E
Apr/May 2013 Fiction

Ashes to Ashes We All Fall Down: a Novella

by William Reese Hamilton

Artwork by Clinton McKay

Artwork by Clinton McKay


It was our third day locked up in Japanese Internment Camp Number One at Santo Tomás University in Manila and night was coming on.

I was at the front fence, watching the last of the Filipinos who'd brought us food and stuff head back down Boulevard España, when a black Buick came rolling up the street, blowing its horn through the crowd to the front gate and turning in past the sentries. The back door swung open and somebody got shoved out. I heard laughing inside. Nobody else got out. Just this one guy. He was standing there in a white suit, kind of shaky. He leaned up against the Buick for support. That is until it drove off and left him there on his lonesome. Then one of the guards grabbed his arm and pointed him up the line of acacias towards the Main Building.

It's funny how some guys can be tall and good looking as statues and you don't even give them a second glance. Then there are guys you can't take your eyes off. His suit was all wrinkled and dirty, slept in, maybe rolled down the street in, his hair mussed and sweated down, his face stubbly and gaunt. He was squinting like even that last light hurt his eyes and the trip up the line of trees was looking awful long. Still, I could tell this guy wasn't your everyday, run-of-the-mill harbor rat. There was something about him—even when he was weaving up the road—that made me want to follow. Something jaunty.

He was working hard just then on whistling a verse out of "The Twelve Days of Christmas," the one that goes on about what this lady's getting from her "true love." Only after a couple of bars, his lips got so dry everything petered out into a squeak, and he took up mumbling and humming through the rest. Someone yelled out from the shadows that Christmas was over for this year, thank God! I could hear them all chortling back there in the dark. So he turned real slow and gave them a long stare.

"Don't be such a Scrooge," he said.

"Drunk!" came a voice from the shadows.

"Where's your sense of the mystical? I'm merely celebrating Epiphany. Isn't it on your calendar?"

This real haughty sounding woman chimed in with a loud whisper, "Disgrace!" And for just a moment he looked puzzled.

"Virgin Mary?" he asked.

"First it was the whores and the gamblers," she was carrying on. "Now we have to put up with this."

"Madam, fear not. I'll never molest you. I swear."

"See here!" this angry guy's voice spoke out.

"I much prefer the company of whores and gamblers to anything long dead."

That's just what he said. It's as near a direct quote as anything here. And he left those birds with their mouths open, I bet. That's the way I pictured them—gaping in the dark.

That was the very first I ever saw of old Harry Barnes. That's how he showed up. Right out of the blue. No bags. Not even a toothbrush. Nothing but the smile on his face, as they say. And definitely no shine on his shoes. But I learned pretty quick that quite a few of our inmates knew of him from one place or another.

 

When I heard the name, Harry Barnes, you could've knocked me over. This drunk was my very own godfather, the guy my folks picked to stand up for me at baptism. Not that that stuff has much staying power these days. The name's about all that's left, I figure, and maybe the extra card on birthdays. Truth is, I'd never even laid eyes on old Harry. Not since I was peeking out of a crib in China, anyway. But my folks were always talking Harry this and Harry that. And I do recall seeing old snapshots of someone running around with them up in the Western Hills out past Peking, among the temples and the Buddhist monasteries.

We were always getting letters and cards from all around the globe, and I'd hear my mom call out to Dad, upstairs or out in the yard or over the telephone wire to the mines, "Guess where Harry's been! Bangkok!" or, "What's that silly doing in the Congo?" or "Why do you suppose he's in Istanbul?" And once in a while I'd even get something myself from some crazy place I never heard of, a picture postcard plastered with a bunch of sharp-looking stamps.

He wrote me once from a place in Egypt called Shepheard's Hotel, advising me that since my old man was so keen on mining I should let him know there was treasure galore to dig out of the desert. And the picture on the front was an ancient pharaoh's shiny gold mask. I remember too some guy spinning a prayer wheel in front of queer looking buildings up amongst the clouds in the Himalayas, and a note saying to let my mom know she could rest assured, because there were lamas enough up there in the mountains to keep the world at peace through our lifetimes and several more besides. Crazy stuff to make a kid wonder.

Mom told me he was a writer. When he was fresh out of college, he wrote some play she called "drawing room comedy," said it was the hit of Philadelphia and everybody was praising young Harry as the next George Bernard Shaw. That was something, I guess. But Dad held that play was brittle stuff as far as he could see, and Harry was a whole lot better off with tales he was writing now for Collier's and Saturday Evening Post. Said there was a lot more blood pumping through them than any drawing room.

I did read one of them once in Liberty and it was pumping, sure enough. About some young American who found himself stuck in the Sahara, fresh out of employment, but who got a job with a sheik and fell in love with a concubine in a secret harem and then ended up high-tailing it across the dunes on a wild Arabian stallion. Boy, it was a thriller in three parts. I saw by that he could spin a yarn when he wanted. Anyway, you can see how it was for me trying to square that Harry Barnes with the shaky guy who showed up in a grimy suit.

And Mom didn't make him any dearer to me when she offered up my mattress for him to sleep on and made me give up my little fling at luxury to perch along the crack between that mattress and Southy Jack's. Specially since Harry was smelling about as rank as bad fish in the sun and snoring off a mean, hard drunk. It was hotter that night than even the night before, with us men packed together like sardines in a can, fifty-some on the concrete classroom floor. The air was close and dead, and big swarms of mosquitoes kept settling down out of the dark to eat us for snacks. I had to battle hard just to get to sleep.

But first I had to ask something. I tried to make out Southy's face in the dark, see if I could catch the glint of his eyes. Southy was a boxer who once worked out of New York and Chicago gyms, a quick lean lefty with a good jab and right hook combination. He fought lightweight at the pro level, and made some good dough at it, Dad told me. A nice little guy, built like a terrier, with a crooked nose and some scar tissue built up around the eyebrows. Mom called him, "Mon Petit Cro-Magnon," but he was sweet as marmalade.

"Southy, you awake?"

"Yeah," he mumbled. "Sure."

"When you figure it's gonna end, Southy?"

"No idea, kid. Go to sleep."

"You figure MacArthur's gonna win it?"

"Odds don't look too good," he whispered. "I wouldn't place any bets." I got closer to him in the dark.

"I wish my old man was here." We hadn't seen Dad since he went up north to close company mines.

"Sure. So do I."

"Where you figure he is?"

"He'll be OK."

"You figure he's off in the mountains some place?"

"No idea."

"Maybe he's hiding out with the Igorots."

"Your old man'll be OK."

"You think he's up on Bataan?"

"No, kid. He's civilian. Too smart for that."

"I hope he gets here soon."

"Your old man's part Injun, right?"

"Yeah."

"He'll know what to do."

"What would an Injun do?"

"Stay out of it," Southy said. He rolled over, giving me his back. But I wouldn't let go of it that easy. I was thinking about who my old man could stay with out there.

"I figure maybe the Japs got about everybody in here already," I said to him.

"There's more out there, kid. Go to sleep." His words were starting to slur.

"Did you know this Mr. Barnes guy before?"

"No."

"What d'you think?"

"He's a friend of your old man's, ain't he?"

"You think he's on the level?"

"A friend..."

"I sure wish Dad was here?"

"Yeah, then maybe a guy could sleep."

But the next morning, there was the same Harry, fresh-shaved and slicked-up like he was close to civilized, standing nice and straight at roll call. He was still green around the gills, but it was something what a quick wash and a clean set of duds could do. Southy loaned him a shirt and a set of shorts, seeing he was Dad's friend. But that wasn't the worst. Mom hung on Harry like he was a long-lost brother, looking at him and smiling and whispering secrets in his ear. She even spent a good part of the day playing slave at the community scrub board, getting his suit as close to white as nature would allow. Damn. You'd think he was Christ Risen the way she fussed.

She and Southy smoothed everything out for Harry with the Monitors, made sure he got his meal ticket, loaned him a dinner pail, even took him through the chow line so he wouldn't lose out on his rightful share of rice and fish. They treated him like he was nothing less than royalty. I just kept sniffing around, wondering what Mom had dragged into the family circle.

But the first we heard about how Harry happened to be in Manila came when we were eating out in the dining sheds back of the Main Building. They'd just set up the kitchen and were starting to dish out regular meals. In the mornings we got cracked wheat and some Klim or coffee. It was a job finding a place to sit down in those crowded sheds. There was the constant clatter of spoons against metal buckets, folks concentrating hard on getting something quick into their guts. But we were lucky that morning and got a corner bench. We were just starting to chow down when Harry laid a bundle on the table and unwrapped four beautiful ripe mangos. Just like a rabbit out of a hat.

"My lord, Harry," Mom said.

"Mr. Barnes!" little Mrs. Fitzgibbon said. "How absolutely bountiful!" She was the size of a mosquito and had the voice of a frog. But she was very elegant, Mom said.

"Would you kindly share these with me, good people?" Harry asked. Mr. Fitzgibbon, her bald husband from the oil company, gave a good laugh at that.

"You mean, are we too proud to accept a handout? Will we lower ourselves to take charity? Just hand those lovelies right over."

"Where did you get them?" Mom asked.

"Gift horse," Harry said, pointing to his mouth.

"You mean, don't ask?" I asked.

"He means have courtesy and humility," Mr. Fitzgibbon said.

"How did you get them?" Mrs. Fitzgibbon demanded. Southy was just wedging himself onto the bench next to me.

"Friend at the gate," Southy said.

"Friend?" Mom asked. "What friend?"

"She wasn't bad," Southy smiled. "Not bad for a guy on just a few days' shore leave."

"Just what have you been up to?" Mrs. Fitzgibbon asked.

"I think it's time you told us just where you've been, Harry," Mom said.

"In general or in particular?" Harry said, peeling and cutting our mangos for us.

"Confess, Harry," Mrs. Fitzgibbon said. "In every particular."

"It's all innocent enough, I assure you." Like butter wouldn't melt in his mouth.

"Oh, yes, we believe you!" everyone said in a chorus and laughed.

"I've come like a lamb to slaughter," he smiled.

"Like a viper to her breast, more likely," Mom said. And that's how they got him to tell. It went something like this.

Turned out he was on his way back to the States from China. A friend of his had died of some infection to the kidneys, and just before he died he got Harry to swear to take his remains back to his wife and kid in Los Angeles. Barney Jenkins was his name, and along with leaving Harry his body, he'd paid his passage home. Harry said he didn't mind leaving China a bit just then. With the Jap invasion and all, it had gone pretty sour. He had old Barney cremated to make him more portable.

Jenkins was this smart reporter who'd taught Harry a lot about China. He'd been covering the Orient up and down since way back before the Shanghai Insurrection, interviewing all the big shots like Sun Yat-sen, Chiang and Mao, even some Russky agent named Borodin. He once took Harry up the Yangtze with him on a flight to a place called Hankow, right in the middle of the big Jap push in thirty-eight. Barney swore it was going to be real important up there, cause the Nationalists and the Communists were getting together to fight the Japs for real. Little did he know. It sounded like high times in Hankow, firecrackers in the streets and all, until the Japs showed up and clamped a pincers movement on the town. Harry said the two of them came within a whisker of getting themselves annihilated.

"Like all of you, Barney and I continue to be blessed with exquisite timing." By which Harry meant his ship had docked in Manila just when the Jap bombers were taking off to blow hell out of our Islands. He figured his ship must be resting somewhere on the muddy bottom of Manila Bay right about then. Harry never much liked Manila anyway. "Too damn many black bugs," he said. "The sweet smell of copra down at the docks and the damn black bugs." Now here he was stuck in Manila with black smoke pouring out of Nichols Field and Cavite Naval Depot and Jap Zeros dive-bombing and strafing the harbor and anything they could see along the Pasig River.

He got a room at the Manila Hotel and stayed there off-and-on for a couple of weeks. But it was like a refugee station, people jamming in from all over one day, then scattering off in all directions the next, like so much chaff in the wind. Still, he said, it was OK as long as the bar stayed open. But it was getting on toward Christmas, and he found the idea of the holidays depressing. He couldn't figure out just why, but he kept thinking of Jenkins' wife and kid waiting in LA and him stuck out here with Barney. He tried calling up friends, but the lines were all overloaded, and when he sometimes did get through, nobody was home.

"You never called," my mom said.

"You were first. Cross my heart."

"I got other calls."

"I tried, Ruth. Really."

"Continue, Mr. Barnes," Mrs. Fitzgibbon ordered.

He asked about Christmas trees. They told him they usually got fine spruce in from Washington and Oregon, but that was all off since Pearl Harbor. Hell, there wasn't even Baguio pine. He would just have to use his imagination. "Stick around for New Years," this drunk told him. "I got a feeling the fireworks are gonna come through." That's when he grabbed Jenkins and went for a walk. "Spending Christmas in the Manila Hotel was not my idea of the Hallelujah Chorus."

He walked along the Luneta, that big green patch by the sea wall on Manila Bay. American troops were still in good spirits, dug in there with sandbags in front of their foxholes and observers scanning the skies with field glasses. But when the Jap planes came, high up and in tight formation, the anti-aircraft fell so far short they didn't even break pattern. It was damn frustrating. The soldiers swore and shook their fists, but the formation moved right on to the south. Harry felt outside it, the way it was in China. He was just standing there in his white suit, the sun shining off the water, the small silver planes high up in the sky. Those soldiers, bustling around on the lawn, making war on far-off unreachable objects, seemed ridiculous in their frustration. "It was like being a spectator at a game."

He walked down Dewey Boulevard along the bay, carrying the urn in against his jacket. When he looked out across the water, the Mariveles Mountains floated pale in the distance, a tropic haze lying over them. When he looked back at the Port Area, there was smoke and the masts of sunken ships jutting out of the water. He knew if he just kept walking south, he would pass through the Malate district and on out of the city. But it was too damn hot for that. He placed the urn against the trunk of a palm tree and sat on the cool grass. He took out a cigar he'd bought the night before. "It was a beauty," he told us. "Long, slim and black." He sniffed it and bit off the end, lit it and tasted the bittersweet smoke. Then he just sat there awhile, thinking about Jenkins and looking out across the bay.

Six Jap Zeros came in high over the mountains to the north, banked above him and went into a dive toward the Port Area. He smoked his cigar and watched the planes playing follow the leader up the Pasig River. Being trapped in this city was like being forced to watch newsreels for the second and third time.

"I felt stupid," he told us. "I had this sudden urgent need to celebrate."

"Sorry we couldn't have snow," Mom said real sarcastic.

"I don't mean Tiny Tim and Jingle Bells. I mean real honest cheer."

"Wassail!" Fitzgibbon offered up.

"Ever feel it might be your last go?" Harry asked. Mom looked really sad all at once.

"Do shut up, Harry," she said.

"No, no," Fitzgibbon insisted. "We asked for the particulars."

"I'm sorry, Ruth."

"Go on," Mom said.

"Last year Barney threw a beauty for us in Shanghai—must have been at least thirty there at this big restaurant called Sincere. He had given us plenty to drink but we were still just a little too reserved for his taste. So he got up at the end of the long white table groaning under a huge spread of Peking duck and a slew of local Kiangsu dishes. He looked terribly disappointed. 'You all need to loosen up,' he said. 'If the chopsticks slip and you spill a bit, it won't hurt a bloody thing.' And he raised his soy in a toast. 'Here's to Christmas cheer!' Then leaning over us, he poured a thin black trail down the entire length of that virgin tablecloth. Even the waiters were laughing, and you know what it takes to get a rise out of a Chinese waiter!"

"I'll drink to that," Southy said. His crazy high laugh always tickled my funny bone.

"That black trail," Harry said. "That was real."

"Let's break out the champagne!" old Fitzgibbon boomed, and popped the side of his mouth with his forefinger. By then everybody in the dining shed was looking at us cross-eyed for having too good a time and taking up too much space, so we had to leave. You can't blame them. Laughing over a Santo Tomás breakfast was bound to look damn peculiar.

 

Southy'd set up a lean-to under a big acacia across the athletic field from the Main Building. It was a temporary thing—a few poles, some rope and a flap of canvas—but a fine, shady spot away from the crowds. After noon chow, Mom, Southy, Harry and me were just stretching ourselves out on the grass. The sod was still nice and green, with people scattered across it in little groups, looking for a little peace, like us.

But right then the Japs decided to put the fear of God into us with a live infantry drill. They loved doing stuff like that. Anything to keep us guessing about whether they'd let us live or die. A whole squad came down on us out of the blue, charging across the middle of the field, shaking their rifles and bayonets and hollering "Banzai!" Before we knew what was up, they'd flopped themselves on the ground, their rifles aimed and set to fire.

Right behind them came another crew with a machine gun. They set it up quick on a tripod, threaded in a belt of ammo, swung that barrel around and sighted in on a little group of internees under a tree. It did catch our attention. Matter of fact, one lady let out a shriek. People nearby got set to bolt. Nobody I know likes having a machine gun zeroing in on their vital parts. Those Japs didn't look to be fooling. I was all braced for the pop-pop, rat-tat-tat and cloud of smoke drifting by. Substantial territory opened up across the lawn. But once wasn't enough for them.

They jumped up hollering again, ran a ways, flopped down and aimed in on a new group. We were all pretty much goggle-eyed by now. But something funny happened. Some little kids who didn't know better put a damper on their show. They'd got so excited watching those Jap shenanigans that they had to jump right in and run along behind, imitating their every move. First the Japs got up and charged, yelling "Banzai!" Then here came the kids doing the same. Japs flopped down and aimed their guns, kids dropped down and yelled "Bang bang!" That cut the fear right out of it. Everybody started chuckling. Couldn't help it. And it shook every last Jap one of them. Pretty soon they'd pulled up shame-faced and quit. It's hard for soldiers not to be taken stone serious.

But when all was said and done, Harry turned out to be the real show that day. No sooner had the Japs pulled out than the Fitzgibbons dropped by with a group of friends to hear more about his arrival in Manila. Word had gotten round and his audience had grown. The Towners were there. And skinny Miss Cornell, this spinster teacher who once worked a one-room schoolhouse all on her lonesome down on the island of Cebu. Plus sundry folks I didn't know so hot.

I never was to anything quite like it. Sort of like a seance, maybe. The light had grown kind of weird and wet and hazy. A soft breeze off the bay flapped the canvas and sighed in the acacias above. Harry sat there among us cross-legged like Buddha. He did have this theatrical way of talking sometimes, like he'd spent time studying elocution to develop an accent, but was now working overtime covering it up and putting the tough edge on things. He smoked cigarettes, and kept right on talking through the haze. But he could've saved his breath with the tough talk. That culture stuff shows through every time. Still, I've got to admit, I learned something that day.

Everybody was hanging on Harry like he was the feature movie downtown. Maybe they all thought they'd get into one of his stories. He knew his audience and wasn't afraid to work it. He was actor one and two. But the director was old lady Fitzgibbon. She cued him strong on time and place, just so he wouldn't skip over anything.

"All right, now, you left us in the middle the other day. That wasn't so nice. There you were, sitting under that palm tree on Dewey Boulevard, smoking your cigar, watching Jap planes dive, thinking about Christmas in Shanghai and holding onto that little urn," she let out in her frog croak. "Now, confess, Harry."

"Ah yes, a fine Manila cigar," Harry said. "Long and slim and black." He meditated on it a moment, taking a long drag on his cigarette, looking around at us all and blowing some smoke. Then made it all sound like it was happening right then. "As a matter of fact, that was right when the big Lincoln Zephyr pulled off Dewey Boulevard next to me, and I heard an overdone English voice call out."

"What voice?" Mrs. Towner asked.

"That's a poor spot you picked for a sit-down, fellow," someone said. Harry knew it couldn't be the Filipino chauffeur, so he squinted back into the shadows. A tall thin guy dressed for tennis was sitting there with a bottle of Gordon's Gin on his lap. "He had a long tan face, like a dun mare," Harry told us.

And right here Harry started rattling off some dialogue, going back and forth in two voices, like in a play. Smart stuff, like:

"Hello to you, sir," Harry said.

"I say, you're going to get killed out there," this guy said.

"Not likely. They never shoot a man in a white suit. Not bushido, you know."

"I've seen a few Filipinos in those suits being chased by Zeros downtown."

"But then, you see, I'm not Filipino."

"Not even from Manila, I take it."

"No, Jenkins and I just got in from Shanghai. Ship's departure's been unfortunately delayed."

"Jenkins?"

"Yes," Harry said. "My good friend." And he held out the urn.

"I see. Well, the least I can do is offer you a ride. I'm on my way to the Polo Club. Why don't you stop over and have a drink." He opened the back door and Harry didn't make him ask twice. One thing I'll say for Harry, just shoot an accent at him, and he could shoot it right back at you.

"This is damn generous of you," sounding pretty close to English himself.

"It seemed the right thing when I saw you at sea out there."

"At sea?" Harry said. He was having a time figuring this bird. Didn't seem the type. "I'm afraid I have a hitchhiker's judgment. I'm a little surprised when I get picked up by a Lincoln."

"Shows you what a war can do."

"Just a few bombs make you a Samaritan?"

"So used to the drive, I didn't really look anymore. But now I never know if I'll be back."

"Yes, Manila is going to be different."

"Do you play polo?" the guy asked.

"Do I have to to get in?"

"My son has the ponies up."

"I could play if my drink depended on it."

Then Harry turned to us and said, "You all know the Polo Club, I'm sure. Those long low buildings, nipa palm roofs, broad shade trees. Lovely spot." He saw that pleased old lady Towner a bunch and smiled at her. "Very genteel."

Harry and his new friend were sitting under the trees, sipping their gins, watching the son ride and whack a willow ball around the big smooth field. Everything was so clean there and lush. They were all playing tennis and swimming in the large pool, little kids running and laughing under the trees. He could still see the piling smoke, even closer to the south, but it didn't seem to matter in the shade.

"This beats hell out of the Manila Hotel," Harry said. While the son rode, his Filipino groom held another horse under the trees.

"What do you think of the ponies?" the guy asked.

"Very nice. Why's he riding out there by himself?"

"Got to keep them in shape. And it's good for Roger. Keeps his mind off things." Harry thought what fine cavalry ponies they'd make for the Japs.

"The sun was so bright on the field," he told us. "And the horse moved so elegantly after the ball. The boy rode well and handled his mallet with fair accuracy. I do love watching polo ponies turn like cats, and that lovely crack the ash of the mallet makes against the willow ball, but I've never been able to muster more than a cool enthusiasm for the sport."

"And why not?" old lady Fitzgibbon asked. A little huffy, I thought. Harry looked at Mom and winked.

"Jodhpurs make me think of hunt clubs and debutante balls back on the Main Line," he said. "All that cool aloofness the right people develop from wearing riding breeches and evening clothes."

"Continue." Mrs. Fitzgibbon squinted at him like she'd just heard something she wasn't sure she liked.

"Would you care to have a chukker or two with my boy?" the guy asked.

"Perhaps later."

Harry was just winding up his fourth gin when the wife and daughter came off the tennis courts.

"Hello, Daddy," the girl called. She was gangly and mare-faced like her father. Harry was thinking that she must be hell on the tennis court. And that's when he realized he didn't even know the name of the man he was drinking with. He got up when the women came over, but they barely gave him a glance. He saw no one was going to make any introductions.

"I'm sorry. I'm Harry Barnes," he offered.

"Oh, yes," the guy said. "Haverford here." And that was when Harry's storytelling broke down for a minute.

"I knew it," Mrs. Fitzgibbon shrieked like a school kid. "The Haverfords."

"You have them to a tee," Mrs. Towner said.

"Victoria is the dun mare," Mom giggled.

"And she is hell on the tennis courts," old Fitzgibbon laughed. "She's whipped me badly."

"They're not really English, you know," Miss Cornell said, very sincere.

"I had my suspicions," Harry said

"But working very hard at it," Mom said. "Just a hint of American still peeking through the veneer."

"Of course, the women never mentioned names," Harry said, getting back to his story. "I saw they didn't mind my not knowing. But the girl kept eyeing the urn."

"I haven't seen you here before, have I, Mr. Burns?" she said.

"No. Mr. Haverford just picked me up on Dewey Boulevard."

"Picked him up, Montgomery?" the wife said.

"What? Oh, yes."

"Picked him up?"

"Told him he was damn lucky he hadn't been shot." The two women kept shooting little glances at Harry, like he shouldn't have been there. He tried to show them he was, after all, civilized.

"I've been admiring your son's riding. He's done a nice job on those ponies."

"Quite. He's very keen on it," the mom said, very stiff.

"Even though the daughter was perspiring full bore," Harry told us, "Mrs. Haverford looked extremely cool. How strange it was to be on the outside. Of course, I've seen this sort of thing lots of times, but never from the outside. Not the slightest attempt to include me. The women are the experts at this, you know. They started chattering on as if I was invisible. Had I really rubbed it off so well it didn't show anymore? She had gotten that crisp English edge down so nicely, I just had to get away."

"I think I'll try the polo," Harry said. "You won't mind my leaving Jenkins here with you."

"Really, Montgomery!"

By now Harry had us all pretty far out of Camp. I guess everybody was just happy to think about those days before all the bad stuff started. Across the field, Jap sentries were still quick marching with their packs along the main road, chanting something. The little kids still trailed behind. But we hardly paid them any mind. Everybody was off with Harry. Mrs. Fitzgibbon got so silly laughing she even slapped him on the leg.

"I'm so glad Haverford didn't offer me his jodhpurs. I'm certain they would have been starched," Harry said. "But when the sun hit me out on the field, I knew I'd been drinking. I loosened my tie, handed my jacket to the groom, picked up a mallet and mounted the pony. I had a little trouble getting my foot in the stirrup, but then I hadn't been on horseback since going up to the Great Wall over three years ago." Right here Harry looked right at me and turned on his booming BBC voice. "Here you are, seated nobly atop your steed. Having just dismounted from a long expedition by elephant, you have hurried to the maidan to have a few chukkers with that ruddy leftenant from His Britannic Majesty's Royal Hussars. Oh, you bloody drunken ass! And only four gins." He nudged the pony into a trot across the field.

"Halloa, Roger!" The Haverford boy reined in to watch Harry come on and wheel the horse in beside him. "Hello. Your father persuaded me to give it a go with you."

"Splendid!"

"I was watching you play. You made a fine picture."

"She's a top-notch pony."

"One chukker will do me," Harry said, trying to out-English all of them at once.

"Oh, no. I'm quite sure you won't wish to quit there."

"Let's give it a go, shall we."

"My God, the cane handle of the mallet felt awkward in my hand. I had to give it a couple of rotations to limber up, just get the feel. Then I suddenly saw how I must appear to the Haverford clan, and the whole spectacle took on the lovely appeal of a Charlie Chaplin. But you know, I surprised myself. I rode quite well. It really was a good pony, you see. At first I kept missing the ball, but once I got the range I was whacking away right along with Roger, hearing that solid satisfying wood-on-wood. I was having a swell time, the sweat pouring down my chest and back. When we finally reined in, I was exhausted."

"Have you played much?" the kid asked.

"Not recently."

"You did quite well. Care to go another?"

"Rather!"

"Of course, I toyed with the idea of running young Haverford into the ground in front of his silly parents," Harry told us. "But I felt in such rotten shape all at once, I realized he could probably run me into the ground without too much trouble.

"It was shortly after this that I lost my seat and fell trying to whack that ball a good one, staining my trousers nicely on the turf." They were all laughing now, and Harry had this shy smile on his face. "Of course, I remounted at once with casual grace, but the dash had gone out of the game and I was relieved to see it come to an end."

"Thanks awfully."

"Not at all."

Harry strolled back to the Haverfords' table, straightening his tie and putting his jacket on over his soaked shirt. They looked at him like he was an intruder from Mars.

"An enjoyable afternoon," he offered up.

"Sorry you must go," the wife said with her forced smile.

"Yes, must get back. Perhaps I can get picked up again."

He picked up the urn and walked out to the front drive, where he was lucky enough to catch a ride back into the city. They drove in the back way, since the main streets were jamming up with troops.

"Rumor has it they're evacuating Manila," the driver told him. "MacArthur and Quezon have already left to set up headquarters on Corregidor."

"Sort of leaves us floating belly up," Harry said.

"But you know," he told us. "When I got out in front of the Manila Hotel, I realized I just couldn't go in. It's a perfectly nice establishment—handsome entrance, splendid lobby. It must have been all the sandbags piled in front of the windows and everybody jamming downstairs during the air raids. I had this sudden premonition the ceiling would come down on me while I was jammed in next to the likes of Mrs. Haverford. It's hell not to be able to die with some shred of dignity."

Harry'd transported us, like working through a spooky medium. They were all enjoying themselves now like they'd just gathered downtown and were easing back for a long afternoon with tall icy drinks in their hands. That was no small thing in a place chock-full of strangers, surrounded by high walls and guarded by Japs. I looked at Mom laughing away, her eyes flashing. She damn near sparkled. I hadn't seen her so fresh and happy in a long time. I could've hugged her, she looked so nice. Maybe she was thinking of their days together in China, when they were all a whole lot younger and running around like they owned the world. But Harry wouldn't leave it there.

"So I went away," he told us. "Let instinct lead. It took me to the Port Area."

"The Port Area?" Mr. Fitzgibbon asked.

"I don't care for the Port Area," Mrs. Fitzgibbon said. "I don't care for it at all."

Just then, on top of the Main Building, the tower clock boomed four o'clock and went into its Big Ben chimes. Everything seemed to stop and we looked up at the big gray building, the tower and the cross on top, and the tall thunderheads rising even bigger behind. The light out of the west was a thin pale yellow, like somebody just turned down the lights. And it appeared the brightness had kind of gone out of our group too.

"Hurry up, it's time!" Harry called, getting up and brushing himself off for the chow line.

"T. S. Eliot, isn't it?" Miss Cornell asked.

"No," Harry said. "Just London Pub."

"You are an anthology," she said.

"But they were bombing the Port Area heavily," Mrs. Fitzgibbon said. "Why would you go there?"

"Can't we go back to the Polo Club?" Mrs. Towner asked, sounding downright pitiful. It was then I caught a look at Southy, who hadn't said a single word that whole time, but who had to smile now at that lady.

"Hold on," Harry said. "We can't just pick and choose, you know. We've got to go where the dance takes us."

"Right now, I think it's taking us to dinner," Mom broke in and took Harry's arm like we were off to a restaurant. But when we'd gone a little way, Mr. Towner called out to us across the field.

"You heard about young Haverford, I suppose."

"No," Harry said.

"Ran off with those damn horses. No one has any idea where he's gone."

 

Mom was working what they called "De-bugging de Rice Detail"—a task force of ladies sitting at a table in the hot sun, picking insects out of raw rice. They shook their shallow pans so the bright light could catch the shiny-backed weevils high-stepping through the grains. It took sharp eyes and quick fingers to nab those critters and pinch their little heads off. They picked out little pink worms and gummy wads of cocoon too. Other times they missed them and the weevils and worms ended up part of the day's chow. But Mom, she wasn't one to be put off by a few creepy-crawlies. She'd earned her stripes long ago.

After all, Mom was a nurse. And a nurse has got to have a gut of steel, not just washing down dirty patients and emptying out stinky bedpans either. Mom'd worked anesthesia on some pretty ugly operations, from what I'd been told. And traveled from Manila clear down to Mindanao as private nurse to the Datu's daughter. She'd lived in the wilds with the Moros of Davao. The Datu was the muckety-muck. And his daughter was a princess, wrapped in colored robes and dripping jewelry. But she'd been diagnosed as suffering the galloping consumption and given no more than a few months to live.

Those Moros took a real shine to Mom. Taught her some words in their lingo, showed her a dance or two, even tried to get her to chew betel nut and stain her teeth dark as theirs. But in those days they still had skirmishes in the jungle, and when a young warrior came running out of the thicket with this enemy head on his spear, shouting death threats at the Yanks, the U. S. Army sent Mom packing back to Manila for her own safety. "Safety be damned!" she said and threw a fit, chewed the authorities up and down. Then she quit the Islands altogether and sailed off to train Chinese nurses up in old Peking.

When I saw her there, shaking her pan in the sun, I stopped off to see if I could lend a hand. But that wasn't the kind of assistance she was after. She asked me point-blank and confidential about Harry's Filipino girl.

"You see her?" she asked.

"Yeah."

"Well?"

"She brought him a papaya today, I think."

"What else?" she asked.

"Nothing I could see."

"Was she pretty?"

"Kind of short and dark. Pretty, I guess."

"What was she wearing?" Like I was a dressmaker or something. I thought it over.

"Something in a cream," I said and she curled her lip.

"Why, Johnny," she said. "Don't you know better than to tease your elders?"

"My elder's acting peculiar."

"What do you mean?"

"I never knew her to play busybody before," I said real sweet.

That's how me and Mom always went at it—thrust and parry and then a big hug, so we could keep track of the other's hands, no doubt. Funny thing is, I think she kind of liked the breed in me. Made her think of Dad.

Typical of us was when I was a whole lot smaller and acting too big for my britches. I'd just let off a string of nasty cuss words in Chinese. Mom knew the lingo better than me. Since it'd been directed her way, she grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and washed my mouth out with some evil laundry soap. I'd looked up at her just as cheeky and asked, "Does that wash out all the bad words, or just the ones I said?" She stared me up and down, hard and cold all at once. "Why don't you just try some others, dear, and find out?" But straight as she tried to keep her face, I caught a gleam in her eye. That was Mom and me.

But she was acting peculiar. She flat refused to go out to the Front Gate to satisfy her own curiosity. Unless I told her our servants, Gregorio and Timotea, were out there, she was a lot more likely to try to squeeze something out of me or Southy.

"Well, what do you think of that little thing visiting Harry at the Front Gate?" she asked Southy. He squinted like he was in some discomfort.

"She's little," he said. "But she appears to show fair-sized loyalty."

"Pretty?" Mom asked.

"As a doll," Southy smiled. "And all dolled up too—red lips, dark eyes, mariposa sleeves and hair as black as night."

Still Mom'd never come at Harry direct about that girl. She'd circle around it, even though we all knew she was dying to find out more. It was after chow one evening out by the lean-to. Mom was knitting some string socks. Or a shirt, maybe. No matter what the materials might be, Mom always had to knit. Her hands flew with those needles, high on nervous energy. And at the end of each row, she pointed them at Harry with a little jerk.

"Why did you go up to the Port Area, Harry?" she asked. "It was the very worst hit part of the city."

"So I've heard," Harry said. "Smoke and dust from pulverized concrete hung so thick it shut out the sun."

"Well?"

"It was Christmas Eve and I was looking for Jesus." He pronounced the name Spanish like a Filipino.

"Jesus?" Mom asked. She pronounced it English like an American.

"Yes, bartender I met some years back at a little place called La Floridita."

"Oh, that kind of Jesus."

"Floridita's a turo-turo place," Southy said.

"That's right, no menu, just look and point. Eat and drink."

"Be merry," Southy added.

"Jesus had a nice tenor. Could sing Cole Porter a cappella and shake martinis at the same time."

"And did you find your Jesus?" Mom asked.

"Not quite. Took me long enough just to find La Floridita. Streets were all filled with rubble and glass, streetcars derailed, a few dead along the way."

"What a place to go!"

"Probably most honest place in town. Never liked wakes without booze."

"Floridita's not far from Pier Seven," Southy said. "They took some nasty hits there."

"Most of the buildings were abandoned. Smoke was drifting down across the Pasig and out of Intramuros. But I found my watering spot all right."

"And Jesus?"

"No. Jesus was dead. Ramón was the new kid's name. Nephew. Told me Jesus was stabbed a few years back trying to break up a bar fight. I missed his big smile and his 'Night and Day.' Really wanted to spend the holidays with Jesus."

"Christmas Eve you had big fires near there," Southy remembered.

"Firefighters had a bad time with water pressure near the docks. Electricity was out. All Ramón could offer was warm San Miguel. Rinsed the dust out of my mouth. Drank a glass of beer to the memory of Jesus. Then put the urn up on the bar and we drank one to Barney. Thought maybe we could go the whole twelve days of Christmas. Always wanted to try it nonstop. You know what Ramón said? 'We have big trouble. Pilipinos celebrate many more than twelve.'"

"That's true," Mom said. "With simbang gabi, they go from about the sixteenth on. And they don't stop singing till the Black Nazarene."

"I know that one," I said. "When they haul out that statue of Jesus and crowd the streets."

"Told Ramón it might be too late to go for the whole show, but we could still start with Christmas Eve. He was happy to oblige and broke out the scotch. Had some near strikes that night, damn close, but not enough to keep us under the table."

"Someone was putting up flares there to guide Jap bombers in," Southy said.

"That's what Ramón said. Asked him for a light in the bar and he told me I must be crazy. They'd hired thugs out of Tondo to stand guard against looters. Someone down the street got shot just standing in his window with the lamp on. So we went out into the dark with our drinks, sat on a pile of rubble, watched the oil fires over at Pandacan light up the sky."

"What did you eat all that time?" Mom asked.

"Ramón was damn hospitable. Fetched us big armfuls of tinned goods from the abandoned bodega down the street. Had our turo-turo right out of the cans. He even fixed me kippers over a little fire in the street one morning. 'I know you like kipper-herring for breakfast,' he said. 'Bery English, but bery good.'"

"Sounds like a kindred spirit," Mom said.

"Even lent me a cot up over the store. Had lots of good company those first few evenings. Troops passing through, merchant marines off sunken ships, stevedores wandering about, even a prostitute or two. Got quite jolly. Ramón's cousin stopped by with duck eggs."

"Where did you meet your young lady?" Mom asked like she just thought of it for the first time.

"You mean Virgin?" He pronounced that one Spanish too.

"You don't say." Mom laughed like it was the best joke she'd heard in months.

"Not her true name, of course. Called her that because of the way she held Barney's urn to her breast when we sang 'Silent Night.' Had a white dress, you see."

"And what's her real name?" Mom asked.

"Has a lot of G's in it."

"You don't know her name?"

"Believe her first name's Asunción," Harry said. "Arrived one night just ahead of two stevedores. Afraid it all ended in a bit of a brawl. My mistake really. Shouldn't want to say anything against the other two." The way Harry said it, Southy began chuckling.

"You're determined to die," Mom said.

"Never. All in the spirit of camaraderie. I'd been drinking a good bit with them. There was a big Irish fellow and a Frenchman. Could swear he was Canuck, but the Irish called him 'Frenchy.' Given that, I should have chosen my stories better. But never meant an insult. We were just singing, swapping tales and having a good old time. Got into telling them about the French Concession in Shanghai."

"Your mother never raised you for this," Mom said.

"My mother? My mother never raised me at all. Nannies and schoolmasters, Ruth. Just like you."

"Hanging about with harbor thugs."

"Absolutely harmless. Just a little touchy about that story. Silly, actually. You know the French in Shanghai. Great party people. I just happened to be strolling by their club one day and heard raucous laughter through the hedge. Peeked over and there they were under the trees, dressed to the nines, drinking champagne from crystal and playing at bowls. Very elegant."

"I'm sure your audience was impressed."

"One Frenchman always seemed to be getting the best of the others. Whenever he won, the rest cheered him like the conquering hero—'Vive le George!' and so on. Hoisted him onto their shoulders and carried him off to a little shed. He always entered with great ceremony while they split their sides laughing. Then after a bit he came out with a sheepish grin and they got back to their game."

"What was going on, Mr. Barnes?" I asked.

"Damn curious myself, but it was the French Club, after all. Very exclusive bunch. Diplomatic corps and so forth. So I went on my way. But about an hour or so later, happened back that way and the show was still going on. Only now in long afternoon shadows. They made a lovely picture out there on the green, dressed in their white flannels. Impressionist sort of thing. But when George won again, it was just too much for me. Had to sneak through the hedge to see for myself just what was up in that shed."

"Is this suitable?" Mom asked, nodding at me.

"Wasn't certain. George went in and they all began to laugh again. Uproarious. Couldn't quite believe it when I saw it. Here was this very civilized, elegant affair. And there, tacked up on the back wall of the shed was this calendar, complete with a hand-tinted photograph of an over-ripe nude. Blowsy's the word. And there, with great to-do, our very elegant George was kissing her right on the arse."

"Kissing the photograph?" Southy asked.

"Very wet kiss."

"That's the silliest thing I ever heard," Mom said.

"Exactly. Thought, this is hard enough for me to comprehend. What if I were Chinese?"

"How did Frenchy like the story?" Southy asked.

"Should have noticed his face had stiffened. Smile and camaraderie were gone. Kept looking hard at the mirror behind the bar, smoothing his hair."

"What did he say?" Southy asked with a big grin now.

"'You sayin' French are ass-kissers, buddy?'"

"And what did you say?"

"'I believe our George was nothing shy of the French consul.' Then he popped me. Must say he did it quite well too. Before I knew a thing, I was flat on the floor behind the table and they'd all disappeared. Just Ramón was there, bending over me, offering me a gin. Pretty painless though. Just a bit of an ache, here, under the ear. A little shaky in the legs."

"You're incorrigible," Mom laughed. "And what happened to the femme fatale?"

"Oh, Virgin came back all right, after Mass, Not sure if it was me she came back to see or was just on her way home."

"But you came to know her deep devotion."

"Some time after Christmas the mirror behind the bar crashed down and Ramón disappeared. Windows were out too, I believe. Virgin found me drinking alone and led me one night across Jones Bridge and up into Tondo."

"Tough neighborhood," Southy said.

"A bit nervy in the dark, going over the Pasig. Could just make out the shadows. Lots of trucks and artillery along the streets, troops on the move. Tondo boys didn't care much for me being there, but she called them off. Took me home and introduced me to family."

"What did you do?" Southy asked. "You pay her?"

"Perhaps it was my calling her Virgin. Just the mother and young sisters were there. Father was off fighting in the north. Home was a little nipa shack on stilts. They slept on mats on the floor. Pigs and chickens in the yard. Banana trees. Roosters crowing at the break of dawn. Very bucolic. She hung her white dress up very neatly whenever she was home. A valued piece of professional property. Treated me very posh. Put me up in a hammock."

"There are angels in heaven," Mom said.

"Had a merry time till a few days after New Years. Taught them all to sing 'The Twelve Days of Christmas'—sounds fine with a Filipino accent. I took her into the city one day and bought her a new dress for thanks. Most of the stores were closed, but we managed."

"Sounds idyllic," Mom said, but not too warm.

"Nice as being under siege can be. Even attended Mass once. Drank tuba palm wine and set off firecrackers. Everybody started getting a bit high-strung though, waiting for the Japs. Finally thanked them all and went back down to the North Harbor. Didn't think it would be too good for them to be caught with me. Virgin took me down there to a nice abandoned bar, well-stocked. A little island of civilization hidden in a sea of rubble. I spent my last days there with Barney."

"How did they find you?" Mom asked.

"Wandering by the bay, I think. It's just a bit vague. There was oil slick on the water, shining in the sun. Japanese officer offered me a cigarette from a silver case. Asked him what day it was. 'The sixth day of January,' he told me very formally. Looked concerned when I started laughing. Just so happy I'd made it through all twelve. 'Epiphany,' I said to him. 'Epiphany.' I think he thought I was swearing."

"But where's Mr. Jenkins?" I asked.

"Safe. Very safe." And he put his hand on my head. "Probably safer than you or I, Johnny. Sitting quietly on a shelf between Mr. Dewar and Mr. Gordon. Given present circumstances, I can't think of a better place to be."

 

Previous Piece Next Piece