South to Bicol
by Michael Bartolomei
The jeepney sat motionless, glimmering and shining under the sun’s mad glare. The traffic in Manila was always bad and today was no worse than the days before or the days that would follow. Chaotic was the word that came to mind, but that was not the right word. It was too still for chaos. Looking out at a thousand vehicles pointed in a thousand directions, he thought it looked like abandonment.
There were fifteen other Filipinos crammed into the colorful World War II relic—working class people; cooks and maids, security guards and drivers. Everyone leaned forward, inching away from the sun, anxious to pay their eight Pesos and disappear into their homes. He could not disappear. His mother had called in hysterics. He was going south to Bicol to fix what was broken.
The Jeepney dropped him off at the bus station. He boarded a local bus; an aluminum box with dangerously bald tires. There were no open seats, so he stood holding tight to the metal bar above. He pulled his shirt down conscious and fearful of the gun rubbing against his spine. He cursed beneath his breath. It was because of his sister that he was being driven south. He wanted nothing to do with her problems, but she had invited violence into their lives and as the man of the family it fell on him to confront that violence.
His sister was smart, but stupid when it came to love and sex. The men she brought home frightened him. They broke him with a glare and they knew it. His mother prayed nightly for his sister to meet a man worthy of marriage and family, but her prayers went unanswered.
His sister had been working as a maid for a local family. It was a good job—a job she was lucky to have. She betrayed them by inviting her newest boyfriend into their home. The family was in Singapore and she ignorantly assumed that when they left their eyes left with them. From the luxury suite of a hotel her employer opened his laptop and checked his security feed. He saw his maid in her bra and panties clutching a shirtless man in the entry way to his bedroom. With a disappointed sigh he called security.
She lost her job and because the rich community is a close community she couldn’t find another. She rarely left their mother’s home. Their mother urged her to seek advice from the Church. She was gentle in her urgings but his sister heard only nagging and invasion. She lashed out. She was unforgivably rude to the woman who raised her. He urged his mother to kick her out and teach her a lesson. He knew that she never would. His mother was a Filipina and Catholic; family was the fabric of her soul stretched and tied to the dust and the firmament.
His sister’s new boyfriend had been living in their mother’s house for days and refused to leave. His mother was a strong woman. She believed in God’s will and patiently bore its burden. But, she was afraid of this man. She claimed that he was an addict and an abuser. She was sure that his sister was using too. When he finally got her to calm down he could hear the worried click and roll of her rosary beads. “I’ll fix it,” he told her. “Tonight.”
The bus ride was long and hot. In Bicol he went straight to a bar and ordered a beer. He needed to think. He was not a strong man or a violent man. He was gentle and quiet and as far as he could tell invisible. He avoided confrontation by blending in and when that didn’t work by lowering his head and backing away—submitting. He had private rages, but hurling angry threats against empty walls only made him feel ashamed. He saw them as the weak afterthoughts of a man afraid to act.
He pulled the gun out of his waist belt and turned it over in his hands—under the table and out of sight. It had a black handle and a worn silver barrel. He wasn’t a gun person. Before he purchased it at the pawnshop he had never even held one. The shopkeeper showed him how to load it and accepted payment reluctantly; a twitch in his conscience told him that it wasn’t worth it.
He walked the rest of the way to his mother’s house with shaky knees and a hammering heart. He opened the door cautiously and stepped inside. His sister was watching TV. His mother was watching her. When his mother saw him she cooed and came toward him with arms wide. His sister did not move. “Where is he?” he asked still hugging his mother.
His sister changed the channel and ignored his question. He ripped the remote from her hand. “He can’t stay in Momma’s house. I want him out.”
His sister sat-up straight and glared at him. “Go back to Manila. This is none of your business.”
He gritted his teeth, “I’m the man of this house. If I say he goes, he goes.”
His sister laughed loud and mocking. “There hasn’t been a man in this house since Poppa died,” she said. “Not until I brought one.”
He slapped her. It wasn’t a hard slap. It was a slap meant to shock. She leapt to her feet and spewed hateful bile that he answered in full. Their mother held her rosary beads to her lips and feebly begged them to stop.
He pushed past his sister. He went into her room and ripped it apart. He tore off her blankets and overturned her mattress. He kicked over her nightstand and rifled through her drawers. It was more of a show than a search. The evidence he was looking for was out in the open; a small glass pipe blackened by the steady flame of a lighter. He threw it down shattering it against the wood paneled floor. He glared at his sister. “You bring this poison into Momma’s home? Momma’s home!”
A fist slammed into the door behind them. His sister’s boyfriend hovered in the doorway holding a bottle of beer wrapped in a paper bag. He let the silence linger to show that he could. “What’s he doing here?” he asked.
The gun shifted against his spine. Nausea churned his insides. He could barely restrain it. “This is my mother’s house,” he said to the man. The man responded with a nonchalant shrug.
His mother and his sister watched silently; one afraid of the looming violence the other aroused by it. “She doesn’t want you here,” he said. “My sister takes advantage of her. You have to go.”
The man smiled. “I like it here,” he replied.
“Go,” he warbled meaning to roar.
The man glanced at him and snorted, derisive and unafraid. Fight and flight tousled for dominance in his mind. The gun scratched at his skin, spurring him toward its only purpose. He stepped forward dazed and unsteady. He clutched the man’s throat and squeezed with trembling hands.
The man met his eyes and measured him. He ripped his hand away and twisted it painfully. He buried his boot-heel into his hip knocking him backward onto the exposed bed frame. The man knelt down and spoke as though addressing a child. “Go back to the city, brother. I’m not leaving.”
He watched the man take his sister’s hand and leave the room. He saw the grim satisfaction on her face. He said nothing in return. His mother held out her weathered hand to help him up and he waved her off with hot tears in his eyes. She needed him to protect her and he failed—crippled by an old and familiar fear.
He locked himself in his room and paced in silent rage. Some of his incoherent mutterings were aimed at his sister’s boyfriend but most were aimed inward. He took the gun out and clicked the safety off and on. He pointed it at his reflection in the bureau mirror—at the man with angry eyes and a snarling mouth. He held it there for a long time.
Hours passed and the house grew nighttime silent. He crept out and sat at the kitchen table with a glass of tap-water. He was exhausted, burned hollow by the day’s events. He wanted a victory over this man; for himself and for his mother and for the petty win over his sister. But, exhaustion brought logic with it. He knew it was best to go to the police and if the police couldn’t help a lawyer—though how they would pay for a lawyer he did not know.
He shaped the condensation ring left by his glass into the image of a wet sun. He stopped at the sound of rhythmic thudding against his sister’s wall. He leaned forward to confirm his suspicions and heard a soft moan, a hard grunt. The sounds were gas thrown on the embers of his rage.
His mother came out of her room wearing a long nightgown embroidered with purple flowers. She heard the sounds too. For the briefest moment he saw her face collapse with disappointment and then the disappointment was gone, pulled into that private place reserved for her and God. She leaned down and kissed him on the temple. She called him her little bird in sweet Tagalog and went to the stove to make tea. She didn’t see the gun in his hand beneath the table.
His sister’s door opened and she and her boyfriend came out with wild eyes—druggie eyes. She had a sheet wrapped around her and nothing beneath. He was naked from the waist up. They sat at the table laughing loudly at private things. His sister rolled her eyes and said, “Still here, big brother?”
Her boyfriend scolded her with his eyes. He cleared his throat to cover his amusement. He held out his hand and shrugged his shoulders unaware of how far past reconciliation the situation had gone.
The gun felt hot and slick in his hand. He looked at his sister’s boyfriend and saw arrogance and fearlessness and he wanted to beat him scared. He slapped away the extended hand and leapt to his feet. He pointed the gun, seething wordlessly. The man lifted his hands as if to surrender. Screams ripped through the air.
He glanced at his mother. He wanted to tell her that he didn’t mean it, that he was only trying to scare the man. A rough hand clasped down on his wrist and another beneath his armpit and then he was airborne. He crashed down hard onto the tile floor. He did not lose his grip on the gun. He turned to aim again and the man was on him; he felt his shoulder drive into his chest and together they tumbled across the ground, kicking and twisting for dominance. The man wrenched on the barrel of the gun trying to rip it away. He felt the tendons in his wrist stretching and tearing. He concentrated on his hand willing all that he had left into its grasp. The gun slid from his hand. Light and sound erupted.
The struggle ceased, replaced by stillness and dumb silence. He saw his mother drop to her knees. He saw the man roll away with blood smeared across his shirt. He tried to sit up but he could not move. The smell of burning flesh hit his nose and he knew. He felt the singed hole in his shirt and the hot blood gurgling from the open wound. His leg spasmed but his brain did not receive the message of pain.
In his dimming vision he saw his sister slapping and beating her boyfriend. He saw his mother pick-up the gun. Still on her knees she aimed and screamed, “Isinusumpa kita!”