A Conversation in the Evening
By Vicente Garcia Groyon.
1993 was a challenging year for the workshop—it had just been uprooted from Silliman University and renamed the National Summer Writers Workshop, running on assistance from various donors. The foundation established by alumni to continue the workshop was in its fledgling stage, and things were still up in the air at that point.
Most of the fellows that year were aware that big changes were taking place and sacrifices being made, but we were too giddy to be at the workshop to care. We hardly noticed, for instance, that all 19 of us had been crowded into a single boarding house in the Gervacio Compound and sharing two bathrooms. Instead of a room with a bed, I had a folding cot on an open mezzanine that I shared with three other fellows. Who cared? We were in legendary Dumaguete, as writing fellows.
I had sent in three stories, but because of scheduling constraints, only two were discussed in session. I didn’t mind, but in the last week of the workshop, Doc Ed offered to meet me privately to talk about the third story.
On the appointed evening, I had dinner, skipped the postprandial cocktails and dutifully made my way to the Tiempo residence, following the directions that had been given to me. Ma’am Edith met me at the door, looking very different from her workshop persona in a housedress. Presently Doc Ed emerged, still dressed in his street clothes (he had just come from a meeting—the Rotary Club? the Masons?). We sat outside the house on a pair of garden chairs on a kind of shaded terrace facing the garden. Insects buzzed and fluttered around the dim light bulb burning overhead.
We talked about my story, as promised. I had to consult the copy I had brought with me, but he referred to it from memory, which I found rather flattering. I took very few notes; the discussion was brief. Soon he began to ramble and drift from one topic to the next in the manner that had afforded much amusement to the fellows during the sessions. I put my pen and manuscript away.
I wasn’t sure how to deal with this shift in our interaction, so I just made sure to let him know I was listening—asked a question here and there, nodded and made affirmation noises. I was eager to rejoin the fellows at the boarding house, where some drunken plan to coat the living room wall with shaving cream was doubtless cooking.
I remember very little of what he talked about, because so much ground was covered. I do remember that he often paused for long stretches, in mid-sentence, as though he was searching for a word, or was following another train of thought in his head. During those silences I tried my best not to fidget or make a sound, fearful of offending him.
He talked about the novel he was working on, the one that would be published as Farah. He had begun by describing its premise, and went on to tell me the entire story. He mentioned some anxiety about getting it published, and soon, which was related to some pressing financial worries.
He told me that the house outside which we sat was new to him and Ma’am Edith. They had just moved in, having been forced to leave the university-owned house on the Silliman campus where they had lived for decades. He and Ma’am Edith had raised their children in that house, and welcomed generations of writers into it, and they had assumed that it would be theirs indefinitely. Not a far-fetched assumption given their contributions to the university’s stature and reputation. But they, like the workshop, had found themselves suddenly without a home, and he hoped that the publication of his novel might help defray the cost of recovering that home somehow.
He told me about the mango tree that he had planted in the yard when they had just moved in; how the mango tree had grown and borne fruit over the years as his children grew up and moved away to raise their own families and pursue their careers. He was trying to get at an idea about roots, foundations, permanence, circling around it and trying to reach it through a tangent, but he would drift off and stare into the darkened yard of his new house. During one such silence I looked at him. His eyes were tearing up. I felt as though I had intruded on a private moment. I may as well not have been there, because he seemed to have arrived at some kind of conclusion on his own, one undesired and inevitable.
On the last day of the workshop, the fellows trooped to the Tiempo residence to say their goodbyes and take the customary photographs. We asked for one of just the two of them, on the wooden bench in the garden. Doc Ed, a twinkle in his eye, deadpanned a gallant attitude and put an arm around Ma’am Edith, pulling her close, much to our delight. We took our leave of them shortly after that, and I was soon on a bus headed back to Bacolod. Doc Ed would pass away three years later.
There’s much to say about that glorious summer of ’93, but it’s that conversation in the shadow of an unfamiliar house that I remember.