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Sunday, March 23, 2008

Three Smiles


I was surprised to see a Ray Bradbury anthology which featured The Smile as the main story (see photo above). It's my experience that usually my favorite stories or songs don't get included in collections often called "The Best of . . ."

I first read The Smile in an anthology of Bradbury short stories, A Medicine for Melancholy. It was 1976. It wasn't the first one of Bradbury's that I've read (The October Country was). I was studying then at the University of the Philippines (UP) in Diliman and one of my subjects that semester was Humanities under Prof. Brenda Fajardo. It was my first and major exposure to the Arts. Adding to the aesthetics was a classmate who sat beside me. She was that year's titleholder (for a national dairy products manufacturer) who made it to the cover of Mod Magazine. The smile lingering on her lipsticked lips every time we met in class was a soothing balm to the homesick teen in me. I also became the envy of our male classmates.

When our topic came to the paintings, Prof. Fajardo showed us lots and lots of slides of the Masters. One of them was Mona Lisa by Leonardo Da Vinci. This painting reminded me that it figured in one unforgettable moment in our family in Gensan. One day, Mama was offered several posters mounted on plywood by an ambulant vendor. She chose the Mona Lisa and hung it among the family pictures on the wall in our living room. After closing our store for the night, Papa retired to the living room with his Chinese newspaper and magazines and noticed the poster. He went near it and examined it closely; his eyes darting from pictures of his and Mama's parents then back to the poster.

Unable to contain his curiosity any further, he called Mama to the living room. When she ambled next to him, he asked out loud: Emy, is she our relative? This question brought on guffaws from us kids while Mama smiled at Papa with a twinkle in her eyes.

On Saturdays, I would take the bus from UP to Quiapo and from there, walk to Avenida Avenue where bookstores like Goodwill, Alemars and National Bookstore were located adjacent to each other. And so I found a revolving rack of Bradbury books at National Bookstore. Out of the savings I made from the monthly allowance sent to me, I bought A Medicine for Melancholy because I was homesick and because of The Smile.

Back in the dorm with my roommates out on dates or home for the weekend, I made several sandwiches of canned sardines and sandwich spread and settled on my bunk to read The Smile.

The futuristic story (set in 2061) started with a description of a town square and a queue that was formed at 5 in the morning. In that line was a little boy named Tom. The line was filled with adults in shabby clothes. They were there, according to Grigsby, the man ahead of Tom, because
. . . it has to do with hate. Hate for everything in the Past
. . . how did we get in such a state, cities all junk, roads like jigsaws from bombs, and half the cornfields glowing with radio-activity at night? You hate whatever it was that got you all knocked down and ruined. That's human nature. Unthinking, maybe, but human nature anyway.
Part of the past scheduled for Hate was a painting. Curious, Tom said: They say she smiles. And when it came time for them to see the painting, Grigsby urged Tom to spit at it as he did.
The woman in the portrait smiled, serenely, secretly, at Tom, and he looked back at her, his heart beating, a kind of music in his ears.
It was a copy of the Mona Lisa and when the authorities announced that the crowd may begin its destruction, Tom joined in and was able to rip a small portion of the canvas. He watched it being torn to shreds, put in the mouth as if it was some food, its frame smashed to pieces. He ran home crying, holding in his hand the small piece of canvas.

Later in bed, still clutching the cloth, Tom felt the moonlight on him. In the faint light, he slowly opened his hand to look at the painted cloth.
All the world was asleep in the moonlight.
And there on his hand was the smile.
An hour later, as he was drowsy with sleep, he could still see the smile in the darkness, warm and gentle.

The Smile made me more appreciative of the Arts. So when Prof. Fajardo required us to write a paper on the local Arts scene, I decided to research on the komiks industry which brought me to Malabon to interview the legendary Mars Ravelo, creator of Darna and Dyesebel. Halfway through writing the paper, I was asked by my seatmate what I was researching on and so I told her. With her killer smile, she asked me if I could write a paper for her too. I told her I really didn't have the time since I was enrolled in 24 units and had to validate the subjects I took in a local college in Gensan. The smile died on her lips. Something also died in me that day. She never sat beside me again for the rest of the semester.

Having watched the Julia Roberts-starrer Mona Lisa Smile, read Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code and now reading Angus Trimble's A Brief History of the Smile bring back memories of three smiles to me: My seatmate's beguiling smile, Mama smiling at Papa and The Smile.

1 comment:

Dominique said...

Hi, Gilbert, Happy Easter!

I have "Medicine for Melancholy", too, though it took a while for the title of the short story to register. Yes, I do remember it!

Shame about your classmate, though. What's the word I'm looking for? Oh, yes: "USER!"

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