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Fried Lumpia

E.P. Tuazon

I still don’t understand it myself, but I used to be able to talk to a cat. It’s not like I could talk to animals or any cat. It was just one, specifically our family cat, Aryouokay. And it’s not like he really wanted to talk to me. He wanted me to talk on his behalf to everyone else, like I was his interpreter. 

Actually, it was more like I was his messenger.

“You, bata,” he trilled one night and flopped down on my keyboard with a crunch, “mediate between my world and yours, meow.” My paper on the differences and similarities of Fine Art and Functional Art deleted the differences and replaced them with a barrage of periods. My Art History Professor would read this the following night and email me a sarcastic comment of “great points” and a farcical 7888888888888%. 

His eyes closed. “Tell your sister to feed me earlier. Tell your mother to stay away from my stomach. Tell your Lola to keep the television on when she decides to nap during the day. I’d love to actually finish an episode of Eat Bulaga, meow.” he purred. 

“Do you even understand Tagalog?” I asked even though I should’ve been asking how he even understood English, let alone human language.

“I don’t have to,” he said and rolled on his stomach and stretched his paws out. “It’s a variety show. I just like the dancing and laughing. I could do without the singing. It puts me to sleep. But everything else the little humans do there amuse me, meow.”

“That’s all you want?”

He rolled to his feet and stretched his back into a ninety degree angle. “For meow,” he said and sauntered off. 

So, the next morning, I did as he asked. I told my sister to feed Areyouokay earlier, my mother to stay away from Areyouokay’s belly and my Lola that just because she was not watching her shows anymore doesn’t mean Areyouokay was done watching too. They all stared at me over the breakfast table.

“But that cat hates you,” my sister spat.

“Not once have you done anything for that cat,” my mom cried.

“Okay. But you’re so thin, nakong. Eat some more,” my Lola chided, putting more egg, rice, and Longanisa on my plate with her bare hand.

Areyouokay silently observed from atop the refrigerator. I gave him a nod, and, in his own way, he nodded back and curled further into himself to sleep.

Areyouokay and I didn’t speak again for another two days, but in that time my sister fed him earlier, my mother didn’t rub his stomach and my Lola left her television on all day and night. Areyouokay trounced in and out of my room like he usually did, but he didn’t stay to chat. I wasn’t expecting our relationship to change just because we had one conversation. Besides, it was a miracle we even spoke at all.

Then, at two in the morning of the third day, Areyouokay left me a present at the foot of my bed. I woke up to the sting of something burn my toe and sat up to see what it was. Staining my sheets with oil were six freshly fried lumpia egg rolls. I turned on the light in my room and bent over them. Their egg wrappers were glistening golden brown and the perfume of minced pork, onion and carrots inside shook the rest of the sleep from my eyes. I picked one up and bit into it, the snap and burst of flavor were too good to savor for very long. After my third, Areyouokay appeared from the shadows, a smug face of pride under his whiskers at the sight of my satisfaction.

“I see you like what I made, meow,” he said and licked his leg.

“You made these? How?”

“What do you think all that kneading I do is for? It’s practice, meow.”

“Should cats be making lumpia?”

“E-40’s got his own Lumpia company in the bay. If he can do that, why can’t I make a lumpia or two, meow?”

“How do you even know who E-40 is?” I  mumbled, by then the fourth lumpia had been consumed and the fifth was half chewed.

“Everyone knows E-40 in the Bay Area, even cats, meow.”

“You really shouldn’t be eating these.” I said, scarfing down the last of the six. 

He jumped on my bed and dug at my blankets. “Of course I don’t eat Lumpia. I make Lumpia. I’m a cat. I eat cat food, but I can’t make cat food. And that’s the conundrum, bata, which is where our next mediation comes into play, meow.”

I sat down next to him and he plopped down at my thigh, his solid mass warmed and vibrated with purrs. I stroked his back, my fingers gliding through his fur. “And what is it this time?”

“Check your email, meow.” He yawned, showing all his teeth, the ridges of his mouth, the sharp silica of his tongue.

On my home screen, the 8s at the tail-end of my teacher’s message about my paper ran all the way across the notifications box like a centipede. I wondered how many lives someone would have to live to match that many feet. If one was born a centipede it would only take one. A human being was unlucky with two. Clearly the cat had the advantage with four paws and nine lives.

The next morning, I told my family about Areyouokay’s proposal and presented the contents of his email. It was a simple demand: partnership in his Lumpia selling venture in exchange for a curated selection of wet and dry cat food. I showed them the graphs, reports and projections he had composed; the pre-approval for the venue and bank loan; and an early draft for a marketing and promotional campaign.

“That’s unbelievable! How can a cat hold tongs,” my sister spat.

“How does a cat have a higher credit score than me,” my mother cried.

“Ok, but you’re starting to look chubby, nakong. You should eat less,” my Lola chided, greedily hoarding the free samples of Areyouokay’s product  he prepared for breakfast.

Areyouokay looked down at us from his perch and gave me another nod. He blinked slowly, pleased with the outcome. 

Areyouokay and I didn’t speak again for two years. I figure it’s because we were all busy. My sister brokered the distributors for our ingredients, my mother quit her job and ran the back end of the restaurant, and my Lola got gout from eating too much. Areyouokay was fed four times a day from his special menu, but I didn’t have anything to do with that. Areyouokay wasn’t any of my responsibility. I was just the messenger. 

By the end of the first year, our restaurant, OK Lumpia, was making a good profit and maintained a 5 star rating on Yelp. By the end the second year, I graduated from college with a Communications degree and moved out of the house.

My last night in my room, Areyouokay left me a going-away present. I startled awake at two in the morning again, something cold and wet tickling my toes. I sat up and found an opened can of  Turkey and gravy cat food at the foot of my bed. 

“Why not have some, bata? I would, if I were you, meow,” Areyouokay said, wiping his paw over his face. He was sitting inside an empty moving box and I could only see his head sticking out. 

The sharp smell of tin and salt pinched my cheeks with the soft chill of the night. My room was nearly empty of warmth. 

“Is this a thank you?”

Areyouokay laughed like cats do. “Cats don’t say thank you. It’s evolution, meow.”

“Then what is this,” I asked, putting a hand out to the food as if I were offering it a helping hand, a way out.

Areyouokay chewed at the rim of his box. “It is cat food, meow.” 

“Why not make me lumpia like last time?”

“Why would I do that? We hire people for that meow.”

I dipped my finger in the slurry. “This isn’t what humans eat.”

“I thought humans could eat anything as long as it wasn’t poisonous or made them sick, meow.”

“Well,” I said, putting the tip of my finger to my lips, mulling over the taste, “What do you want me to say?”

Areyouokay’s eyes glowed a dull yellow. “Say you’ll have a bite with me, meow.”

Before I left the house for good, I told my family how I would miss them. I had lived there all my life and their world was all I knew until then. 

“I can’t believe you’re leaving us,” my sister spat.

“Make sure to call us,” my mother cried.

“Array! My leg hurts so bad. Make sure you sleep early so you don’t get gout,” my lola chided, twenty pounds heavier than the year before. 

Areyouokay was not there, but I could hear him in the living room scratching at the front door. 

The last time Areyouokay spoke to me was last week. He called at 2am, even though I don’t  remember ever giving him my number. My wife woke me up and while she went down to the kitchen to get some water I took his call. On the other end of the line, I could tell he was calling from the foot of my old bed in my old room in my old house. I could tell he had one more missive but after so many years it was difficult for him to form words like he used to. Fortune was good to all of them. There were an OK Lumpia all over the place now and none of my family ever had to lift a finger about the business again except when it came to spending their money. They took great care of Areyouokay, but none of them could talk with him like I could. 
As the dark faded and I closed my eyes to prolong the night, I probed every sound to find his message. And when his breath failed and the light prevailed over us, I finally found his voice, tethered and clear with what he wanted from all of us.


E. P. Tuazon is a Filipino-American writer from Los Angeles. They have work in several publications and their forthcoming book is called A PROFESSIONAL LOLA (Red Hen Press 2024). They were chosen by ZZ Packet as the winner of the 2022 AWP Grace Paley Prize in Short Fiction. They are a member of Advintage Press and The Blank Page Writing Club. In their spare time, they like to go to Filipino Seafood Markets to gossip with the crabs.

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