here. Conventional biases like gender stereotyping for jobs also occur every now and then.

With what might be considered as an incredible stroke of luck Ton Macarajos succeeded in getting one of the three available slots. Gloria Indice and Gian Zalameda were the two others who were taken into the management training program

He now got an assignment as an assistant in one of the brand groups. His boss was the typical brand group manager who came from an elitist school and had a willful disdain for those who did not belong. He got his first taste of this bigotry when he was asked by his boss to go to Isabela province which at that time was notorious for having a wild and wooly west atmosphere and where concrete infrastructure were almost nonexistent. This meant having to travel the expanse of the province through pot-holed highways from Dalton Pass to the feeder airport in Campo Sagrado in Ilagan and through washed out bridges in Tumauini. A government tractor was making good enterprise by pulling out vehicles stuck in the Tumauini mud pits.

By some odd circumstance the divisional sales manager of the Northern Luzon area who was supposed to meet him in Ilagan was nowhere to be found. He was in Manila. It was no coincidence that there was a national sales meeting going on in Manila when his boss sent him to Isabela. He had a taste of the kind of meanness and oppression that his boss could dish out but this is something he can handle. He had experienced worst treatments than this and he dismissed it as an initiation of sorts.

The dormitories in Campo Sagrado were not exactly the Ritz and without dining facilities but it was the friendliest place in town to sleep in. The small hotels were risky but could not be avoided because they were the only places that served food. The restaurant in the hotel that he went to looked like a typical hell-hole where at any moment a shootout between Django and the Trinity Kid can happen. There were mining folks out for an evening of raucous fun, military types drinking with their side arms ostensibly displayed as an announcement to all that they rule the place.

There were some local toughies that minded their own business and were behaving less boisterously because of the presence of the armed military. After finishing dinner and a few beers there were a few overt taunts coming from the menacing looking groups. They couldn’t help themselves because Ton really looked every bit the well scrubbed city boy. The local toughies were rolling their empty beer bottles towards his table every time they finished one. After being surrounded by more than a dozen beer bottles he furtively asked for his bill and disappeared quietly by faking to go to the toilet then hurriedly left through the kitchen door and vanished in the nearest street corner to ensure that he was already out of sight in case they fancied playing around with the Manila boy some more.

Once he got to the dormitory the first thing he did was to summon the house boy and gave him a peso and fifty to clean up the toilet to make it less repulsive, not spotless but useable. At first sight of the toilet bowl he squirmed at its disgusting filthiness. He considered staying constipated but the peristaltic turbulence within his innards was so persistent and there was no choice but to relieve himself. “When you gotta go…you gotta go” as the saying goes.

The price that he had to pay the hotel boy was a princely sum considering that he only paid two pesos and fifty centavos for an over night use of a cubicle the size and the looks of a pigsty. He had second thoughts about having to get into his sleeping clothes the moment he saw the bed and the bed sheet that he will lie in for the night. The bed had a native mat with frayed edges and the mat itself had splotches of caked dirt like bas-reliefs on two corners and felt a bit damp. The blanket was probably white when new but has now turned gray with splotches of yellow-brown smudge looking as dirty as a treasure hunter’s map. He then decided to rest his tired body with his street clothes and jacket on and using his softbag as pillow carefully avoiding contact of his bare skin to any part of the bed, mat and bed sheet. It must have been the excitement of the new experiences he has encountered in this desolate part of the country and perhaps his awareness of the squalor all around him in this dingy room that kept him awake for almost an hour more.

The whole thing that happened that day seemed surreal. “What am I doing here?” he thought with trepidation. He didn’t fit into the picture. His mind was active now. Images flitted and flashed as if in a spool of unedited film rushes. The mean faces of the toughies in the hotel restaurant…the rolling beer bottles that crowded him, hit his shoes and the table legs…his boss rudely giving out detailed instructions a day before he left for Isabela…at the canteen with Gloria Indice at lunch…the empty office of the divisional sales manager in Ilagan…the dirty toilet bowl and the over solicitous boy who cleaned it up…flashes of Gloria again, walking the length of the corridor as a final vision before succumbing to a stupor. He woke up with a heaviness caused by the inertia of a troubled sleep.

In the morning, after having done his market checking and making the rounds of the local dealers and distributors he went to the PAL office to find out the flight schedules. He sorely wanted to get out of the place by way of any available transport. The flight schedule only had Friday when a PAL plane would have a stopover in Ilagan. It was only Tuesday and he didn’t relish the idea of having to stay for a few more days. He caught a bus going to Tuguegarao where PAL had more frequent flights. Upon reaching Tuguegarao the first impulse was to check in to a decent hotel and take a long bath to wash away the itchy feeling caused by real and imagined dirt that have lodged in his pores in the two days stay in Ilagan. He then went to the PAL office to buy a ticket for Manila in the afternoon of that day.

Gloria Indice was a product of the Assumption Convent. She was one of the few recipients of the loyalty award which was given to students who were enrolled in the school from Kindergarten up to completing a college degree.She had a bachelor of arts degree in Sociology minoring in French. She was an outstanding student who excelled in academics and was the pride of the convent sisters who saw in her the fruition of their tutelage and guidance in Christian piety, etiquette as well as in gracious living. None epitomized better than she the ideals of this venerable and respected institution. This was something that was not lost in the eyes of her family who were intensely proud of her , especially her father, a politician who held on to a position of power and influence for more than twenty five years. He has been governor and congressman in alternating series through all these years in the province of Antique. The youngest and only girl in a family of four siblings Gloria was doted upon by her parents and they provided her with all that she desired. She would have been a spoiled brat were it not for the careful nurturing and supervision of the nuns who inculcated in her strong Christian values and a selfless social concern. Even without her father’s patronage to the convent that saw to it that the school was the beneficiary of a substantial amount of support from his foundation she would still have been a favorite daughter of the school because of her inherent graciousness and intelligence. She was pretty in a special way. It must have been an emanation from the innate goodness in her and the sincerity of her aspect that added to an already fine-looking physical beauty.

Gian Zalameda was one of her close friends. While in school they met at national convocations and conferences of the youth organizations that they both belong to. Both were in the debating team that brought home the trophy in the ASEAN competition. Gian never thought of Gloria as someone he could have a relationship with other than the earnest friendship that existed between the two of them. It could have been possible except that it just never crossed his mind. Neither did it enter Gloria’s mind. They have been too preoccupied with various things and now their focus is in surviving the rigors and challenges of the management training program.

Gian comes from a prominent family in Ilocos Sur. He is a scion of the landed gentry. Although they were not overly wealthy; the land reform program of the government severely diminished their proprietary acreage, theirs was a family who have provided a legacy that they could be proud of. The family had given the country sons and daughters who have been eminent educators and gallant heroes in the Philippine revolution and in the last global war. Zalameda was an old family name that was respected and highly regarded in Ilocos Sur.

Gian and Gloria could have made a handsome pair. Two thoroughbreds with all the papers to show their unassailable lineage; brought together by similarity of persuasions, the milieu they move in and stature. Their friends around them seem to give encouragement for them to be more than just friends seeing how admirable they were together.

Even Ton seemed to agree with this popular sentiment although he harbored a secret longing for Gloria, one which he most zealously guarded. In his mind it was a sacrilege just to think that he is worthy of her. While it often crossed his mind he had developed a mental default which automatically blocked out notions and images in reference to this silliness. But Gloria has unknowingly been unkind for she seemed to encourage a closeness between them that he was desperately trying to avoid. Because he looked lost she seemed to be a little bit more understanding with him, a bit more considerate. This show of empathy could be dangerous and cruel for it could be misconstrued as a show of care…of love, not of the beneficence that Gloria had for all. For Ton, who seemed to be the disadvantaged one, she gave a little bit more.

So when Gloria went with him to the canteen for merienda he gave it meaning for it was seldom that the marketing guys went on a one on one during breaks. It was always with a number of people. They even kidded about it by saying that you have to be present at these things every time because if you don’t, you would be the one they would talk about. While he thought that it was an encouragement he just couldn’t bring himself to act on it. Just like in the movies he will just have to be content to play the role of the long suffering village lad who will never profess his love to the daughter of the hacendero.

He had been in love before and at that time it was so much easier to open his heart to the intended. Aida was a pretty neighbor to whom he had special feelings for. It was a simple and comfortable affair. He had shown his love and this was returned without much bother. Perhaps it was this nonchalance that shielded him from having a painful parting. Aida left him to go abroad to work as a data processing analyst in a Singaporean research company.

It was his resolve to cut cleanly from this forbidden yearning. He could not ignore the weight of the biases and prejudices of centuries of serfdom and servility that was his family legacy. His father was a farmer who went to the city to become a family driver and his father before him tilled the soil of the cane fields of Iloilo and so with his great grandfather…sacadas all. For the depth that he had dug into his ancestry there was not even a single vestige of highness in any of the generations. His family was of the soil…an indelible distinction as hard to deny as his flat-footedness which is said to be an indubitable sign of peasant ancestry.

What helped him in his decision was that he didn’t want to waste this grand opportunity to rise from the humble state that he and his family were in. He now had a chance at making something of himself and create a future that was not as stark and sorry as their family history. So what is one more love lost? It is a fitting price to pay to realize another dream.

And so it went…Gian finally awoke to the fact that he was in love with Gloria. Despite Ton’s efforts to distance himself from Gloria she seemed all the more resolute to be friendlier. What at first Gian thought to be a jealousy on the friendship he had with Gloria turned out to be a jealousy borne by the threat of his losing her to Ton. Gian launched a determined effort to woo his beloved Gloria and soon enough Gian won her heart.

Ton was rid of this distraction that bedeviled him for so long. He now focused his attention on his work. It was not going smoothly because his boss seemed to be very critical of his output and was never supportive of any idea that he would recommend for product promotions or for thematic directions. The usual criticism was that the ideas that he broached were mediocre and “baduy” which meant in bad taste and of low class. He was often rebuked for not having a feel for what is artistic and refined and that his attempts were, at best, pretentious and smacked of artificiality. More and more the feeling of not belonging became stronger as the rebuffs became more when some of the brand managers made taunts similar to what his boss dished out.

During company socials, he would, oftentimes find himself isolated because he could hardly contribute to the topics being talked about. It was the cocktail talk, the small talk that he found difficulty in contributing to. He was not aware of the gossip items which involved the high society coterie, he didn’t know any of the personalities being talked about. One of the wives remarked “I don’t know if Ton is just being na├»ve but it is as if he was born only yesterday”! Even with the guys in the brand group, talking by the cocktails bar, he found himself just listening and nodding on a chanced familiarity. He could not make a comment on the latest fashionable male items, the interesting articles in Playboy magazine , the latest gadgets that everyone is gaga about and the features of the recently released BMW roadster. It seemed like being in a gathering of foreigners who were chattering away in their own languages…a tower of Babel. There wasn’t a single group he could attach himself to. The guys in the school he went to and those in his neighborhood half knew or never bothered about the things that went on in cocktail talk. “What am I doing here?” he blurted to himself exasperatedly.

What a relief it was to get home after work on a Friday. He plopped on his easy chair, a luxury purchase he allowed himself when he received his first paycheck from the company and prepared himself for the weekend. He would turn on the television set, an old Korean brand whose colors were beginning to overlap each other, to catch the end part of his favorite soap opera. His mother would soon call him to have his dinner which he usually takes alone because the rest of the family had already taken theirs. He put in long hours in the office and would reach home past nine o’clock most evenings. This show of devotion and industry was not appreciated by his boss who said that he should finish his work within the prescribed working hours because he was using up an inordinate amount of electricity having the air conditioning and the lights on when he stayed late at work.

He loved chatting with his mother who was very interested with what has transpired during his workday. He would tell her about the how nice and clean his office was and about the visit of some movie stars who were going to be used as endorsers of their beauty products. The first set of commercials that he was involved in would be aired the following day and his mother would be all ears as he told her to watch out for the new commercials and as if in disbelief she would remark how important his son has become. Sometimes his younger sister would join in and tell him the latest gossip in the movie world. He was keen on keeping abreast with this kind of news.

His youngest brother would wake up and join in the conversation. The comic antics of his little brother never failed to amuse him. He was comfortable with the shallowness of the things they talked about and the simple slapstick humor which sent him reeling with unrestrained laughter. These were the things that made him happy.

That Sunday, after hearing mass in his parish church he bought a newspaper. Reaching home he leafed through the thick classified ads section until he reached the section on vacancies in accounting positions. With pencil in hand he started encircling some attractive prospects.

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