Please Do Not Delay
Mrs. Noriko never spoke. She answered the door in those outrageous runway outfits that aren’t meant for human consumption, and like most rich people, she gave shitty tips.
Her building was one of those gleaming monstrosities in Forbes City, Manila’s ritzy oasis. The first time I met her, I delivered the coffee ground facial scrub into her manicured hand, took her money, then dug in my pocket for change as I murmured something like “Unless there’s anything else I can do for you, Mrs. Noriko…” the kind of phrase that gives the customer time to calculate the tip. When I looked up again, she was gone.
I stared through the doorway at the gold velveteen couches, wondering if she’d really just given me a 5,000 Peso tip for a facial scrub that cost 2,400. Someone who would spend thousands of dollars on a couch shaped like two porpoises crossing mid-jump, someone like that could certainly be unhinged enough to overtip a deliveryman. Right? Wrong — I only entertained these thoughts to avoid counting the hours until I could sleep again. I imagined Mrs. Noriko stroking the bottle-nosed armrests and addressing them each by name.
In another moment she was back, looking pleased with herself and holding out a green enamel change dish. My Mom would have liked it, I thought. Mrs. Noriko held the dish out to me, gesturing at the bills in my hand.
I put the change in it and she disappeared again, reappearing quickly to hold out the dish once more. It had been emptied of all but a meager 20 peso tip.
Still, I liked her. She wasn’t offended by my attempts to get a response out of her every morning for the three months I delivered her scrub.
Some of them, in no order:
“Ohayou gozaimasu, Mrs. Noriko,” with a serious bow.
“MOSHI MOSHI!!” in teenaged hysteria.
“Whether you shall turn out to be the hero of your own life, Mrs. Noriko, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these tips must show…”
Her response: head tilted in mock offense, eyes laughing, lips shut tight.
Our little routine and the air-conditioned reprieve from Manila’s cooked garbage smell were worth the bad tips. Mrs. Noriko became a fixture in my life, with her geometrically cropped haircuts and her laughing, dependable silence.
Every morning I noticed the trash can next to her building, and sitting on top, an untouched jar of coffee ground facial scrub. She didn’t even use it. It was weird, but not rich lady weird. There was the late night divorcée who, when I gave her the “Unless there’s anything else I can do for you” line, tilted her head and said “Actually…”
She paid me 3,000 pesos to massage her feet while she listened to a playlist of ambient cooking noises. There was the monthly viatical salesmen’s orgy, whose intermission consisted of my facial scrubs and a round of botox on the host. Sometimes they invited me in for a drink. They were nice guys, but I was always glad to leave. They’d gone to the same types of boarding schools I’d gone to, the ones I’d moved to Manila to escape. I’d always known what kind of a rich person I’d make: the kind who ends up with a Beretta 92FS in his mouth. The kind my father made.
Before she died of lung cancer, I asked my mother in a moment of cruelty if she thought there was any way I could avoid ending up like her and Dad. She’d never stopped smoking — that was choosing death too.
“Live simply,” she said, already forgiving me. “Be useful.”
I wondered what she’d think of my job now, but at least I lived simply. My clients could keep their coffee scrubs and their gnawing loneliness; I was happy to deliver it.
One day out of the blue, Mrs. Noriko stopped calling. She’d canceled her subscription. I admit, I was a little hurt, but I didn’t think about it much at the time because the next day a stranger hopped onto my bike. I was stopped at an intersection, comfortably mesmerized by the web of songthaew trucks, scooters, and human zombies, when I felt the bike swing with the weight of another person.
“You’re going to the hospital?” The girl on my bike pointed to the white dome of Fabella Memorial.
I’d almost forgotten about the improvement I’d made to the delivery box on the back of my bike — a white paint job with red lettering that read “Human Organs for Transplant. Please Do Not Delay.” I’d left the old Domino’s “Safe and Sound” logo, outlining it too in red. It was a nice touch, I thought. Safe and Sound.
I don’t know why I said what I said next. I could have said anything. What I did say was “Yes.”
She rode silently until I pulled into the circular entrance driveway. “Thank you.” She dipped her head and went inside. She wore an expensive silk shirt and long, flowing pants, but she was too thin and clutched her bag tightly, as if she expected someone to wrench it away.
The girl turned her free ride into a routine, catching me at the same intersection every morning. I thought about taking another route, but that would have taken just as long as dropping her at the hospital. It was a choice between driving right by her, admitting that I was the kind of dick who made fake Organ Transplant messages to get ahead in traffic, or driving her to the hospital. One thing I’ve always known about myself is that I’m a coward, so I drove her.
She never said anything but thank you, until the morning she got off and repinned a fallen hair clip as I waited for her to disappear inside the hospital.
“Not going in?” she asked, but she was already through the doors before I could reply.
That afternoon the Manila Dispatch Director of Freshly Ground Facials called me into his office. He tossed the clipboard across the desk and said, “Your times are bad.”
I picked up the clipboard and looked. My afternoon rush hour as slow as it had always been, and now with the hospital trips my morning rush hour was now just as bad. The other guys’ times were listed next to mine. Except for midday when my organ box message seemed to give me an advantage, the other drivers’ times were all better. They were native fish in the strange river of Manila traffic. They drove instinctually, whereas every trip of mine brought with it the addictive danger of living in a foreign city, the danger of stepping outside one day and dying for a reason I wouldn’t understand. Six months ago I heard that a guy I used to party with had died in a Bangkok traffic accident. I thought about him every day — not because I’d liked him, but because the traffic in Manila was worse than in Bangkok.
Ramon took the clipboard out of my hands. He was a man of few principles, and I respected that. He didn’t care what I painted on the delivery box, as long as I was fast. “Get better,” he said.
But I didn’t. The girl was there every morning. I saw her clearly from two blocks away, her neck strained as she scanned the traffic. I took her. She decorated her fingernails with the same Hello Kitty decals my little sister had used in high school, before she became the aloof French major I’d last seen two years ago. I wanted to ask this girl’s name, who she was visiting, how they were doing. But I knew that if I thought of this silent girl as my sister by proxy, to her I was just a sloppy, foul-smelling foreigner, and so I said nothing. I began to drive by the hospital on my way back from my afternoon calls, looking up at the windows to see if I’d catch a glimpse of her.
The last time I’d seen my sister was when Mom’s death, like the seismic fucking event it was, washed my sister away from me. I should have moved back home to be near her but I couldn’t bring myself to re-enter the West and wade through the wreckage of my aunts’ and uncles’ hopes for my career. There was my sister, and there was the girl, the cause of whose thinness and whose hospital visits became important to me in a way I didn’t want to explain to myself.
I finally talked to her on the morning I got fired. I can’t say I didn’t see it coming. With the hospital detours, all of my shift times had fallen far behind the other drivers’. Ramon called me into his office, handed me the morning’s first dispatch slip and said, “After, you turn in your uniform.” The whole thing was amicable, but I kept picturing my mother’s face. Be useful.
I picked up the girl and we passed another silent ride in the godawful morning mugginess. I could tell that it would rain soon and I reached the hospital just as the first fat drops began to fall, glad for at least one small victory that morning.
As she swung off the bike, I blurted, “Hey, what’s your, who is it, I mean, are they okay?”
She turned and beckoned for me to follow her as if she’d been waiting for me to ask. “I’ll show you,” she said.
She was already disappearing behind the blurry glass of the revolving door. I had no choice but to tuck the fraudulent delivery box under my arm and follow as she led me to the polished bank of steel elevators. I breathed deep, cold air as the elevator doors closed. I was out of place in my faded tee and kicks, but the girl didn’t seem to notice. She pressed the button for the top floor and watched the digital display until the doors opened again, depositing us into a wide, empty hallway.
She walked a few yards and stood expectantly next to an open door.
“Listen,” I said. My footsteps were offensively loud as I came toward her. “I’m sorry. I’m not an organ deliveryman. I just painted that onto my box to…look, it was stupid.”
The girl blinked, shaking her head impatiently. “I know,” she said. “I saw you at my aunt’s house.”
She gestured to the hospital bed inside the room, where a thin Mrs. Noriko lay in a gaudy purple sweater. A forest of machinery surrounded her, one crimped tube anchored in a surgical hole in her throat. She looked tired and lonely in the room’s whiteness, but her face brightened when she saw me. She gestured for me to come closer.
I perched awkwardly on the side of her bed, this woman who was more familiar to me than 99% of the world’s population, who would soon die of a cancer both she and I understood very well, but about whom I otherwise knew nothing at all. Her face grew serious as she signed to the girl, who opened the drawer of the bedside table, and pulled out the dish Mrs. Noriko always used to return my change. The girl gave the dish to Mrs. Noriko, and Mrs. Noriko placed it in my hands. I ran my fingers over the tiny veins in the enamel. I had never noticed how expensive it was.
I looked helplessly at the girl. “I can’t take this,” I said.
Mrs. Noriko shook her head and signed.
“She says you must keep it,” the girl said. “Did you bring coffee today? My aunt would like to smell it.”
When I opened the jar beneath her nose, the look on Mrs. Noriko’s face reminded me of the look that passed over the divorcée’s face when her bare feet were in my hands, her eyes closed to the healing sounds of gently boiling pasta. I had, it seemed, a use.
As I was leaving, the girl called through the door. “You pick me up tomorrow,” she said.
“I lost my job,” I said. “I have to give the bike back.”
The girl glanced at Mrs. Noriko, who nodded firmly.
“Then walk,” the girl said. “You were the only person who kept talking to my aunt when her throat hurt too much to talk back. Safe and sound,” she reminded me. “Please do not delay.”