The Wire Part VI (The Final Chapter in Melvin James Osborne’s Short Life)
I went to his back and whispered in his ear, Don’t go anywhere near this shit. It’ll cost you more money to get out of this than you and I both have. And that’s after they throw your ass in jail and keep you there for a week or two.
He didn’t move. And for a long moment I didn’t know what he might do. I stayed close. I didn’t want to get slugged with the full force of one of his powerful arms.
He turned his head toward the man sitting in the broken chair in the other corner, still fingering money. I knew that he had given him some, I had no idea how much. I said, Forget what you gave him. Just go out to the road and get two trikes and I’ll be right with you.
He didn’t move for a long moment, then he took a couple of steps around me and slowly walked toward the opening at the far end of the drying area. The smell of fish suddenly seemed unusually pungent. My eyes fell on a green toy car in the dirt at my feet. It was the size of my hand. It was missing wheels.
I looked at the tiny girl in the corner, three feet away. She was smiling, like she had no idea what was going on. The top of her worn and faded pink dress had been lowered to expose the nipples of a very young child. She could not have been more than twelve or thirteen. Maybe she was ten or eleven. She was barefoot.
I took a long slow step toward her and gently took hold of the straps that were halfway down to her elfin elbows. I pulled them up and onto her shoulders, enough to cover her up. I forced a smile and stepped back. I’d never been here before. I hate men who get anywhere near young children like this. I couldn’t bring myself to see what the old man in the corner, probably her father, was now doing.
The open bamboo door frame beckoned. So did the fresh air I wanted to smell. At the opening I picked up my bag, which seemed unusually heavy.
The woman who I had talked to earlier was rearranging some fish on one of the drying platforms as I approached her. I stopped long enough to thank her for her time. I had wanted to take some photos, but now I didn’t have the nerve to do so.
By the time I caught up with Melvin he was talking to a trike driver, one in a cluster of four, a random roadside gathering of young boys with sixth grade educations doing the only thing they may well do for the rest of their lives. I quickly made a deal with two of them. They would take us to the end of the road I showed them on a map, and to a boarding house one of them knew on a beach. It was owned by his uncle and it would cost six dollars a night for a room.
We had three choices, all of them within a block of one another, all of them cheap, what you find at the end of all civilized roads. Melvin didn’t object when I said that the one called Felix the Cat was our best bet. It had a view onto the bay and we could get adjoining rooms with a porch where we could sit and watch fishermen setting or pulling in their nets. Felix had rooms that were small but clean and simple, with single beds and humming overhead fans and a shower that was no more than a bent pipe hanging above a raw concrete slab. Near the one window in the nearly identical rooms was a wooden table with a lamp and a cheap metal ashtray. There were rattan rocking chairs on the porch, where we could sit and watch the sun go down. The owner, after we paid for the night, said that he would get whatever we wanted from a nearby sari-sari store. I asked him to get us a dozen bottles of Red Horse, the large ones.
We sat on the porch and hardly said hardly a word to one another as we drank Red Horse. Red Horse is stronger than San Miguel, with a biting bitter taste. I try to avoid it, but then find reasons to go to it.
I didn’t say a word to Melvin about what had happened. He came no closer than to say, Man, you got to understand. Then, after a long pause, he added, You don’t understand. He came back to these same words a little later. The second time he was staring into an empty space somewhere beyond the empty beach and the gentle surf. I looked for bancas in the bay and saw none. No one was about. There was no sign of life, not even a bird in the clear blue sky.
I knew that I didn’t understand Melvin now or in the short time I’d known him. I knew that I never would know him, that I could not. As with so much around me, even those I think I know, I rarely see little more than surfaces, layers so thin they cannot have much meaning. I tell myself this is because of the inadequacies of human language, the inherent complexity and opaqueness of the mind.
We were up to eight or nine of the large bottles of Red Horse, lining them at the front of the porch, their labels facing us. It was a perfect kind of order, began without a rationale and not discussed. It was Melvin’s idea. I was feeling the kick of the Red Horse. You want to switch to San Miguel Light? I had to say at one point.
He answered by gulping down what he had in the plastic cup and reached for the next bottle and opened it with his teeth, a deft opener on the side of his mouth.
The sky was turning purple and pink, and then into a layered cake of steely blues. I did not want to move. I only moved enough to get to the edge of the porch and take a long and slow piss, and form a puddle at the base of a pretty yellow flower without a name.
Now and again I would look over at Melvin and want to say something. But I could not decide what to say, so I said nothing.
Before the light was gone, I noticed that Melvin was sweating profusely. It was not hot, there was a breeze. I had not seen him like this before, even when we drank at midday and sat in hot sun. The sweat on his temples and cheeks looked bubbly. He looked different. I wasn’t sure I recognized him.
I told him I was going to bed, and I slowly got up and held tight to the wobbly chair. I didn’t want to fall. I couldn’t walk a straight line. I banged my leg a good one on the end of the bed frame. There would be a large bruise and it would be there for awhile.
Sometime in the night I heard Melvin shouting, repeated again and again words that I could not understand. I thought I heard him say Dixie once or twice, but I could make no sense of what he was saying about her. Maybe it wasn’t Dixie at all that he shouted or screamed about. It might have been a dream.
I was up at first light and I thought I’d go out on the porch and read, and then get started on a story that was beginning to form in my mind. It had been coming on. I’m like this. Something small triggers an opening, and then a scene or two follows in my mind, and then I am on my way, rarely knowing how the story will end, until there is no more to write. It is the story unfolding that matters, I have to remind myself. I try not to believe that it is important how a story ends.
I heard him rustling about, and then he appeared at the door. He was wearing red and white striped shorts that I had not seen before. He was barefoot. He looked as muscular as ever. There was a youthful and enviable sheen to his fine almost hairless body. For some reason, I’d not paid much attention until now to the tattoo on his upper left arm. It was a large heart outlined in red, and in the middle, in blue, were the two words: True Love. It wasn’t an old tattoo, but then it didn’t appear to be new either.
Melvin was holding tight to the cutters in his right hand. In his left hand was a large spool of blue wire. It looked heavy. It was bigger than a basketball, shaped like a misshapen football, one that was being deflated on either end at the same time. I had no idea how much wire was on the spool.
He didn’t acknowledge me, not until he got to the edge of the steps. Then he turned and looked right at me and said, Been good knowing you, man. Be easy. That’s all he said. Then he went down the four wooden stairs and his feet sunk into the sand and he headed straight for the beach. The tide was going out. The water looked gentle, not a wave in sight. The sky was a warming blue. It would be a hot day.
He walked with purpose, and without looking back. When he got to the edge of the wet sand, he took the spool of wire and drove one end into the ground as far as it would go. Then with his free hand he grabbed the end of the wire and pulled it upward and toward his eyes. He sighted on the wire, and I imagined he was following it through all of its twists and turns to the very end.
He looked briefly in my direction, and I thought I saw him smile. Then, one end of the wire in one hand and the cutters in the other hand, he began slowly walking into the water, not the inviting aqua color that one sees in these tropical islands.
His steps seemed measured, each one the same. He did not look back.
By the time the water was up to his mid thighs, I had the foreboding sense of what he was going to do.
I might’ve been able to get to him, and I would now like to believe that I might have been able to reason with him to stop. To tell him that he was young and handsome and had a great life before him. I might’ve been able to tell him that this was an irreversible decision that he was making and that he would not do the same thing in the afternoon, or the next day, or in a year. I might’ve told him what I have sometimes told myself, that what hurts so much today seems like a minor event, one of little consequence, in a few days or a week. I’ve might tried to hold him by his massive biceps and tell him that what he was doing would hurt others—his brother, his parents, his friends, even Dixie. Maybe there are other things I might’ve tried to tell him.
I didn’t do anything, reasoning in the moment that what he was doing had nothing to do with reason, and the only reasons that might matter to him were unknowable to me. What he was doing struck me as inevitable as the inevitability of death for all living things.
Before the water got to his waist, he had reached the end of the wire on the spool, and he let it go. And then he dropped the cutters, I think. About this I am sure.
I don’t know how he kept finding the bottom with his feet as he kept walking, but he did, or so it seemed. And then the water was at the top of his chest, and his chin, and for the first time I could see white waves and roiling water in the distance.
Then he was gone.
At some point I had put my tiny laptop on the broken wooden floor, and after Melvin was gone and I had enough composure to stand I inadvertently kicked it and it slid off the edge of the porch and fell into a tangle of flowering plants. I didn’t have the energy to retrieve it.
I went to two bottles of Red Horse that we hadn’t opened. I sat back and keep my eyes on the water, the spot where I thought he had gone under. I drank slowly, and I can’t say that I was thinking about much of anything. Something had happened. A young man who had been in a senseless war had killed himself. Soon he would be no more than a mere statistic, a reminder of…
I waited about three hours before I went into Melvin’s room and opened his suitcase to see what he might’ve left behind. There were the few clothes I had seen him wear, and a plastic bag containing a toothbrush and toothpaste and two disposable razor blades and some shaving cream. There were no pills of any kind.
His passport, as passports do, revealed little. His full name—Melvin James Osborne, and his age. He was twenty, one year and one week to a day younger than my son. There was an address in the front of the passport, his home address I assumed. It was written in pencil. The place was in Nebraska, but not the kind of name that would tell me or anyone that he had lived in Nebraska. It was the kind of place name that one might find anywhere in America.
There was a stack of four-by-six photos bound together by two thick rubberbands. Every one of them I took to be Dixie. She was smiling and holding up two fingers, and wearing becoming pink shorts and brown sandals with simple straps. She was in a short red and white pleated shirt, her cheerleader outfit, and she was waving pompoms and looking cheeky and inviting. She was wearing a bikini that flattered her youthful body. She had large breasts and a thin waist and ample hips and very long shapely legs. Her blond hair was in a ponytail. She had a gorgeous smile, a come-on smile. Any man could have easily fallen for her.
There was $2,200 in American Express travelers’ checks, and a little less than $300 in dollars, and another $240 in pesos of several denominations. They were in a white envelope, unmarked.
There was almost nothing else, other than two packs of cigarettes, one opened, which explained the one small bag. It explained, perhaps, a plan to which I had become a witness, an unwitting accomplice of sorts.
I waited until mid-afternoon to go to the local police station and report what I had seen. He drowned, I told them. He couldn’t swim.
One cop said, The sharks ate him. You will not find him.
They took my name and I gave them the story a second time, filling in details. I didn’t sense they cared, that it was just one of those things that happen all the time. Did I want them to investigate his death? one of them asked me.
Yes, I said. He has parents and others who will want know as much as they can.
It will cost you 30,000 pesos for us to investigate.
For what? I said
To see if he was eaten by sharks.
You will be able to tell? I said.
We will do an investigation.
Forget an investigation, I said. Just put it in your report that he was eaten by sharks. That is enough. I will report the same to the American Embassy in Manila when I give them his passport.
I hurried back to Sabang the next morning, and I got the same room that I’d had in the Mermaid when we were there, Room 31.
After buying a large brown envelope and addressing it, I went to the small post office on a side street and sent his travelers checks and money, including the pesos that I’d converted to dollars, and all the money he had given me that I hadn’t spent. I wrote a short note that read: To the Parents and Brother of Melvin: Your son and brother drowned off the southern coast of Mindoro on the twentieth of November. It is an area notorious for man-eating sharks. His body was not recovered. I signed the note: A Passing Friend. I did not put a return address.
I had a suspicion that had been nagging me, and I wanted to see if I was right. It didn’t matter, really, what I found, and yet it was my way of bringing a small closure to a story I barely understood, least of all as part of a foreign war that makes no sense at all.
I got to the Las Vegas Disco early and talked to the mamasan and told her I was interested in one of her girls, Alisha. It was early and she hadn’t yet been barfined. I invited Alisha for a drink. I showed interest of the kind she understood. I got her to share her own story, something I have gotten good at with people like her.
It was another story about West finding the East and the perversions that follow, perversions seeded in the West and sown in the East, the kind that are hard to believe and do not make for good fiction.
Through her sister Alisha had met a fifty-two year-old Englishman from Liverpool who was working as an engineering business consultant in Hong Kong and had clients in the Philippines. He met Alisha through a mutual friend, and he learned that she needed help with a young child, because her Filipino husband had abandoned her for another woman. The Englishman, whose name was Robin, wanted Alisha to be “his child,” someone he would care for and be able to call his own. He had no interest at all in marrying her, or living with her as man and wife. He would send her 15,000 pesos a month for herself and the child, and for this he demanded that she do two things: never sleep with or get involved with another man, and obey his every word. Robin, Alisha told me, only saw her three days a month, with one exception, and that one exception lasted six days. When he saw her they stayed together in an upscale hotel in Makati, the financial center of Manila. He spent his days working at a computer and making phone calls. They would go out to eat for dinner and then return to the hotel and watch a little TV and then fall asleep, always sleeping on opposite sides of a queen-sized bed. Not once in an embrace. He never once kissed Alisha on the lips, nowhere other than in the middle of the forehead. He never once had sex with her, or attempted to have sex with her. He never once allowed his “child” to see him naked. This went on for ten months, and then one day Alisha got a text message from Robin saying that he had been transferred to Moscow and it was too far to travel to see her. He did not directly say that their relationship was over, or that he would never see her again. He did say, however, that he would not be sending her anymore money. He said that he no longer had enough to send her. Alisha sent him several messages asking for an explanation, telling him, as she often had, that she loved him. She loved him and it was not for the money he sent. She told me she had loved him more than she had ever loved her Filipino husband. Robin answered none of Alisha’s messages, and after three weeks, and in need of money, she became a bargirl, doing what she never could have imagined doing until necessity told her what to do. Becoming a bargirl would mean, in her own mind, that she no longer had dignity, was a good Filipina. She send Robin a message telling him what she had done, knowing that he hated bargirls and everything they represented.
I listened with interest, and I bought Alisha a second and then a third drink as her story unfolded. And then somewhere in the third drink, I said, Would you tell me about a customer that you had a couple of nights ago His name was Melvin. I described him.
I remember him, she said. He was at the Mermaid Hotel in Room 32.
Can you tell me one thing about him when you were with him?
I don’t tell anyone about my customers or what I do.
Just one thing, as a small favor? I held up my left hand and I put the nail of my thumb at the base of my baby finger. I said, Was he like this? Like your Japanese and Korean customers?
I won’t tell you, she said.
This is all I want to know about him. Nothing more. He won’t know. He will never know, I assure you.
She shook her head.
I went to my wallet and took out a five hundred peso note and put it under the nearly empty glass of mango juice she was drinking.
She looked away from me, at the stage full of half-naked dancers in front of us. Biting her words, she said, No, he was not like Japanese and Korean customers. She raised her tiny hand and she put her thumbnail at the crease between the first and second digit on her baby finger. Like this, she said. Like this.