Thursday, October 13, 2005
Conrado Aguirre had a bad day. After an argument with his narrow-minded wife over financial matters, he arrived late for work only to be sent back home as he was assigned, temporarily though, Night Supervisor of the Park Administration Office. Conrado was grumbling to himself, thinking of his hardships to gain that diploma in Tourism just to man the lonely fort with the security guards and the maintenance people.
And Conrado had a bad night. After receiving numerous complaints from late-night promenaders, just when his tour of duty was about to end, in came an old man, apparently a street urchin, mistaking him for a money changer. The hobo held a strange bill in his sinewy hand and was insistent in trading it for a hundred bucks.
"Where did you get that?" inquired Conrado, eying the hobo intently. It was common for foreign tourists to be robbed at night although the park hobo didn't have that derogatory look, he looked more like a mendicant.
"From a foreigner, he gave this to me," he proudly grinned as he dropped the bill on Conrado's desk. It was nearing dawn and Conrado was pretty tired, or maybe sick and tired of everything. He gave the hobo a hard stare, hinting of a detention for vagrancy, and shoved back the bill which seemed elastic but crisp to his touch.
"Wait," Conrado picked up the bill before the hobo could retrieve it back. The strange bill was slightly thicker than an ordinary dollar but there were no legible inscriptions except for discretely positioned tiny blue squares that inhabited the surface and the obverse showed a miniature 3-D sketch of a human image in a kaleidoscope of colors with indiscernible figures around it and more tiny squares underneath. The golden border lines appeared to be somewhat glowing and there was no trace of a crease after folding and unfolding it. Although Conrado was certain it wasn't a foreign note, he was so amused as to shell out his last 100 bucks in exchange for it.
The sun was already rising when he reached home and Conrado went straight to bed, not minding his wife with her usual griping while preparing breakfast. He fell asleep in no time at all, unaware of the blaring radio in the living room. His wife's somewhat jolly mood surprised Conrado when he woke up for lunch.
"Are you hungry?" She was setting the table for one and Conrado positioned himself in a chair before giving out a pout to signify 'later.' He lighted a cigarette and sought the ashtray. He was not used to staying late at nights and his maiden duty at graveyard shift rewarded him with a splitting headache.
"Did you see the flying saucer?" his wife asked to which Conrado replied with a considerate exhalation of cigarette smoke and an inquiring look to profess his ignorance. "I was listening to the radio all morning and a lot of callers were..."
Conrado's mind went blank and it took a short while before he realized what his wife was saying.
At around four in the morning, a UFO hovered above the park for more than ten minutes at an altitude of 200 feet. There were many people who witnessed the incident and according to the radio announcer, there were even some who claimed to have seen a passenger of the alien ship talking to an old man.
Conrado was a born skeptic but he's got a good sense of logic. Impulsively, he pulled out the bill from his wallet, still crisp and without crease, and handed it to his wife.
"What kind of money is this?" Conrado only shrugged and his wife's disinterest showed when she continued with the previous topic, insensitive to Conrado's insinuation that the thing she held may be related to the subject matter. "Well, I was hoping that you saw the UFO. You know, our neighbors would surely ask me."
Conrado retaliated with his own indifference by not elaborating on the currency and excused himself to enter the bathroom, with his mind gingerly focused on the topic. His wife was not around when he got out, probably in the neighbor's, and he couldn't help but notice the strong scent of aerosol in the living room. His wife's habit of spraying aerosol to deaden the tobacco odor irritated him but he felt somewhat relieved, this time, by the fact that he could be alone with his thoughts.
His wife's account of the UFO, aside from the nagging headache, suppressed his appetite which made him decide to get more sleep. But sleep did not come easy so he turned on the TV set and slouched on the bed to while away the time. An old movie was being shown on their black and white TV and after a commercial break, a live news report was aired which jolted Conrado from his comfortable position.
There was the hobo, complete with his unkempt hair and soiled attire, being interviewed right in the park, pointing with his bony finger the direction where the UFO was supposedly to have parked, giving a description of the alien and describing the details of the close encounter.
Conrado couldn't help but sense the fear creeping in his spines and automatically, he lit a cigarette. He had already surmised that the peculiar bill was related to the incident and it could forcibly drag him into the limelight. To his relief, the interview was over and the movie was once again shown, without any mention of the bill.
Conrado was wary that night and each visitor coming into the Park Administration Office made him jittery. He couldn't imagine his shame if the truth, although it wasn't 100-percent factual, would come to light that he had duped the hobo of the 'alien' currency for a mere hundred bucks. If ever he would be the center of the issue, the skeletons in his closet would come out and he would hate to be branded an impotent, being married for twenty years with no children, a wife-beater, for their quarrels were common knowledge to their neighbors, and his fake college diploma! But the interview did not materialize, nor it did on the following nights of his duty.
Although the hobo did not mention the bill, there was a woman alleging that she had seen the 'alien' hand something to the hobo. Fortunately, the hobo denied everything in a subsequent interview but the media's propensity for sensationalized reporting capitalized on the weird accounts of other eyewitnesses such as the resemblance of the hobo to the aliens and the probability of the hobo being one of 'them' couldn't be discounted.
But the issue faded when the media ran out of interesting tales to tell. Coincidentally, Conrado was recalled to his former post, in daytime shift, at the Tourism Headquarters and everything related to the incident seemed forgotten except for one thing. With his mounting financial obligations, Conrado was toying with the idea of selling the bill to collectors. But for how much? He knew he had to read more of the newspapers but it seemed there was no need for that as the morning news came to him without effort.
"There are ads in the papers who wanted to get hold of that something, you know. Collectors, rich people, maybe, even a researcher from Austria arrived the other day, publishing his hotel phone number for any information leading to that something. But our government is keeping mum on the matter, undecided maybe although some say that the government had a right to that thing because the aliens landed in our country without a visa."
As was his wont to his wife's gossipy attitude, Conrado shrugged and lit a stick of cigarette. Sometimes he wished that his wife was born with a zipper on her mouth. But when he picked up the paper, nonchalantly to allay any suspicion, Conrado scanned the press releases and centered on the item about the Austrian researcher by the name of Fridrik Hansen.
Slightly unaware, Conrado found himself in front of a pay phone, talking to Hansen. The Austrian's accented English was barely comprehensible, giving Conrado a hard time in the phone conversation, but he appeared cordial when the Austrian personally met him at the hotel lobby.
"Yes, thank you. Mr. Aguirre, I believe?" Conrado nodded and the Austrian gave out a broad smile as he motioned Conrado for a seat in the lobby's settee. Conrado reciprocated with his own grin and fished out a cigarette from his shirt pocket. Hansen was a typical scientist, as he said he was, with a balding head, a crooked body and a wrinkled face. And like any Easterner, he looked wealthy to Conrado.
"I've got something here that would interest you. But first, I want to make it clear that I don't have to answer all your questions. Can we go to your room?"
"No problem. Are you alone? I mean, is there anybody else who know you came to me?" Hansen stood up to lead the way to the elevator, discreetly eying Conrado who appeared nervous in taking the empty elevator. Conrado was continuously puffing his cigarette, unmindful of the No Smoking sign on the elevator door.
"No one. In fact, I called in sick from my job to allay any suspicion. You see, I don't trust anybody around here. That's another thing, Mr. Hansen, I don't want anyone to know of this, especially the media people. You know, I just want a little money to pay my obligations and lots of peace." Hansen did not reply as they were already getting out of the elevator but he continued when they got inside the hotel room.
"What is this you've got? And why do you seem to be so frightened?" Hansen seemed confused. He opened a can of soda and offered it to Conrado.
"Thanks. You see, this thing," he pulled his wallet after extinguishing his cigarette in the ashtray, "it may be related to the UFO, I think. Don't ask me how I knew nor how I happen to have it in my possession. For your information, I didn't meet the aliens. I didn't see the UFO either. Do you believe me, Mr. Hansen?"
"Very well. But you need not be afraid, I'm used to this thing and everything will be kept confidential." Conrado wanted to explain the circumstances behind his possession of the bill but he decided against it at the last moment.
"This, Mr. Hansen, is an alien money and I am hoping that you will buy it from me. How much do I get for this?" Conrado held the bill with his shaking hand in front of Hansen's face and the Austrian couldn't help but smile. Conrado was greatly disappointed by the lack of reaction from Hansen and he lit another cigarette to calm himself.
Ironically, Conrado was the one surprised when the Austrian rummaged in his suitcase and produced a stack of billfold, about eight bills in all, with each one similar to the one he held.
Conrado couldn't recall how long he stayed in Hansen's hotel room for his mind was deeply immersed in the details of Hansen's revelation that the bill was indeed an alien thing but definitely not a currency. Also, there were hundreds scattered all over the world and Hansen was spending his own funds just to confirm that every piece of the bill was identical to the very first one he had located in Brazil. It was made of elastic porcelain and each tiny square is a composite of microscopic dots representing a message coded in the Universal Coding System. The figures on the obverse side constitute a pictograph which, on close examination, yielded images of extinct animals. Hansen gave him a sheet of paper with the typewritten textual translation which says:
"Brothers, heed our advice. We are one race, you descended from us and we brought you there. We have achieved perfection and so will you if you would rely on natural means. The rate of depletion and population growth is infinite but resources are finite. People create pollution, even if you outlast nature it would be unpleasant for your descendants."
The incredulity of the story would certainly put him in the limelight but the subsequent attacks against his reputation with more incredible conjectures would send him crashing down the dumps in no time at all as experienced by Hansen many times over. Conrado agreed with Hansen's advice to forget the media for now.
Conrado found himself on the park bench nearest to the UFO sighting. The still warm late afternoon sun made him perspire but he gave out a smile after fingering the wad of money inside the manila envelope. He could now settle all his obligations and probably have some more left.
Conrado lit his last stick of cigarette then crumpled and tossed the empty pack which missed the rim of the trash can. He puffed out a thick billow of smoke and gazed at the multitude of promenaders in the park. Instantly, he frowned. The urban congestion crossed his mind, the garbage that clog the waterways, the impurities in the seas and oceans, the so-called ozone hole, the relentless cutting of trees and all kinds of pollutants that contaminate the air.
Again, he groped, as if checking, at the thin bundle of money, sealed the manila envelope, stood up and trashed the half-consumed cigarette on the yellowish grass. Conrado walked straight to the direction of the bus stop, trying to free his mind with remorse. The counsel, given by the aliens gratis et amore, would certainly go to waste for the earth is headed towards an ecological catastrophe. But it wasn't his fault, or perhaps, only partly responsible.
For the nth time, he unsealed the manila envelope and took out the sheet of paper and reread the continuation of the alien's message at the bottom portion. "If you continue with your counter-productive ways then we would be forced to consider you a failure and terminate your mission. Change your ways until there's time. Remember this: you are being watched." It was clear that the counsel turned out to be a warning.
Conrado held tightly to the manila envelope as he boarded the bus. His salivary glands were highly stimulated and he wished that a cigarette vendor would come up the bus. He licked his lips to pacify his craving for a smoke but the longing persisted. He bit his lower lip then he grinned upon realizing that he could put a zipper, though figuratively, on his wife's mouth with the greenbacks in the manila envelope.