Thursday, March 5, 2009

God’s Cinema

To kick things off I decided to upload one of my first finished and published/unpublished/notexactly stories, one entitled God's Cinema. I entered this in the short story competition for PASUM's English Week, but got DQ'ed for alleged plagiarism, as in 'He's too Good to be true'. (This is fact.)

This story is best read while listening to Coldplay's Viva La Vida. I'll try to find a way to make BGM in this blog so you don't have to go around hunting for the song for the full ambience experience. Why Viva La Vida? It fits the story, sort of, and what I'm listening to right now. So deal.

God's Cinema

         He pulled out a cigarette from his cigarette case, lit it up, threw the case back into the house and sat down on a chair he kept outside his balcony. He pulled the chair up close to the banister and watched as the people below him walked past. Everyday people, with their own lives to lead, with their own ends to meet and mouths to feed. People who wouldn't think twice about a man watching them from his fourth story balcony, smoking his first cigarette after a hard day's work. No one would look up at him the way he looked down at them.
         He supposed it was the fact that he was on top, and they were at the bottom. No one likes to see someone else at the top, even if he was doing nothing but smoking and watching. People felt uncomfortable. Some people don't look at all, while some people resented those at the top, probably, he thought, the same way those two homeless guys who were just passing right below him, making their way through another day of a life they didn't want. They probably resented the fact that he was the one with a three by five overcharged room with a rental which was a few weeks overdue. He shuddered when one of them spared him a passing glance. It probably didn't matter much, but the man might be thinking, someday that'll be mine, you pompous pig, and then you'll sing the blues. Oh man, how you'll sing 'em. They might be planning a burglary right now. Who knew?
         He decided he saw enough of the homeless guys, and turned his gaze elsewhere. There was nothing else interesting by anyone else's standards, but to him the entire story of the world was unfolding before him. As he watched one man walk briskly by, with a leather briefcase and clearly dry cleaned attire associated with businessmen, he wondered; how many years did he toil to get to that position? How many bosses did he have to please, or golf games he had to play, or friends he had to backstab? How many times had he come home late and worrying his wife, if he had one at all? How many times had he slapped her, even? How many divorces had he been through, or how many times did he cheat on her and with how many secretaries or interns or employees, and did he ever catch herpes from any one of them? How many people did he put out of work to get where he is now?
         Why keep at the negative side, for that matter? How much money did he earn for his company? How many times had he been promoted or how many friends did he make or how many times had he been given an award for good (if not exceptional) service? How much did his wife love him, and how much did his kids love him? How many times a week did he hear his kids say 'I love you Daddy,' or 'I'm going to be like you when I grow up, Daddy'? Did his kids talk to him when they had problems, and did his advice really work?
         The businessman put out his free hand and waved at someone further down the street with a smile. A little further down the street, a woman (looking very pretty) in a red dress waved back, and the two started walking a little faster towards each other. From the balcony, he smiled, threw down his cigarette butt and went back inside for another one. So, he thought, it was a happy story after all. He promised he'd meet his wife sometime after work, the usual place, and then maybe they'd go to that new restaurant a few blocks over for dinner, the kids were with the sitter, and there was nothing to worry about. Maybe it was their anniversary or something, but anyway they had the night to themselves.
         It was only after he had lit his second coffin nail did he realize something. That guy's story probably wasn't a very happy one after all. In fact, it could be the very opposite. That story could be very wrong indeed. That could very well be his mistress, the second woman in his life who got him laid when his own wife wouldn't do it. It could be an old friend he hasn't seen (or laid) in a long time and now was the time to catch up on things. Or maybe it was his wife, but he planned to divorce her or humiliate her or even (oh God Forbid, please oh please God FORBID!) kill her. Or maybe, even sicker, that was his daughter dressed as an older woman so people wouldn't suspect anything.
         It could even be that the guy wasn't a businessman at all.
         He quickly made for the balcony to get a closer look at the businessman (or not) and the pretty woman in red, but it was too late. The scene had passed while he was trying to get another nail for his coffin, and whatever conclusions he might have drawn from a second glance was gone forever. He sighed, sat down again and went back to watching the streets to pass the time.
         It wasn't as if he didn't have his own life to lead. He had a job, a straight double shift minimum wage job, a cash register attendant at one of the abundant Starbucks' in KL. His job was simple; know the menu and (most importantly) the prices by heart, yell at the guy who made the drinks, and push the coffee over the counter and put the money in the cash register. From nine to five, quite literally, he pushed coffee over the counter. What he made was barely enough for the rent, let alone for food and his coffin nails. He did have friends, thank you. The guy who made the drinks was one of them. His manager was one of them, thank all the heavens in all the religions in the world, and one of his more attractive 'frequent customers' was a friend. His landlady wasn't, though. Yes, he did go out sometimes, maybe for a drink at a mamak stall nearby or maybe for a frame of snooker with his aforementioned buddies, but never-not even once-before he had a lonely smoke outside his balcony, watching people go by and wondering what kind of lives those people had.
         Sometimes he wished he was down there and not up here. At first, during his early balcony smoking sessions, he felt like he was king of the world. In all the books he read when he was a kid, whenever a king or ruler of some sort was involved, he would always address his loyal subjects from up above, gazing down into the serfs' eyes and telling them that he would end/start the war or end/start an era, then go back in his chambers and find a concubine. He felt something like that on the balcony, except that his castle had a fixed rent on it and he had no concubines (not even a queen, for that matter). What mattered was the feeling, and he felt like he was sitting on top of the world.
         That was when he first came to KL looking for a job, however. Soon that feeling waned, and finally went out altogether. He was just another Average Mamat smoking from his balcony after a few bad interviews, rejected applications and overdue rent payments later. Soon he came to envy those walking below him, especially those like that cheating-on-his-wife-with-his-daughter businessman a few minutes ago. Later he came to realize that those people had lives no better than his, maybe even worse. The businessman wasn't doing so well in the conscience area. Those bums who were probably going to rob him earlier weren't doing any better financially. He himself had a taste of both, though it wasn't to such a high degree.
         That's when he realized that his balcony wasn't a king's podium, but a front row seat to God's cinema, and the movie that was playing was entitled 'Life; Those People Could Be You And You Could Be One Of Them,'. That's what kept him going, and not try to kill himself the way he almost did when he decided to jump from his front row seat or those pills he almost OD'd himself with. God was showing him His mighty handiwork, Life itself, and he wouldn't miss it for the world.
         His second cigarette was done, just at a time when the movie was getting interesting. A group of teenagers, aged maybe around 13 to 25, walked by solemnly. They were clearly metalheads, judging from the long hair and the bullet belts and the boots and the jeans. They were all wearing black t-shirts, each one bearing designs of a sensitive nature with demons and unholy symbols written all over them. One shirt actually had the picture of a demon bleeding from his eye sockets, with the words 'Death Before Dishonor' written on gold, wavy letters. He remembered the old rock-n-roll slogan 'Live Fast, Die Young' and wondered if the same could be said for these boys. They certainly looked like they were living fast. A little too fast, probably.
         Before he could wonder whether their mothers approved or even knew about their whereabouts (or even cared), he walked back in and closed the door. It was time to get back to his own life, like it or not. He had promised his buddies he'd play a few frames of snooker with them, and maybe go for a drink later. He changed and locked up his room extra carefully, all the while wondering whether he would ever find out what happened to that businessman and his daughter or maybe even about the metalheads. The movie was just getting good.

         The Christians always say that 'The Lord God works in mysterious ways'. Muslims say that the Lord God is actually Allah and the same goes for Yahweh. Jews claim that Mary/Maryam was an adulterer, and that Jerusalem was theirs by divine right. Well that didn't matter, what mattered was that God works in mysterious ways, no matter what you want to call him.
         As he made his way down the stairs from his rented fourth floor room, he suddenly felt like it was somehow his lucky night. He couldn't explain it, and even paused somewhere between the first and second floor (where the radio kept wailing for Johnny to Go, Johnny, Go, Go) to think it over.
         It was like being detached from the world, a sudden feeling of becoming untethered from reality. A great deal of research had been done on the thinking process of man yet no conclusion had been drawn. He supposed it was because no one ever felt this lucky before. It was just a passing feeling, and then after a few moments he was just that guy pushing coffee over the counter trying to go for a frame of snooker with his pals. He looked around, saw nothing out of place (except that the radio was now playing Johnny Lee Hooker) and wondered what that feeling was. He stood there for a few minutes wondering, but then he remembered he had a snooker game to get to.
         He continued down the stairs, out into the very street he was watching over. He made a beeline for the nearest LRT station, which was a few blocks away. He kept his head slightly downwards, half watching his feet and half watching where he was going. He never wondered the stuff he wondered about on the balcony while he was walking. He found it all too difficult to imagine what the story might be behind every face he saw. He couldn't see the wood for the trees, and from any man's frown he could tell whether the man had serious problems or was just constipated, or from any woman's walk he could tell whether she was in a hurry or she had to get to a toilet. He didn't like to get up close and personal with the story, like some kind of Star Wars geek. He liked some ambiguity in his observations.
         He was on the train now, standing up as it was almost full. He leaned back against the door, even though a sign clearly said to not lean against it. He kept his eyes on the little sign above the door that mapped out all the stations they were about to pass. He was going to Bangsar, so that meant a few more stations to go. He always wondered who the woman was making all these freaky announcements in a weird tone. He also wondered how much she got paid for it.
         The train made a stop at a station he never actually went to, and as the doors slid open he had to control himself from gasping in shock. The only people to get aboard the LRT train were the metalheads from before, all of them, even Mr. Death Before Dishonor. He tried to look away (he didn't want any trouble with them) but his gaze kept returning to them. As the train doors slid shut, the boys started talking to each other in normal, conversational tones, as if they were the only ones on the train. It was hard for him not to overhear.
         "Man," the largest kid with a dragon tattoo on his right arm said, "that guy sure was scared to death," he grinned, and so did the others.
         "He was just about ready to pee his pants, the way he talked to you," said Mr. Death Before Dishonor. "I could actually see him shiver."
         A mugging, he thought, these kids probably just mugged some poor kid. Maybe they worked him over too. Maybe they killed him, even. Probably took off with his wallet and his car keys, and beat him until he was unconscious and forget how he got there.
         Meanwhile, Dragon Tattoo said (as if reading his mind), "Hey, it wasn't as if we were going to mug him. We only wanted directions. It's nothing so serious."
         "Yeah, but the look in his eyes said it was," another kid said. Then they all burst out laughing, causing everyone else to cast glances at them. No one stared for long, though. No one wanted to attract attention to themselves unless they could handle that attention the way these kids could. Soon the laughter died down, and another kid was saying something about their image. About the long hair, bullet belts, and provocative heavy metal slogans, and how other people thought.
         "Well, too bad they can't see past all that," Mr. Death Before Dishonor said. "I mean, some of us are bad, doing drugs and all that retarded stuff, but not all of us are like that. Take us, for example, we don't do drugs. We don't steal, and we fight only when we have to. We've got our own set of rules, our own bushido code of honor, if you will, and I say this for everyone when I say we'd rather die than break that code. Just look at my shirt: Death Before Dishonor. It's one of the reasons I'm wearing it. I believe in it."
         "I thought you were wearing that because you got it cheap at a jumble sale," said a grinning kid not even thirteen years old.
         "Yeah, well, besides that, you punk," he said playfully, amidst the roaring laughter of the rest of the gang. More glances, yet no stares. It seems that Mr. Death Before Dishonor's speech didn't cut clear to the rest of the commuters at all, he thought, as he leaned back against the LRT doors even though a sign told him clearly not to do so in plain, simple English and Malay.
         "I guess people never change," Dragon Tattoo said, after everyone had calmed down. "We'll still be judged by our looks. And, like it or not, we still judge people by their looks. Frankly, I don't care. People can say that I've been out mugging and drinking, when in fact I've just been to a metal gig and to the hospital later, to see my sick Grandma who's just coming out of a stroke, and I don't care. I just don't see any point in caring for what others think as long as I know I'm right."
         "I'm with you, man," said Mr. Death Before Dishonor, and the rest nodded in agreement. They later talked about more trivial matters, like the 'metal gig' they just went to and the bands they idolized and even about the younger kids' homework.
         As they talked, he leaned back against the doors (he wasn't supposed to) and couldn't help feeling that he was destined to actually see the end of the movie he just watched from his three by five overcharged room balcony earlier. He saw these kids and assumed the worst, and he couldn't help feeling that by doing so, he had just committed one of the worst crimes in the world. All this while he thought God's cinema was there to show him how people were, to show him the sorry state of humanity at its best and worst (mostly worst), but these kids had just made him realize something: that wasn't the message.
         That wasn't the message, he thought, that wasn't the message the movie was trying to convey. The message was that there are those who know and those who assume, and those who assume know nothing. They may think they know it all, but they know nothing in fact, merely judging people by their own prejudices and not caring at all what the truth is.
         The hardest part to accept (and nearly made him miss his stop, where he got off just in time) was this: he was one of those who assumed. And he knew nothing, and didn't care about the truth.
         He had to sit down on the stairs leading down from the station to the streets, as his head was reeling from the sudden impact of knowledge. Did that make him self-centered? Did he still believe, deep down, that the balcony wasn't a front row seat to God's Cinema at all, but still the king's podium he had believed it to be when he just moved in? Did he still believe he was a king, so very superior over his serfs that he needed no reason to justify his thoughts?
         He sat there for what felt like a while (in fact he hadn't been sitting there for fifteen minutes), thinking about the sudden revelation he experienced. Then he stood up, still a little shaky, and remembered he had a snooker game to get to. He hurried down the stairs, and tried to flag down a cab. Dragon Tattoo was right. People never change, and the same was for him. He would still assume things about people (the businessman, was that his daughter or his wife?) and still not care about the truth. That was his nature, probably, and it probably isn't going away anytime soon.
         Some things can be changed, though. His room, for instance. He promised himself that when he got back, he'll ask his landlady to change rooms with an available one. Doesn't matter which one, really-as long as it doesn't have a balcony.

By Hafiz Tajuddin with 2 comments

2 comments:

nice one tj.

i think everyone assumes things at one point of their life. hate to admit that it happened to me too many times.

keep on writing. i'll be ur loyal reader.

:D

Thank you! Maybe one day if this blog has a loyal following I'll put ads on it. Then I can be rich! Bwahahaha.

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