The Branch Head
At 9:45 on a Tuesday morning, The Branch Head floated down the stairs from the third floor of the government building where it was being billeted, down to the second floor where its working office was located. As it turned away from the second floor landing into the wide hallway that led to its enclosed office, five people—The Branch Head’s direct staff—all seated and working fervently at their own desks since 8 o’clock a.m., turned to look at it to say, “Good morning.”
“Good morning,” The Branch Head replied, with a little nod and a smile, and floated into its own enclosed office, keeping the extra-wide door open. It floated to its desk, hovered over its big, black, leather office chair, and swung its head slightly and gently to the right, because its tablet was attached to its ear by a ribbon two feet long. The Branch Head needed to place the tablet on top of its desk to check its social media accounts for that morning.
The Branch Head was literally that: a disembodied head. A head composed of a skull that is covered with skin, hair on its scalp, two eyes and two ears in the usual places, a nose, a mouth, cheeks, chin, a working jaw, teeth, tongue. It is a head without a body, because to do its job in the government it did not really need anything else. It did have a neck, though, because it also had to speak, and so vocal cords and a larynx were essential, but it was a rather short neck, vocal cords and larynx all jammed up in the throat cavity with little space left for vocal resonation. Its voice was loud and flat. It does have, from the looks of it, some kind of a rudimentary brain inside its skull that helps it to manage whatever organs it has remaining, as well as afford it a bit of linguistic and cognitive skills, but for all intents and purposes, as a Branch Head in the government bureaucracy, it had all it needed to function as one.
The Branch Head’s head was also larger than normal people’s heads. Much, much bigger. In fact, it was swollen and bloated with air. Its cheeks were all puffed up, its ears distorted like one of those balloons that coordinators at children’s parties twist and knot into various animal shapes. Its lips were bulbous like a botched lip filler job. Its scalp looked like it held very sparse hair but it’s only because the scalp itself was all stretched because it was filled with air.
With its tablet now on top of the desk, The Branch Head bowed its entire being in order to tap on the Facebook icon with its nose. It scrolled through its news feed using its nose, hovering its head higher over the tablet to read through the contents before lowering its head to swipe its nose up the screen once more. After a few moments, it came across something it found hilarious on its newsfeed, which was created by an app that turned photos of adult faces into baby versions of themselves. The Branch Head then floated out of its office with the extra-wide door, tablet still hanging by its right ear, and proceeded to disturb all of its four staff people seated right outside its office.
“Look at these! Ha ha ha! Look at these!” The Branch Head announced in its loud, flat voice, swinging its head a little bit to call attention to its tablet. All four people then dutifully dropped the work they were doing, stepped away from their desks and approached The Branch Head with fake smiles. One of them, the secretary, took hold of the swinging tablet and looked at the screen where the digitally morphed photos were displayed and laughed. The other three people peered over her shoulder and also laughed, making trite, slightly deprecating comments at the photos of these people on the screen, people they didn’t know.
The Branch Head stayed for several minutes more, cackling loudly and flatly, asking its secretary to continue scrolling through the photos because there are a lot of them, apparently all worthy of suspending government work for. The four people held captive had no choice but to continue looking at the phone and give fake laughs for the next ten minutes.
Eventually, The Branch Head drifted away from these four people to the other side of the second floor. The four people heaved faint sighs of relief and went back to their desks to resume work. The other side of the second floor was where a bigger group of employees were also busy working at their desks. Some were even talking with clients, government employees needing to clarify their outstanding loans and claims, asking about benefits and new loan condonation programs, submitting documents for death benefits of spouses, filing for insurance, bringing up matters that were quite complicated and problematic regarding accounts with unreconciled details. It was a busy Tuesday morning, and several clients were upset. The Branch Head, nevertheless, proceeded to go around each desk showing its tablet to employees at each turn, still on the subject of the morphed infant face photos of random adults. Each employee, as approached, politely grabbed hold of the swinging tablet, scrolled through the photos, gave the expected chuckles while wracking their brains for something funny to say, their mouths showing laughter but their eyebrows knotted together in a an effort to hide their disgust at the balloon that accosted them and their work every day.
One employee, an acting Division Chief, was at that very moment talking to a 65 year-old woman who had just retired as a public school teacher after 42 years in government service; she was supposed to receive over two million pesos in retirement benefits but was left with only 87,569.75, because of her accumulated unpaid loans, the amortizations for which she insisted she could prove have been regularly deducted from her salary. The woman was crying, sitting hunched over before the employee’s desk, looking at the employee’s computer monitor that showed all the deductions from the woman’s four decades of toil, exhaustion, checking of papers, inhaling chalk dust inside poorly ventilated classrooms, hypertension, and commuting, and here was The Branch Head, spreading mindless mirth about infant-ized faces of random adults. The employee politely responded by scrolling through the phone and laughing, and when The Branch Head continued its floating routine towards the rest of the people in the second floor, immediately sat down to resume explaining to the retired teacher whose eyes were red from hysterical sobbing.
“Ma’am, I am sorry, but based on our records, there are unpaid loans that must be deducted from your retirement benefits, according to law.” The Division Chief said, his sympathy genuine.
“I have already shown you all of my pay slips. The amortizations have been deducted from my salary, all of them, all these years.” She said, sniffing into a handkerchief that was getting soggy.
“It is not you, Ma’am. It is your agency that did not remit to us all those amortizations that they have deducted from your salary. They kept the money for some reason and did not remit them to us. You are not the only person in this same situation. This has been happening for a long time.”
“If this has been happening for a long time, how come no one has ever tried to fix it? And what am I to do now? How do I go after my own agency about this? Who do I talk to there?”
“You can ask for help from the personnel in your agency that is assigned to liaise with us. They can double check the paper trail for the billings and the remittances connected to your account. Then we can reconcile the records and proceed with the release of the two million.” It pained the Acting Division Chief to say this, because he knew this wasn’t the proper answer or solution; he was only required to say it. If he tried to save the pension, he would be administratively sued.
“But I have already talked to our liaison officer and she told me the problem was with you, that she remitted what she should have but no acknowledgment receive ever came from you,” The woman’s voice started to rise.
“She cannot prove that.”
“You people keep passing me from one point to the other and no one is telling the truth. It’s like I have worked for nothing.”
The woman gave in to another bout of sobbing while a wave of laughter drifted towards her from the far corner of the second floor, where The Branch Head was still showing employees its tablet.
“Can I get the 87,000 pesos now and just get the rest later when all has been reconciled?” The woman pleaded. “My granddaughter is sick and needs to be hospitalized and her mother who is an OFW in Dubai has not been able to send money.”
“I am afraid that if you claim the 87,000 now, that will, in effect, be your way of agreeing that that amount is all that you are entitled to and you are waiving your rights to request for a reconciliation.”
The woman’s sobs continued. The Acting Division Chief lowered his eyes in remorse and helplessness. He looked at his feet, which are still present, and clad in the required leather shoes. He felt grateful that he had not lost any body part yet, as he had been working at not losing any body part at all, despite the fact that as Acting Division Chief he was doing tasksabove his pay grade and doing them without pay.
By the time 11 o’clock rolled around, The Branch Head was already done showing every single employee its tablet and the morphed faces of random adults, including the employees at the first floor, and the branch driver and the security guards outside, while ignoring all other clients and customers.
The Branch Head floated back up to the second floor to its own office to check its emails. The government has provided it with a voice-controlled computer terminal, on account of The Branch Head’s not having any hands to work with a computer the normal way. The Branch Head has not always been like this. It used to have an entire human body many, many years ago, when it began its career in government, not as a Branch Head but as a rank-and-file employee who did the grunt work while the bureaucratic higher-ups floated about as large and air-headed Heads themselves. Over time, it lost its own body parts, bit by bit. First, it lost its feet, and had to learn how to float, which it enjoyed. After it lost its feet, it got promoted to Staff III. After it lost its legs, it got promoted to Staff IV, and then as it continued to lose body parts, it continued to be promoted to the next higher positions. To get promoted to a supervisory position, the stomach had to disappear, and The Branch Head successfully complied, and was promoted once more.
When its chest area, where the lungs and the heart were, disappeared, it was promoted to an executive position, as Branch Head, as the heart was considered unnecessary to the person’s government-mandated work. The last to disappear were the arms and the shoulders, leaving only a short piece of neck. At the bottom of the neck was a smooth, clean piece of skin, round and flat as a pancake. The brain also adjusted its size. As body parts sequentially disappeared before each promotion up the ladder of government bureaucracy, the parts of the brain that managed that body part also disappeared. By the time Heads-in-line became full-fledged Heads, their brains would have become the size of a tennis ball. Then the head began to puff up, which qualified the floating heads to receive salary increments. Groups of government doctors would visit the branches every six months to measure these floating Heads and submit their official measurements to the General Manager, for approval of the appropriate salary increment. This went on and on to the point that extra-wide doors needed to be widened to accommodate the growing size of the Heads. But now this Branch Head had a head with a diameter of 83.25 inches, which it believes to be well-earned after 38 years in government service.
That 83.25-inch head now floated about its computer terminal, dictating commands to the microphone in staccato bursts.
“Turn on monitor to enter password.” The monitor turned on, and The Branch Head typed in its password, with its nose on its oversized keyboard the government agency had custom-made for the Heads.
“Reply. This has been complied with. Details will be given by the claims department within the day. Thank you. Send email.”
“Compose new email. (Name of employee.) This is to inform you that your sick leave has been disapproved because the medical certificates you have attached are doubtful and seem fake. Send email.”
“Compose new email. (Name of employee.) Please see me at my office at 4:30 p.m. today. Send email.”
“Open check queueing system. Scroll down. Disapprove check number 0009674526. Reason: Claimant’s documents seem fake.”
“Open check writer. Approve amount of 5,698.23 pesos. Affix my signature. Print check.”
The Branch Head worked on many more tasks of this nature, mostly flexing its authority over the most trivial things and despite the terrified employees’ lack of violations of office rules and policies. Every time an employee was called to its office, the unfortunate employee could not even get a word in edgewise. The Branch Head would start talking in that loud, cackling voice for several minutes, then ask a question, and then before the employee could even finish their answer, The Branch Head would start talking again for as long as it felt like it. Some days, The Branch Head preferred showing power over email. Sometimes, it preferred to do its power-tripping in person. But today was a good day because of that social media app that turned the faces of random adults into baby-faced versions of themselves. And so, at around 1:30 p.m., The Branch Head instructed its secretary to download the app to her own phone, go around taking photos of all the branch employees, and use the app to morph their faces into that of babies.
The secretary did just that. She left the pile of papers she was processing for the preparation of the budget for the next year, one that was due at 5:00 p.m. that day and she wasn’t even halfway done with it yet, to go around taking photos of everyone’s faces, and one by one turning them into babies. That took a good half-hour of paid government time. After she showed her output to The Branch Head, it cackled loudly once more as it scrolled through everything.
“Print all of these in full color and then paste them all on our bulletin board,” it ordered the secretary.
“Okay,” the secretary replied. It took another half an hour for her to download all the photos to her government-provided computer, print them onto government-provided paper using the government-provided colored laser printer. Then she walked to the bulletin board and pinned each sheet by the corners.
At 3:00 p.m., when most of the employees were rising for their fifteen-minute coffee break, The Branch Head swiftly floated out of its office and stood at the foot of the stairs, inviting everyone to come up to the bulletin board. The employees sighed, some shook their heads, resigned to losing more than 15 minutes of their paid break-time, and walked to the bulletin board, only to behold colored photograph prints of two versions of their heads—one as an adult and another one as a baby. A tired wave of collective laughter started to rise from the employees. The Branch Head hovered in front of the bulletin board, flitting from side to side to point its swollen mouth at the photos it found to be the funniest, a giant disembodied head making fun of pictures of heads.
Little by little, the tired, hungry throng petered away. The ones at the back quietly walked to the stairwell. One by one, they fled the scene to go to the canteen near the gate of the office compound, thinking about merienda and time wasted. Some retreated to the pantry to get coffee and some quiet, but the ones right in front of the bulletin board found it hard to just leave The Branch Head. They ended up pretending they needed to pee, as the restrooms were the nearest spaces to escape to.
After the employees have had a brief respite of mostly quiet work among the irate, often anxious members from other agencies, The Branch Head came flying out of its office again, calling out to the employee it wanted to speak with.
“Sit down, please,” said The Branch Head. The employee did as told. The Branch Head flew over to its chair and hovered even higher so it could literally look down on the employee.
“I saw you loitering on the CCTV yesterday. Why were you loitering?”
“I wasn’t. I was on way to deliver our insurance payment checks to the car—“
“Why did you not tell me it was official business? For as long as I am not informed of all that everyone is doing in this office, I cannot be responsible for you. Even our drivers, even when they have no trips, they have to stay at their desks, or else they would be sued for loitering. You know that rule. That rule has been in force in all the 38 years that I have been working in this government agency.”
“I was not loitering. I had a pass that you have signed—.”
“Have you delivered the checks?” The Branch Head interrupted.
“Why did you deliver them in the morning then? Our usual procedure is to deliver them in the afternoon because mornings are reserved for personal insurance claims checks. We cannot change that schedule because if we make too many clients wait outside they will surely take photos and post them on social media and tell them we are inefficient or we are stealing their money because we cannot them their checks on time.”
“There was a new directive last week saying all insurance checks of all kinds must be delivered or released before 11 a.m.—” the employee spoke fast so he could finish the sentence before getting interrupted again, but he did not succeed.
“I have not read that directive and I find it stupid. Why 11 o’clock? Our office hours are at 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. You deliver checks when I tell you to, not because of someone’s directive. There was this one time when I was The Branch Head down south, someone delivered checks at the wrong time, and clients were enraged at that. So I am very particular about these matters.”
“The directive was from our Vice-President. That’s why you signed my pass for 11 o’clock yesterday.”
“Do not answer back!” The Brand Head’s eyes grew bigger. “I have been working in this government agency for 38 years and this is the first time that people are bypassing my authority. Let me just tell you, in another branch up north when I was Branch Head there, this guy who was so arrogant shouted at a client, and so the client complained to me. When I confronted the employee, he shouted back. I sued him for insubordination.”
“But it’s the VP—“ the employee stuttered.
“If you feel that I have erred, you can cite the details in black and white—”
“No! I will not do that. It is up to your conscience to deal with your mistake. I have been working here for 38 years and I know where I stand. I have occupied such a post as yours many years ago and I don’t remember ever making this same mistake. I do not expect to retire in five years with less benefits than what I deserve because I get a low performance rating because of your incompetence.”
The employee sat, looking at his hands on his lap.
“Okay, you may go,” said The Branch Head.
The employee walked out without looking back.
The Branch Head floated lower to stare closely at its computer terminal.
“Search mail. (Name of Vice-President). Keywords, release of insurance checks.” And then The Branch Head did see the email directive, sent out to all Branch Heads under that Vice-President’s area of jurisdiction, and this Branch Head also saw its own reply: “We will comply. Thank you.”
The Branch Head wiggled itself—its way of shrugging without shoulders—and waited for 5 o’clock to come when all employees would leave for the day, blissfully content in its ability to balance, in the government office that it was lording over, the wielding of righteous power with good-natured humor.
At a little past five in the evening, when it could no longer hear the tell-tale sound of people moving about, and seeing that most of the lights were already turned off, it floated out of its office, and seeing the bulletin board, still with its spotlights on, at the periphery of its vision, started chuckling again and floated to it, expecting a good 20 minutes of laughing over the pictures of the heads before it floated up the stairs to the third floor to end its work day. It floated in front of the bulletin board, moving from left to right and from top to bottom, once again looking for what it deemed the funniest, and laughing out loud at certain photos. Of course, it ignored the memo posted on the bulletin board about the branch lagging very much behind other branches in the granting of a certain important loan. But when The Branch Head came to the lower right corner of the bulletin board, it saw something that wasn’t there before.
On a piece of A4-sized paper was a printed photo of its own swollen floating head, mouth open in laughter, and beside it, instead of a baby version of its own face, was a baby’s bottom, smooth and fat and shiny like The Branch Head’s smooth and fat and shiny cheeks. Dead center in that picture was the baby’s asshole. The Branch Head’s tennis ball-sized brain took a while to understand what it was seeing, as its brain was no longer equipped to process matters outside those related to government bureaucracy—except maybe for inconsequential things, such as memes and apps it saw on social media. But when the meaning of that one A4-sized print finally dawned on The Branch Head, a soft hissing sound ensued from its nose. As the meaning became clearer, the hissing sound became louder. The Branch Head felt heavier and heavier, and it felt itself floating downwards to the floor, and it realized that it was deflating. It started to feel air hiss inside its ears, and tasted air going out of its partly open mouth.
After five minutes, The Branch Head had become a deflated head on the old marble floor beneath the bulletin board near the restrooms. Only its skull, normal-sized, retained its shape. The rest of it was skin, and all skin was pooling around the base of the skull. One of its eyes still lay in its socket on the skull. The other eye plopped closely to the ear, which was on the floor. Its mouth looked like a fully-chewed and stretched-out still-pinkish chewing gum. The Branch Head tried to float, and found that it still could, but only two inches off the floor. Its vision was wobbly, on account of its misaligned eyes. It moved about tentatively, its layers of stretched, wrinkled skin trailing behind. At that moment, The Branch Head knew it would no longer be allowed to retire in five years, at age 65, with full benefits. It would have to resign the very next day, effective immediately and without benefits, because of the degraded state of its head. A new Head would then be sent to head the branch. Thirty-eight years of service down the drain, or more accurately, dissipated into thin air. The Branch Head floated slowly up the stairs to the third floor of the government building where it was being billeted, feeling, with each few inches of belabored rising, its sagging skin slap against the stair’s risers.
Maryanne Moll has published three books. The first two—Awakenings and Little Freedoms, are collections of her short essays. Her third book, Married Women, is her first collection of short stories. One of her short stories, “At Merienda,” won Third Prize at the 2005 Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature. She is currently working on thesis for her Master’s Degree in Comparative Literature, Major in Literary Theory, in the University of the Philippines – Diliman, as well as a new collection of short stories.