Bonfire

They called it their Meeting Place, the heart of their neighborhood. Every Friday night, they’d gather in the Meeting Place and share stories over a bonfire. Their conversations often followed the same pattern—first, the perfunctory talk about the events of the week, what they were doing the days, even the morning, prior; and then one of them would complain about work, then the others would follow, some saying the same regarding their own, the others saying how grateful they should be that it’s not as bad as theirs; and then someone would remind them that they all faced the same stress, that they were all being childish, fighting over whose job was more stressful, that there’s no point in arguing over petty things, that life is and will always be like that; and then someone would mention college, how safe, and how turbulent it was, and then they’d recall how separated their barkada was during college, and then arrive at the miracle that they were all back together again, just like their days in high school; and then they’d find themselves talking about high school, reminiscing their youth, talking about the things they did and the things they should have done, and by this time the bonfire would be at its brightest, the moon at its highest, and they at their drunkest.

The night began just like the others: by eight o’clock in the evening, they stepped out of their houses and made their way into the Meeting Place. But the night, however, would not end the same way—this Friday was different, was one of their bigger, more eventful hang-outs: their big barkada blowout, as they ironically called it, which they celebrated on the first Friday evening of every summer. They’ve been doing this for six years now.

Vonn was the first to arrive for the night’s preparations. She was in charge of their drinks, and so for the entirety of the afternoon, immediately after work, she made a stop at the 7-Eleven near her workplace and gathered all the drinks she needed for the bonfire. Big party? the convenience store clerk asked her, as she was scanning the bottles through the counter, and Vonn said, yes, definitely, a big one. She managed to fill four shopping baskets with beer, a smorgasbord of different brands and flavors, as they needed lots and lots of them, whatever could make them drunk faster than they can think about getting drunk. They usually could not make it through the summer evening gathering without alcohol numbing their very selves, distorting the memory of what they were doing.

Nanette was in charge of gathering wood for the fire. Since tonight was one of the big ones, she had to gather more wood than usual. Nanette had lumbering services prepare the bulk of the wood for the bonfire—the rest of the fire paraphernalia, she prepared herself. This became a common yearly transaction for Nanette, that the man in charge of the lumbering service already knew what to give her the moment he saw her name on the store’s service phone. The usual? he would ask, and Nanette would only say yes, and by the end of the afternoon a truck would come by her house and drop the usual things she ordered—piles and piles of wood, short sizes, long sizes, anything to make a large fire. She would have had them delivered to the Meeting Place for the convenience, but the truck was big, and the road to the Meeting Place was narrow, so she had to make do with manually carrying the logs of wood using a wheelbarrow from her house to the Meeting Place. It was an arduous and exhausting job—she usually had Ysa help her with the hauling in order to finish everything by nine o’ clock, just in time for the gathering to officially begin.

After the fourth roundtrip from the Meeting Place to her home, Nanette crumbled to the ground, heaving. Feeling okay there? Vonn asks her, as she was transferring the bottles of beer she bought into a cooler.

Yeah, Nanette says, I’m fine.

Vonn fishes for a beer from the bottom of the cooler and passes it to Nanette. She grabs one for herself, and together they drink the night’s first pair of beers.

We’ve been doing this for years and I still get butterflies in my stomach, Vonn says. The bad kind.

Nanette was silent for a while, and aside from the crickets, the only things that made noises that night were the bottles of beer clanking in Vonn’s cooler. Nanette brings her bottle into her mouth, lets the drink fizz in her throat a bit before swallowing, and then says: Mariposas, Vonn. You have mariposas in your stomach. Nanette’s sudden fascination with the word, instead of simply saying butterfly, came the night prior, when, in an effort to fight sleep, she binge watched select movies from her Barbie catalog. The one with Mariposa, the Butterfly Fairy, was one she and her friends surreptitiously enjoyed.

At this comment, Vonn rolls her eyes. Oh God, she says. Not Mariposa again.

Binged lots of Barbie last night, says Nanette. Mariposa just one of them. Was enough to keep me awake.

I just played tennis, Vonn says. The wall’s a pretty good opponent. Much better if it were with Charo or Melanie or Matt, though.

Charo, Melanie, and Matt weren’t in the neighborhood anymore.

Nanette takes another gulp. What does it feel like, she says, playing with yourself?

Lying there, on the cold ground, cold air around them, cold beer in their hands, Vonn manages a little laugh, and Nanette manages a little laugh too, and then they were both laughing, the first they’ve had in weeks.

Their laughter was cut short by Joseph’s haranguing. It’s almost nine, he reminds them, and we still have lots of work to do. Best that we get this over with now so we can rest early and brave another busy week, don’t you think? Plenty of time to lie down and chatter and get drunk later.

It’s Saturday tomorrow, Vonn says. And that’s all we ever do in these kinds of things. But Joseph immediately retorts with another reminder: no, that’s not all we ever do, not tonight.

With that, Nanette went back to the logs and Vonn to her drinks. Joseph, on the other hand, makes his way to his car to get the things he prepared for the night. Prior to arriving at the Meeting Place, Joseph drove down to the convenience store near the neighborhood to gather a few things for the night’s gathering. Aside from the packs of meat he prepared for the evening, he picked up a few snacks, a pack of barbecue sticks, and before he paid for all that at the cash register, he grabbed a lighter at the counter as well. Before driving off, he stopped by the gasoline station beside the store to stock up on gasoline. He wanted to get the night over with as quickly as possible as he still had an early and long road trip the next day. He filled up the tank of his car, along with the metallic cannisters he had with him, and then he drove off to the Meeting Place.

Oh, Joseph says as he was heading to the car, I just finished designing what we could make of the neighborhood’s empty houses, now that some of us aren’t here anymore. I know how sentimental you all can get but perhaps it’s time to move on. Can’t let houses like that stay empty and gathering dust forever. Joseph brushes off the sawdust that was carried by the wind onto his clothes with his hands. That’s how I spent the night, he says, in case you were wondering. Wasn’t aware that it was morning until I looked out the curtains and saw the sun rising a bit.

Same, says Louise, who arrived not a long while later. Since Ysa wasn’t in the neighborhood anymore, she helped Nanette in hauling the wood for the fire. She prepared materials for the fire herself—bundles of newspapers and piles of scratch paper she had lying at home. She told the group that she spent the prior evening just answering quizzes online, quizzes like what their job says about their personality, or what the different astrological signs felt during the pandemic from years ago, or how they would die and when, and she laughed at her results. And then at some point she called Nanette, who was in the middle of the Barbie movie where the characters were spies, and they talked and talked until the sun, like in Joseph’s house, crept through Louise’s curtains.

Scarlet arrived at the Meeting Place much later than the others. She was in charge of the evening’s music, and although they usually had Vonn play the acoustic guitar during their Friday Meeting Place hangouts, on special nights, like tonight, they would just make use of the summer playlist they curated through the years. For each year that passes, they agreed to add one song, a special, defining song, that would symbolize that year’s summer evening gathering. So she brought with her the speakers she normally brought, and thanks to the neighborhood’s reliable internet connection, she managed to power up her music app, ready to play the night’s soundtrack, beginning with the songs from the years before.

Have any idea what tonight’s special song will be? Joseph asks her.

I’m not entirely sure, Scarlet says, but I have something in mind. We’ll play this by ear.

Joseph nods, and continues with preparing the night’s food. Before heading off to help the others, Scarlet presses play. The first song on the playlist was Fun.’s We Are Young. Despite being tired from dancing all week—her pastime to stay awake—the song seemed to reinvigorate her spirits. Louise, as she put down the second to the last pile of wood from the wheelbarrow onto the ground, recognized the music being played, which she said happened to be Patrick’s favorite. Yup, Scarlet tells her. Remember the last summer night he was here? If only he were here still.

Lorena was the last to arrive. She was supposed to help Joseph with the food, but she said she got carried away with this game that she was playing. She had been playing it since the night before, all throughout the morning and until it was night again, just as much as Nanette binge watched the Barbie movies, or just as much Vonn played tennis with the wall, in order to stay awake. She was hours into the game and in too deep with the gore, that when she looked at the clock it was nearly nine. She prepared herself for the night, forgot about the deal with Joseph, and, anticipating cold weather, donned a hoodie to keep herself warm throughout the evening.

As if it won’t be warm, Lor, Nanette tells her. We’re going to be around a fire and we’re going to be drinking. How can you not be warm?

Hey, Roy gave me this hoodie just a few days ago, she says. I wanted him to see me wear it, because appreciation. Lorena made squiggly actions with her arms as she said “appreciation.” Nanette, hating the gesture, writhed with a jesting repulsion.

Waited half an hour for you, Lor, Joseph says. Could have been late and would never have packed everything in time if I didn’t take matters into my own hands.

As if your work is that hard that it needs two people to do it, Nanette says, unloading the last pile of wood from the wheelbarrow. We had to carry these. She gestures at the pile of wood on the ground, and then she looks at Louise for argumentative support, but she fumbles in her words, too shy to say anything.

True, Vonn says. But at least there’s two of you. I mean, I get how physically tiring it is, and I do not mean to invalidate your work or anything, but… I had to carry all that beer alone. And I had to risk looking like a fucking alcoholic.

Gosh, guys, Scarlet says. We’ve been doing this for years. I don’t think we should be complaining about these things year after year.

Yeah, you just sift through music, sis, Lorena says, I don’t think you have a say on the matter.

And you keep arriving late, so neither should you.

Guys, stop being petty, says Joseph. The work we do for this summer evening is all stressful, okay? It’s all equal. The previous years were exhausting; I don’t see why this year is different. This is just a fact of life that we all have to get through, okay? Now what time is it?

Joseph checks his watch: 9:05. We should get started soon, he says. Is everything ready?

The music transitions from one song to the next—this time OneRepublic’s I Lived, Christian’s, another friend’s favorite. They look around, surveying the scene for the essentials. The food Joseph prepared was already on the grill. Nanette was already setting up a few scraps of wood for the fire, while Louise borrowed Joseph’s lighter and lit her bundles of paper to start the flame.

All good, they say.

Wait, Lorena interjects, where’s Roy?

A voice comes up from behind them: here! It was Roy, running, heaving, profuse with sweat. Got off work late because they had to make me do extra things, he says. And to think I don’t get paid for it! Fucking capitalists. And oh, by the way, here’s a scarf I made for you, Lor. She hands down an intricately handwoven scarf to Lorena, bouncing with glee, trying the scarf on, joking that she felt so special being given all these gifts. I made that to stay awake last night, Roy says. I know how cold you can get during these gatherings.

Guys, Joseph interrupts them. He taps his watch: 9:10.

They were finally complete. They all gathered around the fire, and Vonn served the first round of beers. Then they were all laughing, telling stories, drinking and drinking and drinking some more, as their annual gathering for the first summer evening began.


The time came when they were all drunk. The fire was crackling still, in tune to their laughs and conversations. Some of them had started slurring words when they spoke, but all of them were still conscious, all of them still capable of thought. Years of doing the annual summer evening gathering had taught them to fall but not completely succumb to inebriation, taught them to have some semblance of alertness even when the booze is telling their brain to shut down. They were all finished with their food then, and Joseph went to gather all their paper plates and utensils and threw them into the trash bag. The barbecue sticks were kept in a small plastic on the table.

I can’t remember the last time I had barbecue that good, Vonn says.

Last year’s gathering, maybe? says Lorena.

No, we had pork chop then, I think, Louise says. Remember the grill?

They all nodded, and with a suppressed “yeah” they rolled their eyes, and Lorena, shaking, says, oh, yeah, right, that damned grill. She clutched her scarf and wrapped it around herself much tighter, as the night only grew colder by the minute.

Now that I think about it, Roy says, I think the last time I’ve ever had barbecue this good was in college. Remember those barbecue stalls during Founder’s?

To die for, they all said, and the fire danced to their reverie.

Founder’s was amazing, Nanette says. I mean, busy for some of us organizers, but ultimately an experience.

Yeah, the midterm exams prior was shit, though, says Scarlet.

Oh yeah definitely, but once you come out of that it’s just two weeks of celebration and drinking and laag, Roy says. Taking another drink, he continues: It’s the most anticipated thing to happen each year, where you spend every afternoon just walking around the booth area with friends and then you begin the night eating barbecue and end it drinking your lives away and that’s all you ever do—just eat barbecue and get drunk, nothing else afterwards.

God, Lorena says, if only I knew that that was the last Founder’s celebration we’ll ever have, I would’ve literally just broke the rules and stayed in the booth area taking it all in for the full two weeks.

And we were complete then! says Nanette.

Joseph coughs, reminding them that he was still there, and that he was in fact not present during the last Founder’s celebration, that their barkada wasn’t really complete then, as some of them were in different, far flung places, in Cebu or in Manila, during college. But I guess that doesn’t matter now, does it, Joseph says. We’re all still separated, in the end. And then they began reminiscing their time with those who weren’t in the neighborhood anymore: Charo, Melanie, Matt, Ysa, Christian, Patrick. In a sense, Joseph went on, what we have now is just like that time in college, just like Founder’s.

But we were complete in spirit though, Lorena reminds them.

Just like in high school, Roy says.

Yeah, says Vonn. Good times.

And bad.

But not as bad as now, Louise interjects. And they agreed.

God. Our petty fights, our laughter. It was just like home, noh? Joseph asks. And they agreed to that too.

Much more if you include the sleepovers, says Roy. And the stupid things we did to the people who called it a night first, don’t you remember? They laughed sadly at that.

Scarlet realizes what the night’s special song should be. Since we’re talking about high school, she says, and home. She takes out her phone, taps on the search bar of the music app, presses a few keys, and then adds the night’s special song to the queue. It was the last song to be played.

Hey, guys, Joseph says, I don’t want to be a killjoy or anything, but I think we should go on, with, you know. They were all sullen then, just as they were in the previous years, always exactly at this same time. I mean, he says, since Scarlet already has her phone out.

So they all drank some more. Scarlet exited her music and then browsed through her other apps until she reached the one that looked like a camera. The app, once opened, was split into seven screens. Each of those seven screens were of a dark green color, all depicting empty bedrooms, living rooms, bathrooms, whatever room that could be in a house. At the top-right hand corner, a timestamp, still running: April 12, 11:34 p.m., the time it was now.

Scarlet set the date back to April 11, the time to morning. On the screens flickered different rooms, now bright with sunlight. From the edge of those seven screens came all of them—Roy, Lorena, Joseph, Scarlet, Louise, Nanette, Vonn—occupying one screen each, as they all went through their morning preparations for work. Every time they left one room and into another, the scene automatically changes to where they were, the camera following and watching them. The rest of the day after that morning, the screens were empty again, as they all spent their day on their respective jobs.

On the recording went, until it was the evening of the 11th. On one screen recording of an outdoor field, Vonn is seen playing tennis. In another, Nanette is seen laughing, as an image of what seems to be Barbie is on her television screen. Louise is seen on her laptop, phone to her ear. Joseph crouched on the drawing table, Scarlet in the middle of bar stretches, Roy sowing the scarf she gave to Lorena.

Wait no, Joseph says. Let’s not watch it like this. Put the recording on reverse. Like before.

Do we have to? Vonn asks.

Yes, we should. As much as I want to get this thing over with quickly, we can’t just figure it out this way.

They all nod, and so Scarlet sets the date and time back to now, and plays the recording backwards. Scarlet speeds the recording to triple-speed to expedite their viewing, and they all crowded around her phone, as if they were looking at something wondrous, something life-altering, looking carefully and meticulously at each movement, glancing once in a while at the timestamp on the corner.

The screens started with empty rooms, as they were all out on the bonfire. The first change in scenery was Roy running backward into his home, as he was late to the preparations. And then they all started appearing in the screens, all walking backwards—Vonn with her cases of beer, Joseph with the things he bought at the convenience store, Louise with the bundles of paper. After much rewinding, the screens went dark again, as it was already midnight of April 12th. Scarlet slows the recording down to double speed.

All of them were asleep in their beds. In reverse, the first to wake was Lorena, which meant she was the last to get to bed.

God, again? Vonn says.

Like I always say, Vonn, says Lorena, I have no problem with staying awake.

Then next awoke Joseph, who walked backwards to his drawing table. He sighed with relief, wiping the sweat from his face, breathing in the chilly, summer air.

And then woke Nanette, then Louise, then Vonn, who was surprised, as she was sure, and depressed at the fact of being sure, that she would fall asleep much earlier than the others.

Now there were only two people left: Scarlet and Roy. Scarlet slows the recording, finally, to normal speed.

They all watched in anticipation, at who would wake up last, which meant who among them, in the evening prior, fell asleep first. Both of them were stirring in their sleep, the creases of their blankets shifting with each movement. And with each little move they made, the rest of them watching paused to hold their breath, eyes glued to the cellphone before them. After much waiting, a phone in Scarlet’s part of the recording lights up, and then, in reverse, she picks it up, texts what may have been perhaps a good night text, puts the blanket away, and then walks, in reverse, away from the bed, and her screen shifts to the studio in her house, where her bars were located.

And then they all looked at Roy.

No, he says. No, that’s… No.

The recording speaks for itself, Roy, Joseph says.

Bullshit.

They all looked at each other, unsure of what to say, as they always were, in situations like these.

You guys know I’ve had more hours of work to do the past week. You guys doing overtime. This is bullshit. Why do we even have to do this thing anyway, why not just let it end, fucking hell. Roy fulminated with more expletives, but there was nothing else he could do, nothing else they could do. It was this neighborhood’s tradition, the others reasoned to him, reminded him, that ever since before they came here, was followed. This was an unfortunate history that was never disclosed to them until weeks after they moved in.

Roy went bellicose, and tried to free himself from their crutches. But they were all used to this now; they had six years’ worth of practice to pacify situations like this. Joseph grabbed Roy by the arms, while Vonn held his legs.

The music transitions one last time to tonight’s special song. In between drunken shouts and slurs, Phillip Phillips’s Home blares through the speakers.

Last year, they used the grill. With Joseph and Vonn holding Roy down, Scarlet took the barbecue sticks from the table, almost toppling over the bottles of beer on her way. They each stuck a stick deep into Roy’s skin, to try and weaken him, which they found was much more effective than the grill from before, and he howls in the process.

Nanette and Louise, in charge of the night’s fire, grabbed the largest pole that was given to them by the lumbering service. Lorena took the scarf around her neck and used it to tie Roy onto the pole, which they then dropped into the large wheelbarrow, showering it with bundles of scratch paper and other burning paraphernalia. Joseph runs to his car, gets the metallic cannisters he filled up with gasoline at the convenience store, and pours them all over the wheelbarrow.

No, no, you can’t do this, Roy screams. Mga yawa mo, you just can’t.

But they did. Drunk as they were, as drunk as they were the previous years, they pushed the wheelbarrow, doused with gasoline, into the fire. The bonfire booms, ecstatic with what they brought to it, and it danced as it continued to grow bigger, looming over them, turning brighter and brighter with every moment, reaching for the moon now at its peak in the sky. They all stood around the bonfire, empty bottles of beer in hand, weeping loudly at what they have done, and Roy screaming, just like how the others before him were screaming, at the cruelty of life, at the cruelty of the neighborhood, at the cruelty of the night.


Andre Aniñon is a medical technology graduate from Silliman University, Dumaguete City. When he is not probing for veins or playing with pipettes in the laboratory, he is either reading, surfing the web, or trying his best to write.

Angels in the Mire

Fields Avenue beckoned to everyone at night. In the morning, it was merely a tiny section of the city that people barely noticed as they travelled toward the central districts of Angeles. The area was warm and dusty, like the rest of the province. But as the shroud of nighttime came, activity begins to pick up in all parts of Fields Avenue, especially in the mythical Walking Street—the Pattaya strip of Pampanga. Ordinary businesses closed at six or seven, but dozens of restaurants are just getting started for the night, and they are expecting a most wondrous flow of wide-eyed and willing patrons.

Kathy

Kathy was getting ready for the night. Her mother, Aling Saling, was cooking tinumis for dinner. Wizened hands methodically mixed the tiny, beaten kaserola of blood stew, and the fragrant garlic, mixed with a bit of vinegar, fish sauce, and small slices of babi, spread throughout the small home, which was propped up against another small home, which in turn was supported partially by the old wall of a middle class subdivision. Behind the second structure was a train of interconnected homes that continued, unabated, toward the east, where the roofs began to shrink and dip into the horizon, until the lines begin to reflect how the dusk powders darkness upon the endless green fields. The gray earth, once covered with so much lahar from the Pinatubo eruption in the mid-nineties, has now recovered, in a fashion. Everyone has learned to live with the memories, the sights, and the taste of the past.

Kathy, you eat before going, Aling Saling pleaded, as she admired how Kathy could look so different every night, when she went off as a worker of Walking Street. Kathy was busy tightening the lines of her eyebrows, and she felt all warm inside remembering how that Korean guy, John, really took his time in buying her an eyebrow pencil, some pressed powder, and a bottle of perfume from one of the more expensive stores in Walking Street. She had been eyeing several cosmetics brands for months, but their price tags deterred her, like how the burning of mosquito coils drove away the nightly terrors of huge mosquitoes that came, as if on schedule, every 5:30 in the afternoon.

She felt even warmer when John sent her an unexpected message as she was downing her second plate of tinumis. She looked at her phone, a secondhand thing she bought for about 500 pesos, and saw John’s Messenger icon glowing, floating on-screen. She had never felt so taken care of, until she had met John. Kathy had given her all, and more, when John asked. And now she was getting the feeling of wanting to be with the Korean, who worked as a factory lieutenant in Clark.

Sorry babe. Busy tonight, John said in the message.

Kathy’s heart sank. But she didn’t want to stress John out. She wanted to be his perfect angel, not like his father or mother who beat him as a kid for not being number one. She always hugged him warmly, and closed her eyes as John’s white and slim fingers coasted the inroads and byways of her tiny body. The first time they did it, John was nervous. But Kathy had already been out on the streets for two years, and making love was already second nature to her. She guided John’s hands and lips, until they found their rightful places, and when Kathy felt that John already knew what to do, she let herself go. There was something in the Korean male, who arrived in the Philippines only last year, that tamed Kathy’s tried and tested defenses, and made her want to drop everything and be with him—for good. Was it love? Kathy asked herself, again and again, as she remembered how John would appear like clockwork, at 9:30 PM at McDonald’s, so that he could be first in line.

I’m always here for you babe, she replied.

John responded with a sticker of a cute dog that said “Thank You” in big letters. Kathy giggled and pressed the heart reaction on the sticker. One of the things that Kathy loved about the burly John was he was a child at heart. And he seemed to trust Kathy enough to show his soft side.

My panganay seems to be in love, yes? Aling Saling tightened the braids of the nineteen year old Kathy, who was still visibly glowing from reading a message from John. Her weakened hands tried to match the perfect pattern that her daughter created.

No ‘nang, Kathy answered. She didn’t want to tell Aling Saling just yet. She wanted to keep it a secret for as long as she could, because she didn’t want the neighbors thinking she had already snagged a Korean, and they could start knocking on their old door asking for give-outs and loans from her mother or brother. It was bad enough that they had been stuck in the “site” as it was called since she was a child. Life was simpler if people kept to themselves.

If there was one person that Kathy had told about John, it was Anna. Anna had always supported Kathy, being quite the perfect best friend since childhood. Kathy and Anna had been through a lot together, and shared not just laughter, but tears—a palanggana full of it. They held on to each other in their first year of ‘walking’, and shared stories, both light and dark, that other people wouldn’t understand. No one fully understood them, except themselves, and others in the trade.

The jeepney skidded to a halt in front of McDonald’s. As the old smoke belcher gave a final lurch after braking, the neon lights of Walking Street came into view. The golden arches of McDonald’s adorned the gigantic steel and concrete arc that welcomed visitors to the short strip of bars, cafés, clubs, lingerie stores, and whatever else have you, in the most compact space imaginable that has been wholly dedicated to pleasing males. A tarpaulin sign from the Mayor’s Office doubly confirmed that vehicles were not allowed inside (except perhaps random motorcycles and tricycles fetching patrons and their girls) and declared to everyone who would care to read that the strip is indeed a “walking street”. But the tarpaulin sign, laid atop of a steel frame, had become crumpled and crusty from years and layers of dust and rain. It lay forgotten, like so many other things in this part of the city.

Anna embraced Kathy when she arrived, as she always did every night, five or six times a week. But something was different that night. Kathy didn’t know what to make of the feeling, but something in her gut told her that there was danger, or maybe she was just stressed that John wasn’t around. The young woman tried to put it out of her mind. Kathy wore a sleeveless, black top that night that accentuated her childish arms, small breasts, and long neck. Like many other walkers, Kathy had a short stature, that she tried to make up for by eating more, so that she would gain weight and consequently, develop fat in all the right places. She made sure that her dresses always accentuated her shapely hips, and gave away just enough of her fair skin to piqué the interest of potential patrons.

An American in his sixties approached Anna. The man wore a pink polo shirt, a cowboy hat, and a pair of XXL trousers that gave up trying to contain the man’s massive belly a long time ago. He had put on his best suave face, and tried to hide the fact that the sweltering heat of the early evening was something he never liked when he was out and about in the Philippines. Steve Wilkins was a retired car salesman from New Jersey, and had settled in Angeles City because the cost of living was excellent – and the women aren’t half bad, too. Thrice divorced with four children that are now all grown up, Steve felt that it was about time he enjoyed his remaining years. He had stayed a year in Thailand, a couple of months in Vietnam, but it was in Angeles City, Pampanga that he felt at home. He had been living in the fine city for twelve years now, and despite stern warnings from his Filipino-Chinese cardiologist from St. Luke’s Hospital in Manila, he wasn’t about to give up the one thing that made him feel like a young gun again: his twice weekly, or sometimes thrice weekly visit to Walking Street and its adjacent spaces. And brandy. Brandy is always important.

Daddy you go here, Anna said as she held her waist and pushed her right hip out to tease the old American. Steve had a great feeling tonight, and he eyed the other girl beside Anna, too. Kathy wasn’t paying much attention to Steve, because she was scanning the area for John. She was still hoping against hope that he would come by tonight, even just for a quick kiss. She stopped charging him a long time ago. It was for free, Kathy thought, isn’t that good?

Kathy, I have to go, whispered Anna, as she waved goodbye to her best friend. Kathy had been so inattentive that Steve gave up trying to book her, and instead walked Anna away so he could find another girl that fit the bill. He liked two or three a night, four if he could find another, and he felt that tonight would be his luckiest night yet, yes siree. Anna wanted to bring Kathy along because patrons like Steve made her nervous, because of their age. Another worker nearly landed in jail after her customer died on top of her in one of the seedy hotels in the area. It was only after much pleading, tears, and an impromptu ‘dance’ with a policeman at the back of a patrol pick-up truck that she was able to walk free.

Kathy was in a trance. She walked aimlessly across the strip, and not even the blinking neon lights of an Egyptian-themed club cheered her up. She always loved the neon lights, despite the shadow they cast on every woman on the strip. Eyes unfocused, hands sweating, she felt like throwing up. She bumped into a huge woman, a mamasan from one of the adjacent clubs. The mamasan was pissed and eyed Kathy from head to toe. Are you stupid, or high? The woman was sneering at Kathy. Kathy mumbled her sorry and walked more quickly. What was she looking for, anyway? She didn’t want any customers tonight. There was no wind, but Kathy was shivering, sweating all at once. And then it hit her – there he is, my John. She could spot John’s cute head of hair anywhere. Amidst the throng of people, that cute head belonged to Kathy, and Kathy alone.

Kathy took off, sprinting across broken sections of the street that had leftover rainwater from the previous night’s rain. Her small feet splashed against puddles, and flecks of stale, blackened water darkened the hem of her dress. She reached John in less than a minute—at the entrance of the Maestro Hotel.

John was smoking a cigarette and had been laughing with two girls, all younger-looking than Kathy. Kathy froze when she realized that John had booked two girls and was about to enter the hotel. He was supposed to be busy. He was supposed to be at home, working on his Lenovo laptop. He wasn’t supposed to be with these two strange women, who only want money from him and nothing more. Just his money. Just his money. Kathy repeated the thought endlessly in her mind as she looked at John, relaxed and having fun with his girls for the night. She smelled John’s favorite cologne, before the smell of the two other girls intruded the air around Kathy.

John, she whispered.

The Korean male finally lifted his head to take notice of Kathy. He had been busy gripping one of the girls’ backsides while puffing on his cigarette. Kathy knew that John was high on something. Because the real John has never gripped her like that in public. He was too shy. But once, when he came to her seemingly agitated and talkative, she knew that he was shooting something up his veins. Kathy didn’t know for sure what it was. But it made John louder, more aggressive, and more violent in bed.

What Kathy saw in John’s eyes as he looked up from the two girls made her take a step back. John’s eyes were dark and empty, and bore none of the light and warmth she thought she saw when she looked deeply into his eyes when they were making love, at the back of his car, in a hotel, behind a 24-hour convenience store, at the parking lot of a closed mall, or wherever else John wanted it.

You can go home now, Kathy. I told you I was busy, John said.

The two girls that John booked for the night looked threateningly at Kathy.

Why you look bitch? said one, who had pink highlights on her hair and wore an exceedingly short dress that gave away just a hint of undergarments.

She’s yucky, you she-male! said the second girl, who wore glittering stiletto heels that were one size bigger than her feet.

The hotel’s lady guard, a woman in her thirties with her hair in the tightest of buns, interrupted the second girl and asked them if they were coming in or not. Both girls gave Kathy a final death stare before tossing their hairs and stepping inside the hotel, after the lady guard waved a firm hand that said – no fighting here.

Bye Kathy, said John, who raised his eyebrows as if to dismiss the girl. He took one last look at Kathy before he climbed the stairs that led to the main lobby of the hotel.


Kathy was still standing outside the hotel as the trio headed upstairs for a night that she had been all too familiar with.

Mavi

Mavi was proud to be the only lady guard in the whole of Walking Street. To be a lady guard in one of the ‘liveliest’ places in Angeles City took guts, lots of it, especially after the wee hours of the night where lust, drugs, and inebriation created a toxic cocktail in people that could explode any time. After stopping what she deemed a brewing fight right in front of the hotel between two younger walkers and an older one (she could tell by their faces who was younger), she felt quite proud of herself.

The owner of the Maestro Hotel, an Australian hippie with long, grey and flowing hair, had been married to a Filipina for more than twenty years, and wanted a largely all-female staff. He also owned a small resort in Zambales with a floating Tiki bar, and business was better he believed, when there were more females than males helping him run his business. Mavi straightened her uniform before fully opening the gate that separated the entrance of the hotel from the strip. The Korean male had flicked away his cigarette on the floor, the two young women who were itching for a fight were on their way upstairs to book a room.

Mavi knew better than to ask how old the two girls were. In her six months of working at the Maestro Hotel, four of it was spent stifling her maternal instincts and keeping her mouth shut. The owner had been explicit – it’s none of my business, it’s none of your business, let’s try to keep it that way Mavi, you understand?

Mavi wanted to keep emotions out of her line of work, but more often than not, she gripped her agency-issued 38-caliber revolver more tightly than usual when young walkers entered the hotel with men two or three times older than they really were. Of course they would say they were 18, 19, 20, or 21. None of it was usually true. Mavi knew what patrons did, however well-dressed and fragrant they might be, and she didn’t want anything remotely similar to happen to her own daughter, who was five years old. The father of her daughter was a layabout who did nothing right, and preferred being drunk than sober any time of the day. He scoffed at her work as a lady guard and called her worthless, before bursting into tears and bawling that life is unfair because he still couldn’t get a contract as a seaman, which is his dream job. And Mavi would cradle the broken man and remind him that he is loved, and that he will find his luck soon, but soon after, Monching would have a drink too many, and would become a roaring maniac, usually after twelve midnight.

Mavi’s phone beeped, and her heart raced. Mavi didn’t like receiving late-night messages or calls. It made her heart ache and she sweated like crazy under her uniform. Late-night texts and calls can harbor bad news. She closed her eyes and breathed deeply. She pulled out the phone and tapped the screen twice to wake it up. She saw her husband’s name on the screen, followed by a distraught text message: Loreta was sick, was in the hospital, need 3,000 pesos ASAP for medicine. It was every mother’s worst nightmare. Mavi left her post before her shift ended for the first time in her employment history at the hotel. She approached the front desk. Mavi’s face paled even more as she spoke to the receptionist in a low but urgent voice. She showed the receptionist the message. The lady at the front desk, a pretty girl in her twenties, rubbed the back of her neck and dialed the hotel owner’s number. After a few rings, the owner picked up. She explained Mavi’s predicament and in her best pleading voice, asked if it was possible for the lady guard to have a loan of just 3,000 pesos, to be deducted from her monthly salary. A few quiet moments later, the receptionist placed the telephone back in its receiver and looked at the lady guard sadly.

The hotel owner had immediately denied her request.

Mavi called the next guard on duty, Ernesto, who was due to report to the hotel in three hours, to please relieve her because she had to leave. Ernesto lived two streets away and understood immediately. He was on his way, and Mavi should get going to find the 3,000 pesos.

Mavi changed to her civilian clothes, an old white shirt with a Honolulu logo in front and a pair old jeans – the better pair of only two jeans she owns at the moment. She walked across the strip, past the blinking neon lights of the Egyptian-themed club, avoiding a drunk African who had a girl under his arm, feeling numb all over. She checked her wallet for the umpteenth time. She had three pieces of 20 peso bills, a one hundred peso bill, and bits of lint. 160 pesos. She needed 2,840 pesos more for her daughter, who was now lying helpless in a district hospital. She couldn’t bear to go to the hospital empty-handed. She has to find a way. She has to.

She crossed the road toward a fast-food joint. She always rested at Jollibee, which was just across the road from Walking Street, because the place allowed people to linger and rest, even if they didn’t order anything. Mavi seated herself near the exit, and looked at the mass of people ordering at the counter. The bright menus beckoned to her, inviting her to eat a burger, sundae, or fried chicken. A family of three entered the premises. They went up to the counter and the mother, a sickly-looking woman in her late forties, pointed at a large family meal and by the movement of her lips, was ordering a lot more from the skeptical-looking cashier. When her bill was punched out, the woman dipped her hand into her old bag, a patchwork backpack that had seen better times. Mavi saw the woman pull out an expensive-looking wallet, thick will bills and cards. She pulled out two blue bills, probably two thousand pesos, and proceeded to pay for her order. She handed the wallet to her son, a lanky teenager, who wasn’t paying attention and immediately dropped the wallet. The woman behind them looked at the wallet and saw the mustached face of an American on one of the ID cards. The family fled after getting some of their order, just as Mavi was about to stand up and approach the woman.

Outside, people were walking in the general direction of home, after enjoying the conclusion of the Tigtigan Terakan Keng Dalan. Mavi had no such luxury, and thought for a fleeting moment how their Christmas would be if she didn’t find 3,000 pesos before rushing to the district hospital in Magalang. She thought long and hard of what she saw at Jollibee, of how the threadbare family ordered a huge meal from someone else’s wallet. She was now a block away from Walking Street, and saw a local in a rush to leave his car. The shiny red Nissan’s driver-side door was left slightly ajar. Mavi walked past the car, only to backtrack. She looked around. The owner of the car was nowhere in sight. With shaking hands, she opened the Nissan’s door, and looked inside. There was some money on the dashboard – a few hundred pesos, and a single five hundred peso bill. She pocketed the bills and ran back to Walking Street.

Mavi held the money against her bosom and held back her sobs. She had some money now. She found a dark corner near a 24-hour convenience store and counted her money. She now had 860 pesos. Just 2,140 pesos more… Just a bit more…

She had been so preoccupied with her bills that she didn’t notice two best friends approaching her. Big Bill and Smiley Tom were from New York, and thought that the Philippines was way cool than the Big Apple because everything was chill here… Especially when they cash in stock trading chips from tight portfolios they’ve been tending for five years.

– Hey girl, you okay? Big Bill was the first to speak. He had an unnaturally ruddy tan, almost violet from enjoying too much natural vitamin D, but he had a kind face. Mavi wiped her tears away and stared at Big Bill’s hawk-like nose. Her eyes traveled to Big Bill’s best friend since childhood, Smiley Tom, and noticed that the two looked like two big babies because of their red, round faces and even rounder bellies, and the two were beaming at her, and looking at how shapely her breasts were through the thin fabric of her old, white, Honolulu shirt.

Hey baby, you available? Smiley Tom was in it for the game tonight, and he prided himself in spotting “exotic morsels,” these beautiful Filipinas.

Mavi nodded, and gave a small smile as she fought back more tears.

Yes, she said, pushing out her bosom more to give them a better view. She felt a strange prickling sensation coursing through her body as the two men’s eyes savored every inch of her clothed body. Her gut wretched from the idea of being touched by complete strangers, and yet her training as a lady guard allowed her to remain calm. She remembered her training, of what she should do when being physically assaulted. Number one, she whispered under her breath: remain calm. She forced a wider smile and held her hips, inviting the two men to look closer. The two men whooped in joy and whistled loudly. Yeah sugar, lucky night for us baby!

Mavi tucked the bills away in her back pocket and added quietly through a thin-lipped smile – I know a place here at Walking Street.

The trio walked toward the Maestro Hotel, and one of them, Smiley Tom, bumped into an old lady with a patchwork backpack. Sorry, he mumbled sarcastically, as the old lady didn’t even turn her head to acknowledge that she bumped and stepped on Smiley Tom’s left foot.

Becky

Aling Becky was normally composed. But tonight wasn’t typical, and there was a lot going on all at once. She bumped against an American (she wasn’t sure, she didn’t even look), but all that mattered now was that they had some money. The plan was simple, yet elaborate. Her husband Lisandro was to be the main lookout. Gibo, their eldest child, will take the wallet and run a block away, discarding a shirt or two along the way. By the end of his run, he should have shed at least one shirt. He had four shirts on him, each a wildly different color than the last.

The flamboyant American with the thick mustache already had too much to drink, and his two companions, aged 17 and 21 respectively, could not contain his excess energy. His wallet dropped as Aling Becky’s eyes were scanning the line for a target. In less than a minute she had discreetly retrieved the wallet, as the American’s antics, which included waving around his hand like he was stroking something, was enough entertainment to distract even the burly bouncers of the Zed Club.

Aling Becky walked faster.

She thought of all the things she could do with the money. She could pay off the three tindahans that she had loaned rice and canned food from. She could pay off Clemente, the neighborhood usurer, and even pay off all the interest from last year. She had counted everything in the wallet. She still had 16,000 pesos left. The American had carried a total of 18,000 pesos in his wallet. After getting all the money, she threw away the wallet at a nearby bridge overlooking the city’s storm drain. The murky water smelled of urine and garbage. The fresh flow of rainwater did little to control the nauseating stench of the city’s combined drain system. Aling Becky knew that it was unlikely for the wallet to resurface any time soon. Because if you throw in anything lighter than a dead animal, the object would sink into the mire, never to be seen again.

She waved at a passing jeepney and went home.

Trining, Aling Becky’s second oldest child, had just turned sixteen last month and was usually stuck at home after school, caring for her youngest sibling, Raul, who was only two. She knew that her mother was up to a fresh set of antics that evening, and her nerves were getting the best of her. The last time that her mother tried to get “God’s blessings,” she landed in jail for theft. And Trining had to be the mother at home, caring for everyone, even her father, who had become more and more insistent that they sleep together, closer, in bed. The teenager tried to put the thought out of her mind. Complications. She didn’t need more complications in life.

Aling Becky had disembarked from the jeepney and was walking the muddy route toward their home near the river’s edge. The walk was slightly dangerous to untrained feet, as one had to descend a steep slope before reaching a makeshift staircase made of mud, stone, and tree roots. Aling Becky lived under one of the many little bridges that connected the city of Angeles, and she preferred their unconventional home than living out in the streets, where you always had to wake up extra early, before businesses opened for the day. She liked being able to sleep in on most days. They could all do that, as long as they could stay in their hovel under the bridge at Marisol.

All that was left now was a final, five-minute walk. The final path was full of mud and brambles from the typhoon.

Out of nowhere, a pair of hands grabbed the old woman and dragged her to one side of the beaten path. A rain of fists pounded her face, chest, and abdomen. She screamed in pain, but another hand painfully squeezed her mouth, as another wave of tight, closed fists pelted her body. She felt a rib crack, and then another, until she felt that her whole body had been broken.

The attack took only three minutes, four minutes tops. Aling Becky’s patchwork backpack was gone.

Aling Becky had always loved looking at the moon, and the city’s lights. It reminded her of better times. She tried to touch her face, but could not feel it properly. Sleep, she thought. Just need sleep. And Aling Becky’s eyes finally closed as the full moon continued scintillating in the night sky.

“Angels in the Mire” earned the author the English Fictionist of the Year Award from the Gawad Digmaang Rosas XIV at the Holy Angel University on February 9, 2019 in the province of Pampanga, Philippines.



Marius Carlos, Jr. is a storyteller, essayist, and journalist. He is the current editor-in-chief of Revolt Magazine. He is also the English editor of Rebo Press Book Publishing. He is an independent researcher focused on transnational capitalism, neocolonialism, empire, and pop culture. You can reach Marius via social media at Minds at MeWe.