The room shimmered in a shy moonlight this evening. Amidst dozens of Hard Men, the reeks of alcohol and body sweat sting one’s nose like a shriek piercing through empty hallway. The harmony of people singing, clanking sound of utensils, and music by a band of performers on the spotlight forms a composition of ambience you get when you’re having a family dinner on holiday. The joyous melody of guitar being strummed by a young boy in an oversized shirt. All the unusual things happened tonight in Hard Men Bar, your favorite local tavern where anyone associated with that place in a good way, get called a Hard Men. I am there, enjoying the moment that I’m fortunate enough to be blessed for.
I am among the forty three young boys working at Hard Men Bar. The place is owned by our Boss, Graham McKenzie, an intimidating man in his forties whose distinctive beard and tall figure make it all the more understandable as to why people finds him scary. He got a few adult men working for him at this bar, but nothing makes him happier than putting underage children, preferably boys, to work at his place. It was simple, children get paid less. He made us do all sort of things. We are divided into sections, each day differs from other. There are kitchen, floor, storage, toilets, counter, and so on.
Why was I forced to work there? Well to starts things off, I don’t really have a choice. My mother passed away when four years ago when I was twelve. My biological father was nowhere to find, so I’m kind of forced to look after myself. And secondly, I wasn’t really a young boy. My hair might be short and frizzy, but I’m actually a girl. I have been playing pretend to work. In nowadays world, everyone plays pretend all the time anyway. People call me Ted, the name written on my nametag clipped on my shirt whenever I work. My real name is much more feminine just so you know. It was given by my mom. Not a day goes by that I haven’t missed her, even though I could hardly find something that reminds me of her these days. I got to work today at twelve, which was late. I usually arrive at the workplace at ten while the working shift begins at thirteen. The shoes I usually wear got holes on its sole this morning. Rats, I figure. I rummaged my room for my old shoes which was clearly undersized and has been killing my feet since this afternoon.
It is Wednesday. We got assembled at the sortie room on second floor at thirteen as per usual routine. We’d be facing on one side of the wall where McKenzie stood and pumped his chest as if in military school. Three adult men would be patrolling around the room to make sure no funny business among the boys. Billy is the trickiest one to deal with. Jason and Chavo are okay I guess. Every time McKenzie starts the sortie, he would pull a white brownish paper out of his satchel on his back and start reading names and where they work. Kurt to the kitchen, James to the floor, Vladimir to the counter, and so on. I was put on the storage, the last place you would want to be after the toilets. In the storage, you’d be filling booze from barrel to empty bottles from afternoon to dawn. That’s it. All the filling and labeling in one tiny stuffed with dozens of barrels of booze that just breathing in there would make you drunk.
Anyway, aside from tedious work inside the storage, we were surprised when a couple of fancy fellas entered the bar from the backdoor that leads to the storage. It was a tall, white man with a young and beautiful woman I presumed to be his date. The young man had a grey and fancy shirt on along with a dark grey fur hat that reminds me of those 1950s fedora hats I’ve seen on TV. The adult in charge of the storage, Donnie Rubio, approached the couple as they walked in unusually through the back door and had a talk. Donnie was an ex-convict once for robbing banks. He had an early history of working white collar jobs. But things aren’t really good for the native Mexican that he started to rob banks. It’s clear that a person like Donnie is experienced in dangerous situation so he could handle pressure rather well. Soon, McKenzie appeared in the storage room and greets the man immediately. It turns out the man is Tyler Monahan, an officer from the police department. But McKenzie was never in any problem. Not even for putting underage children to work. Somehow he managed to get himself immune from the law in this town. I know he got a lot of bribery involved and the few officers involved? They knew better than to rat McKenzie out. They made a considerable larger dough from McKenzie compared to their usual paycheck. Witnessing this kind of backdoor deal sometimes makes me talk like a mob. The couple left soon afterwards as well as McKenzie and we returned to our work. It was around six in the evening when I noticed a dark grey fedora cap on a table in the storage room. It was the officer’s hat! Donnie was reluctant when I volunteered to return it back to the officer in the bar, but finally agreed to. For me, it was more of a detour to the more interesting corner of this hellish building after the storage room work rather than a returning missing stuff quest. So I left the storage room and made sure McKenzie was not nearby.
For the first time ever in Hard Men Bar featured a musical performance of some local musician of sort. Or are they out of town? Certainly never seen them before let alone the musical instruments they brought of numerous kinds. In Hard Men Bar, you usually get obnoxious laugh, arguments, unqualified individual singing out of tune, curses, a wife finding out his man unfaithful, or husband in similar case, mobster’s talk, and many more. It was kind of nice to have this kind of musical performance once in a while. Three minutes and it really brings people together. The aftermath of the show left some people getting up of their seat and shakes the musician hand. Some threw coins. Some peanut shells. After that, everyone gets back to their seat and the atmosphere reverts back to usual. The musicians along with the young guitar boy sit down on a table and ordered drinks.
I was still in awe of the performance I have just witnessed. Not many times in my life I got to see live music played in front me. Not many chances these days anyway. It could have been the fact that I haven’t listened to music so long or the performance is
just that amazing, that now every moment of it lingers vividly on my mind as if I have played it myself. Particularly the young boy. He was playing his guitar that was perhaps too big for his body so passionately. The look on his dark brown face when he plays it, as if he found his place. As if he found his purpose during those three minutes. I stood still for a minute. Something in my head keep teasing the idea of meeting the boy directly. Before I know it, my body moves on its own and I was standing by the table of the musicians.
“Hello.” I greeted them nonchalantly. Perhaps it was something improvised on the moment. I have never actually spoken to strangers.
The older musicians came to their attention and noticed me hanging around by their table. “Well, hello there darling,” smiles are carving on their face before changing into confusion in matter of seconds. One of the bigger man with a tuba say, “and what business a lovely young lady might have here I suppose?” The others looked with anticipation of my answers, including the boy. The boy particularly is looking at me so intensely as if he wants to sniff out a crime I did. It makes me a little bit nervous.
“Well, I work here.” After a while, I realized something peculiar. “Wait, you just called me lady?”
“You betcha. So you’re the McKenzie young worker eh? Don’t bother be surprised, we heard stories. It’s a shame indeed. But what brings you here in this place darling, that you went as far as pretending to be a boy? Because if you’re a boy, I’ll be damned with your long eyelashes and soft skin.” One of the man said while dragging his chair closer to me. I looked around the bar. The kids I know are everywhere. Jimmy, Perita, Kahn, and everbody else.
“I hope you can keep my gender a secret then.” “Sure at that. But you ain’t telling me the reason?” I did not say anything but rather returned a silent gaze to the man who were asking
“Alright, I respect your decision of not telling. Everybody has got to have something to keep to themselves after all.” The adults winked at me and they got back talking among themselves. The young boy got down from his chair and walked closer to me.
“Whoah, you’re really are a girl? Man I was confused as hell just now.” The boy lets out a small laugh. His eyes squint from the laughing, I could barely see his eyeballs. Looking closer at him, his skin color is not that dark that I thought. It is more of light brown like chocolate whipped cream. His body is smaller than mine. He is so young that I think he might be three or four years younger than me. “But what Carlos said was true though. You do have long eyelashes and soft skin. Not really your typical young boy characteristics.”
“You’re saying I still have to work on my disguise?”
The boy responded with a laugh, “Well there’s a room of improvement I guess. Why don’t you try speaking in deeper voice? If you speak soft, there is always an odds people question your gender.” The boy eyes were brimming with passion. I think he is quite into this.
“Ah, I see,” I clear my throat and try to speak in deeper voice, “now it should be clear whether I’m a girl or boy.” It came out so strange that we both started laughing as soon as I finished speaking. I revert back to my usual voice, “by the way, it was a great performance. You looked happy playing that guitar.”
The boy pulls up his chest and makes a weird face. “I’m truly grateful of having you acknowledge my great talent on playing a masterpiece, obertura de Marcos. For that I thank you, milady.” After the line, I made the gesture of puking to him to show how bad his impersonation of whatever his intent was. Apparently he was not convinced. “So, Ted?” The boy looked at the nametag clipped on my left side of shirt.
“Oh, Ted is just a name for work. My real name is Trisha.” I said it while looking nervously around to make sure nobody is listening. The other musicians are too busy talking to themselves.
“That’s a really beautiful name. You should use it more often, outside of your work of course.”
“About that,” I stuck on what to say since it was not easy to explain. “But Ted suits me better now, with this short hair.”
All of sudden, the boy places his hand on my head. He started feeling my hair. “Your hair is frizzy, but soft. It kind of contradicting but you know what I’m saying.” The boy laughs to cover the fact that he can’t explain what he just did and what he meant. “But still I prefer Trisha better. I think it suits you regardless.”
I feel warm and peaceful. It was this sort of relief to speak to someone about the things I have been keeping to myself. Not all of it of course but at least getting some of it out feels so good.
“You love music?”
“Yeah, I do. What about it?”
“Are willing to, you know, put other things away for something you love? Even though it might hurt you, but still, you chased for what you really want?”
The boy looked stunned. He probably didn’t expect to have this kind of question being thrown at it.
“Well, I’m kind of already doing it.” The boy make a somewhat guilty smile. “You wouldn’t believe what I have put away in order to do what I love. This, travelling with some grown-ups town to town. Playing music at people’s place. Getting cheered at. Getting appreciated. And most importantly, feeling fulfilled for doing what my hearts really want. And not a single day have I regretted of choosing this path. Even though the things I have to put away are precious.”
I felt like something inside me has been let go. Maybe a burden. Or a thought that lingers on my mind for God knows how long. What had the boy said, was something I’ve been longing to hear for a very long time. I can feel a tear coming out of my eyes.
“Are you okay, Trisha?”
“Yes, I’m okay.” I wiped the tears away with my sleeves. “Listen, in truth is, my mother passed away when I was twelve. My mother was everything that I have in this world. She liked to dance, ballet specifically. And she would bring me to where she practice every time. She was beautiful. Pretty. Graceful in the way she moves and dances from one step to another. She is the person that I wanted to be. A woman that is confident in herself. Because nothing is more beautiful than a woman who believed in herself more than anyone did. But she stopped dancing. Because my father beat her so badly that she couldn’t dance anymore.” When I said those words, tears keep streaming down my face. I couldn’t hold it. I miss her so bad and I wanted to talk to someone so badly. The boy listened and he was getting nervous. Probably he has never been around with a crying girl. I tried to continue.
“And then, my father left and my mother remarried to another man. It was planned by my grandmother to make sure someone is able to look after my mother and me.” At that point, my tears start to recede. Because at this point, it’s a story of me getting robbed of my dream. The story of one man that I despise so deeply.
Suddenly, I noticed there is a change of mood among the workers and McKenzie’s men. Some of them are visibly frantic in searching of something. Many of them were walking back and forth repeatedly, looking at every corner of the bar. Under the table, behind the counter, everywhere. And then, I was thunderstruck. I looked in my hands. The officer’s hat! I forgot why I was here for and before I know it, it is gone.
“Hey, I’m sorry but I have something really important to attend to.”
“Huh? Okay sure.” The boy was astonished. It was all too sudden after all. I hastily pull myself together before heading out to the bar. What a trouble I’m in.
I stopped, and looked at the boy.
“You said you wanted to be like your mother. Don’t ever give up. No matter how difficult it is. It happened for me, it should be for you too.” The boy gives me the biggest smile he could possibly afford. I smiled back.
“Will I be seeing you again?” I asked.
“I’m performing again here on tomorrow. After that we’re going out of town.”
“Alright, tomorrow then. Around the same time?”
“Okay, I will see you then.”
I showed my pinky finger, as a gesture of what I said is a promise. He returned the same gesture. I see that we established that it’s a promise between us. I left the room soon afterwards, heading to the storm awaiting me.
I looked to wherever I’ve been inside the bar earlier. I looked at the clock, it is forty past eight. It has been more than two hours and half since I left the storage. Oh dear what fate awaits me. I still can’t find officer Monahan’s hat. After a brief of unsuccessful errand, I decided to trace back to the storage room.
I arrived at the storage room. The intensity in the air inside the room made me dizzy for a while. When my vision came to, I see that there are three figures of tall men with small figures of kids sitting on the floor. As I begin to see clearer, I see McKenzie, Donnie and one adult man standing there. All three of them are looking at me with a nasty faces. Especially that of McKenzie’s. His eyebrows are bent down from his glare, forming almost a slope if they are joined together. The color of his face was red, as if it could blow up any seconds. And then there also Donnie, with his big and round body. Donnie must felt absolutely furious that I failed to do the errand I promised to.
“Ted.” McKenzie walks towards me. “Where were you, honey?”
“…from the bar.”
“What were you doing there?”
“Returning officer Monahan’s hat.”
“And were you successful in doing so?” I didn’t say anything. I looked down and try not to see McKenzie’s face as much as possible. “No, you weren’t.” McKenzie started shouting, “because right now I have my men looking for the goddamn hat that you lost, you punk! Where were you assigned to this morning?”
I was shocked and startled with McKenzie’s shout. I couldn’t even get hold of what’s happening. My mind is numb. My hands are shaking.
“Where were you assigned to!” McKenzie continued shouting at me.
“At… at the storage, sir.”
“At the storage? Then should you have stayed in the storage room?”
“Then why the hell are you out, in the bar, doing stuff you have absolutely no authority of? Do you realize how precious that hat is? Are you an idiot or what!”
I couldn’t even make of his insults to me. Now, I just wish to wake up. That it’s just a dream. McKenzie then looked at the kids, gesturing them to continue working. He then dragged me to the second floor. He walked so fast that I had difficulty in climbing the stairs. For once I almost fell down from the stairs. McKenzie then dragged me to his office, where he keeps all the Hard Men Bar confidentiality. He pushes me inside the room and got in. He locked the room from inside, making sure nobody could get in. He then turned toward me. His face changes from that serious look to somewhat relaxed look now. He put on that disgusting sarcastic smile that I know all too well. The smile that eluded me and my mother the first time we meet him and that time when my grandmother handed my mother to him at their wedding. Yes. McKenzie is the man my mother married after my biological mother.
“Trisha, my boy!” McKenzie said those words with an annoying tone and the same disgusting smile, all the while spreading his arms wide and walks towards me. “Was I too rude just now? Haha don’t worry my boy, I haven’t lost a single ounce of my love to you.” I sit and wrapped my arms around my legs. I looked at the man who owns Hard Men Bar, at my step dad with a vicious glare. Tears are coming down from eyes. This is a man that a despite the most. More than anything in this world.
“You lost my love since the very first time you forced me to become your ‘boy’, you monster!” I responded angrily, to which he responds with a swift changes of look on his face. McKenzie suddenly have blank facial expression, no smile, no nothing. Then he walk faster towards me, and grab my hand with a strong grip.
“Let me tell you something Trisha. You, are never a girl. Never. Never a girl since you are born. With me, you’re a boy. You will always be my little boy that I love so much. My precious little creature that under no circumstances will I let exposed to womanly desire.” I screamed in pain because he tightened his grip on my hand. After a while, he lets go of my hand.
“Well, I’m sure you will learn of your mistakes. You have done something unforgiveable today, Trisha. You disobeyed my instructions, misused my trust to you as a professional worker, and made your co-worker exhausted for having to deal with your mistakes. You will not get out of this room until weekend. So you better reflect on yourself during this three days. Rest assured, you will be given toilet time and foods.”
McKenzie then slowly approaches the door, unlocked it and seemingly is going to leave. He then turns back for a moment, “-and by the time you leave this room, we shall agree that you’ll be called Ted, forever.” McKenzie lets out a laugh before closing and locking the door from outside. I was left here, devastated and weeping for I have been mistreated by the only family I have in this world. I lay on the floor, still crying and exhausted for what happened to day. There is no clock in McKenzie’s office, but I figure it should be around 10. I close my eyes and take a few deep breaths.
A bit of sunlight slips its way through the hole of barricaded windows. The light that shines in the room forms a long, tubular shape. It lands exactly on my eye. Judging from where the line shines through and the angle, it should be around ten to eleven in the afternoon. I wake up and do some stretches.
I observed the room for a while. McKenzie loves to call his room an office, but it hardly resembles an office. There was no desk, the papers are scattering around the room, the cabinets are overflowed with papers, no desk lamp, not even a clock hanging on the wall, etc. It’s just as chaotic as the sortie room. There is something quite unusual though on the corner of the room where it appears something is covered by a black sheet. I take off the black sheet, revealing a wooden container of some sort, looks like a chest. Inside the chest was a collection of random things with no order of placement whatsoever. There are keys, McKenzie’s photo, gloves, and more. I ransacked the mess, hoping to find something useful but it seems to end in vain. Just as I want to close the chest, I noticed an edge of something protruding from the mess. It sparked suspicion in me, so I dig to retrieve the thing of interest. I got it out and are able to finally see it. I am shocked to find that it is a photograph of the three of us when my mother marries McKenzie. I have never seen a photograph of us before, has McKenzie been keeping all this to himself? I then dig deeper and found another photograph of my mom. It was when my mother was young, must be before she met McKenzie. She was wearing a white hat with a dress, and she was standing on a field. The smile on her face kills me. This must be when she still goes to ballet dance practice regularly. I took my mother photo and keep it. I put the rest back into the chest and cover it with the black sheet.
After a while, the sounds of key being used on the office door can be heard. The doorknob then turns and McKenzie comes in with a food tray.
“Here’s your food boy, a man gotta eat ain’t it?” McKenzie lets a laugh. “And how spending the night here feels like? Must be good spending time in solace huh? Just so you know, you ain’t getting out until the weekend. Well, for us on the outside, it’s time to work.”
McKenzie left the room afterwards, leaving the food inside. I crawls to see what is on the tray. Chicken porridge with a couple of bananas, not bad. While having my lunch, it occurs to me I won’t be able to meet the boy tonight. I felt bad immediately for making the promise. And the boy? God, I even forget to ask for his name! I could be the worst person alive. But I reckon there might not be any way possible to get out of this room this evening. So what does it matter anyway?
“Hello? Hello, anybody in there?”
I jumped of the voice that suddenly came in from the door. I got up, and walked cautiously towards the door. I’m not sure to answer the call from this stranger or not.
“Ted? Are you in there Ted?”
I am literally stoned the moment my name was called. “Yeah, I’m here. Who are you? How do you know I’m here?”
“Oh my God, there really is someone in there. I’m Joshua, Ted. How come you get locked by McKenzie?”
Joshua. The kid who usually get bullied by Billy and the gang. Mostly Billy. He always was kind of alone and nobody wants to hang out with him. I talked to him a few times but we never got off.
“God, Joshua. Thank Heaven you found me here! It was a long story, but I may need to ask for your favor.”
“Umm, I’m not sure if I can help you all that much. But I’ll try.”
“Good. I really need to get out of this room latest this evening. There’s someone I need to meet and I really need to meet him, Joshua.”
“Okay, but where can I get the key? There is no way I can get it from McKenzie.”
I thought hard of getting the keys to open the door. There is a possibility that McKenzie doesn’t keep the only key to the office. That there must be a duplicate key. If a duplicate exist, it wouldn’t be in this room because I search the room thoroughly. Then, the duplicate must be given to someone he trust. Donnie Rubio!
“Joshua, try to get the keys from Donnie. He might have it. Try to get it without him knowing, or if he know, try to talk your way out of it. Donnie is tolerant, I got my way over him all the time. You can do this Joshua.”
“Umm, okay then. I will try, Ted.” I can feel the changes of tune from Joshua’s voice.
It’s clear that he haven’t done something of this gravity.
“Joshua, listen here.” I placed my hand on the door. “I believe in you, no matter what. We might only stranger before, but I’m confident you can help me.”
After I said those words, it was silent. Joshua didn’t say anything. I’m hoping that he doesn’t bail on me. All I can do, is sit down and pray.
The sunlight coming through the barricade has already turned orange. It left me to wonder what time it is now and whether I can make it to meet that boy. I’m thinking, when I meet that boy, I’m going to share every thoughts I have, every story of me and my mother and listen to his story of chasing and pursuing his passion. I will follow him to get out of this town and travel to another places. To find myself where I can be Trisha, my true self. It was very optimistic to think this way, but isn’t this how the people who pursue their dream thinks? To always dreams of what lies in front of their road and following their path no matter what happens? I want to pursue it. My purpose. Just like how my mother did.
The sounds of door lock startled me from my daydream. The door knob turns. The light from the outside blinded me momentarily and left I wonder. Is it McKenzie? Or Joshua?
“……..Ted! I got the keys!”
My heartbeats grow faster. My hand was holding my mother’s photograph. My legs was weak and my feet were hurt from the shoes, but I forced to stand and run to Joshua’s hand. I hugged him, kissed him on the cheek. Tears filled up my eyes and runs down my cheek. I’m jubilant for the first time in such a very long time.
“Hurry up… and do what you going to do.”
Joshua was sweating. His hands were shaking. I can tell he pushed himself to new boundaries by helping me.
“Thanks Joshua. I owe you so much. And by the way, my name is Trisha.”
I winked at Joshua and immediately runs down the hallway leading to the bar. It was the longest run I have ever take. The flashback are running through my head. I think of my mother, of a ballerina, of a summer in a field, of the music that’s getting more audible as I approach the door to the bar, of the boy with his smile. I’m approaching the door that leads to nothing I know of. But I’m sure it’s going to be wonderful. I’m dreaming as hard as I can.