By Peter Basson
Today he would walk out the door and he wouldn’t come back. In two days he was shipping Stateside. For most sailors this meant a last Bacchanalian night out in the bars and clubs but for Jack it meant only a mouthful of bile and a grinding knot in his stomach. When he arrived home he was going to move back in with his mother, sleeping on a rented couch, surrounded by half a lifetime of her cheap forgotten things and the bad neighborhood in Modesto.
He ran his fingers through the shoe-shine of her hair. It flowed through his fingers like silk, liquid soft, and he had his teeth pressed hard against his lips as he thought about walking out the door for the last time.
“Mmm, I like it when you do that, Jack,” she said. She pronounced his name “Jark,” like his mother.
“Yeah, I know you do. Gonna miss me, aren’t you, girl?”
“I miss you already and you not even go yet.”
“Yeah,” he added spitefully, “Never love another man. Gonna keep it on ice for me, aren’t you?”
She stayed silent, knowing better than to incite his quick temper.
But he wouldn’t let it go. “So tell me, how long till you’re back on top of the bar at the Cork Room? Soon as I’m behind the gate tonight?”
“Stop it, Jark.”
He breathed hard through his nose staring up at the ceiling where a wobbly fan batted damp air around the room. She was 21 years old, not quite young enough to be his daughter but she looked 16. She had a red rose tattooed above her heart, a thorny stem trailing across her tiny left breast. Orange, late afternoon light cut through the rattan blinds, streaking her body with tiger stripes of light and shadow. The tiny room smelled of sex and rotten humidity. Her street name was Little Pearl but he called her Joy.
“I wish you take me back with you, Jark,” she said.
“Goddamn it! How many times have I told you?”
She lifted her head and faced him, her pupils massive in the gloom, as dark and shiny as olives. “So what I’m supposed to do when you go, huh? You don’t want me work.”
He didn’t answer. Their conversations were spiraling towards an inevitable point neither wanted to acknowledge. Last night he’d missed curfew, spending the night with Joy and a bottle of Tandua rum instead. She’d tried hard to get him to laugh, forced him through a few weary reminiscences but instead of cheering him the memories acted as touchstones to the frustration and anger that bloomed inside him like the thunderheads over the mountains outside.
He could hear them now, their heavy rumbling so perfectly dark and ominous. Jack knew how these things worked. Family history. His father had had his own Filipina bride. Together they’d knocked out four kids in six rage-filled years before he drove off one night and never came back. Jack wouldn’t make the same mistake. He was 34 years old and Joy was the only woman he’d ever loved. He’d paid her bar-fine for the last three years, $60 a week to the mama-san at the Cork Room to keep her away from the silver pole. But he knew what would happen once he shipped out. His Cherry girl, she wasn’t 17 anymore, and she’d have to find someone else to pay her way. One way or another.
“Jark, I need it true, you think we see each other again?”
“Yeah,” he lied.
“Then you come for me?”
Her voice was plaintive, filled with the melancholy of her dependency. He felt a tear in his eye but forced it down inside where it burned like acid.
“Look, I told you already. Soon as I get things straightened out I’ll be back. Just give me a break tonight, alright? I need time.”
And this was true, he did need time. He needed it here in Subic but what little he had left was running out fast. He knew he’d never make it back. Once he was gone he was gone for good.
He heard the distant liberty horn, sailors and marines lining up to get off base and onto Magsaysay Street, cruising up and down the strip breathing in Jeepney exhaust, salty air, barbecue, cheap perfume and sex.
“Remember the time we go to Banawee?” she said.
“Yeah, that was great,” he answered. As he pogoed up and down in the back seat he saw something ahead, a black band cutting clear across the road.
As the car hurtled towards it he saw it was a python, its head into the parched undergrowth on one side of the road before its tail had left the other. “Stop,” he shouted, but the driver, worried about bandits, ran straight over it, as if he’d bumped the truck over yet another pothole. Jack wheeled around, saw the snake coil up in the powdery white dirt, its body shaped like some great question mark that slowly faded into a cloud of dust.
She hitched herself onto his gut, black hair falling over her breasts as she leaned forward, hands pressed to his shoulders. The bars of light played against her skin as she moved, a caged animal, wiry, taut and vaguely leonine.
“You’re beautiful,” he said and she gave him a face-full of her perfect white teeth. “So beautiful,” he whispered beneath his breath, “I don’t know how I’m ever gonna let you go.”
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