Bong-gai and the Four Sisters
There’s a rare hallucinogenic drug in the Philippines known as Bong-gai. I’ve been taking it now for more than a week, and early on I felt the urge to reveal how I came to the drug and how it affected me. And then, while still feeling the effects of the mind- bending drug, write about four sisters I have known for longer than I can remember. Why I chose to write about these four sisters at this time, I have no clear idea or good answer. As will be obvious to anyone familiar with my many essays and stories, how I have written about these sisters is a little usual, and for some and for obvious reasons my narrative will be disconcerting. As I will reveal, one of the sisters has a husband who is me.
The reason for noting this is that this fact may alter how some judge what I have written about the sisters, in addition to what I have said about myself.
2 Bong-gai and the Four Sisters
My encounter with Bong-gai occurred in May of 2016 on the island of Masbate in the central Philippines. May is the month in which I wrote everything that follows, and, as I have noted, while under the Influence.
His name is Tito. He’s small, less than five feet tall and shaped like a brick, and as dark as a brick baked in a hot fire. He waddles like a duck when walking short distances, and one would not think that he could make it through a small village without difficulty, much less take me up a mountain and climb a coconut tree with the agility of a young man. He did all of this and more.
We were not alone on this journey to Bong-gai. There were the four mongrel dogs and two mysterious women about whom I would learn very little, and who played a crucial role in my introduction to Bong-gai, and in subsequent encounters with the drug.
Villagers told me that Tito is 64, or 83, or 76. One person astonishingly said that he’s 95 and the oldest person in the village. I don’t know what to believe. Nor do I know if Tito takes Bong-gai or is even what they call a witch doctor in these islands. He neither cures nor offers to cure anyone in the village of any ailment, I was told more than once.
When he looked at me I was not sure that he was really looking at me. His eyes had a milky white appearance, and I wondered then and still do whether he has cataracts. But how could he, unless they are not that far advanced? He deftly cut his way through heavy brush with a machete, and again and again avoided protruding roots and big rocks on the trail and the mountain slope we climbed. Never once did he slip as I did, and my vision is good.
There were his cryptic answers, or no answers at all. He spoke English, more than good enough to be able to answer this or that question I posed. But despite the time I spent with him–nine days in all–he simply would not answer some of my questions, especially about the two young women that became so central to this experience and did something to me and not just once that I could not have imagined and had never experienced.
Anything, I must confess, could have happened since I really did not know what I was getting myself into. But perhaps because I have been in this part of the world so many times now, I did not fear for my life, or even what might follow when I was told what to do as I lay in that hammock above a bamboo platform among coconut trees on that mountain slope, and then at some point had no idea where I was, only captive to visions and images of a sort I have no memory of ever seeing previously. But what was there to lose? I thought, a thought I often have in these Asian travels.
“We go to Bong-gai,” Tito told me the first day we met and drank coffee near the village’s tiny Catholic Church. On hearing these words, I thought Bong-gai might be a place with its own unique geography, with latitude and longitude. A dozen or three dozen nipa huts and small cement block houses and a couple of sari-sari stores. Surely, anyone would have assumed this as I did on first hearing Tito’s words.
We agreed to leave early, a little after six in the morning. He would meet me with his four dogs at the small hotel I was staying in, one with a single bed and a tattered stained sheet and a fan on a pink shelf, and a toilet bowl down the hall. I had little in my possession on the trip with Tito. Not my camera, nor a day pack, and no sunblock or insect repellant, everything left behind in the care of the owner of the hotel. Nothing more than the money belt with most of my cash, and a copy of my passport, enough should I be asked who I am, or should I need to be identified. The money in the belt: enough to get on a plane to Manila or even home. Or for medical help or to pay my way out of a mess that cannot be anticipated.
From the second-story hotel porch, I could see Tito coming down one of the trails that led out of the village. He was followed by four small black and tan mongrel dogs. They formed a nearly perfect line behind him, like they had been well-trained. They would break from this line formation rarely, I would discover, and when this occurred it was around the fire on the mountain when Tito prepared the Bong-gai. In fact, as I now think about it, I believe it was only around the fire where the dogs moved about as dogs are inclined to do: sniffing, pausing, barking, and chasing one another, one or two of them sitting near Tito as he prepared the Bong-gai. Other than these minor observations, I can attribute no significance to the dogs, but then perhaps their disciplined way of moving along the trail contained a message, was meant to impress upon me the need to follow instructions once in the hammock.
For the first couple of hundred yards we followed a thin trail through low brush. The trail we were on edged a small dark stream that I could hear and only see now and again. It would have been easy to walk across it. But we never went to the other side, nor do I know what lies there. Suddenly, Tito took a sharp turn away from the stream and we tramped through some thick brush. Before long there appeared another trail that I could see zig-zagged up a gentle slope. It was an easy ascent. On either side of the trail the ground was weedy, and here and there patches of large leafy plants without flowers. On the slope we climbed for the next twenty minutes or so, I must have seen seven or eight of these plants, not a clue what they might be. None of this would matter but for the fact that Tito would now and again stop and hold up a hand signaling for me to stay where I was while he went to one of these plants and stooped and examined it. Then with his machete he would cut what looked like the largest and greenest of the leaves and fold them three or four times before sticking them in a leather pouch on his belt.
The second time he stopped for these leaves, I asked him what they were for, if they had something to do with Bong-gai. He gave me this inscrutable look and cracked a smile to expose a single dog tooth. It was large and yellow, and black where the tooth met a shriveled dark red gum. I asked him twice the same question. Each time he gave me the same look.
It was not until the third time we stopped and were not far from where we would meet some thick growth and a fair number of coconut trees on a lumpy flat that I saw the young women behind us. They were at some distance, perhaps fifty yards away. They were wearing plain white dresses that fell to their bare feet. I was surprised they were not wearing shoes or thongs, since some of the ground we had walked over had large and sharp rocks which were hard to avoid. But what really caught my attention was that both women were wearing black head scarves. I was pretty sure they were not Muslims, because I had not seen one in the village where Tito lives. I had not in fact seen any women with head scarves in other villages I had passed through to get to Tito’s village. These two were also wearing long- sleeved black shirts. I sensed something was up, for when they saw me staring at them they conspicuously turned around.
I was tempted to ask Tito who they were and where they were going, but did not. I assumed that before long we would encounter a couple of nipa huts where the women lived, or perhaps even a small mountain village. The women were on their way home, I reasoned, perhaps after a visit to kin or for some shopping, the latter though not too likely since I saw no bags or evidence that they were carrying anything.
We continued this journey through low shrubbery and grass, and then at one point had to pass through a tangled mass of woody and leafy undergrowth that Tito cleared with a machete. During all this time I cannot recall hearing a single bird, nor did I see any other evidence of life, nothing other than the trees and the plant life we walked on or through.
I did not see the two women again until a small hut perched on the side of the mountain came into view. They again stopped when I turned, but this time did not show me their back sides. They simply stared at me, their hands at their sides. They were closer than before, and now I saw that both had large rings on their index fingers. They were taller than I originally thought, perhaps as much as five-five or five-size, quite tall by Filipina standards. This led me to conclude that they were probably not young teenagers and might well have been in their twenties, or older. It was now that I asked Tito who they were. He answered, “You see when you get Bong-gai.”
As we approached the nipa hut, a bamboo platform about twenty or so yards to one side of it came into view. On getting closer I saw that there was a brown hammock on the platform. It was protected from the sun and rain by a flat roof of nipa palms. The roof looked old, but I did not see holes in it or evidence that it had been damaged by a storm, to say nothing of a typhoon.
I thought we would continue up to the nipa hut and there I would learn about and experience Bong-gai, whatever it was. And I was nearly certain that it would be a local word for opium, or perhaps shabu, methamphetamine. Were it shabu, I had no desire to go down this road again, and would make sure that Tito understood this. Two shabu trips about three years ago were enough.
When Tito stopped and came back to me and said that this is where I would experience Bong-gai, I asked him if it was a word for either opium or shabu. He assured me it was something different.
“Then what?” I said. “You will see,” he said.
He instructed me to sit on the bamboo platform and watch him. And this is what I did, protected from the sun by the roof and the angle at which I sat. I took off my T-shirt and my running shoes and tried to relax, with the aim of being mindful of what he would be doing and where all this was going.
Initially, he gathered some dried pieces of coconut trees and brought them together in a small pile, fuel for the fire he would make. But a fire that he would not start until he had climbed a tall coconut tree to one side of the hut. I sat in awe watching him, now judging that he could not have been much older than fifty. and maybe this was a high figure. And yet the skin on his arms and on his neck suggested a man much older, even one well into his eighties, though this is a tricky determination when one considers how much time Filipino farmers spend in the sun. Still, it was quite a feat, and one I could not imagine doing even with instructions and practice. Nor would I have tried without a safety belt to break my fall.
He was at the top of this one tree he climbed for a long couple of minutes before he found four coconuts he wanted. All of them, after he cut them loose, rolled some distance down the slope we were on. I was sure they would be lost. But it was now that I again saw the tall women in their white dresses. One of them rolled up her dress nearly to her waist, exposing a pair of black panties, and went after the coconuts and took them to the site where Tito would build a fire. As soon as this one woman placed them on the ground, she lowered her long dress and walked back to her companion. They continued standing stoically at some distance, making no effort to approach me. I still could not clearly make out their faces, and I became increasingly curious about their role in all of this and their relationship to Tito. Were they his daughters? Or just friends?
It did not take long for Tito to build a fire. Once he got it going he cut open one of the coconuts and placed the two halves on the ground, the juice still in them. Now he went to the large folded leaves I’d seen him gather earlier. He began tearing and breaking them into small pieces. When he had a small pile of them, he rolled them into a ball and took them into his mouth and visibly moved them around, saturating them with saliva and some coconut juice. He then spit what he had into a small earthen bowl that had been retrieved from the hut by one of the young women. He continued with this process for eight or ten minutes.
Tito did not go to another coconut for its milk as I thought he might, nor did he make use of any of the meat in the one he had opened. But when he had all that he was going to put in this dark bowl, one of the young
women sitting beside him reached into a slit in her dress and came forth with a plastic bag. I could not see what was in it. She handed it to Tito and he moved the bag in front of his face, making the sign of the cross with it. He did this two or three times, then spilled the contents into the leaves soaked in his saliva and coconut juice and mixed everything together with an index finger. As he did so, the two women moved closer to him. Seemingly satisfied that the ingredients were mixed in with the leaves and the saliva and coconut juice, he put the bowl on the fire. He had no more than done so when the two women came to me and told me that I was to lie in the hammock and close my eyes. While noting that both were young and attractive, I did as instructed, but not before glancing back at Tito to see him pick up something from the ground around him and add it to the earthen bowl. I did not think it was anything that was in the small bag I’d seen.
It was only a couple of minutes before the women were moving my hammock from side to side. They were lying beneath it. I did not feel their hands, but it was obvious what they were doing and where they were. After about thirty seconds or so the women began humming rhythmically, not a song or a tune exactly but with a cadence that added to the relaxed feeling I was getting from them rocking the hammock. I was eager to get a better look at their faces. I wanted to see them without all their disguising cover.
I don’t know how long this went on for, but I now recall that the hammock had more or less come to a stop, and as it did so I felt a hand move from my forehead down over my eyes and a voice say, “No open. Not once. No open.”
It must have been another long minute or so after these instructions when a hand returned to my face but now to the left side of my cheek. The hand gently pulled my face to the right, in a direction that were my eyes open would have allowed me to see the fire, and Tito, if he was still anywhere near the fire. As soon as my face was to one side I felt two hands now cupping my face and as they did so warm lips met mine. At first softly and then with more pressure, and then the tip of a tongue gently forced its way into my mouth, as a partner might do initiating what is commonly referred to as French kissing. I did not resist, and as she removed her lips from mine I left my mouth open, not quite sure what to expect next. It could not have been more than a few seconds before the foreign lips returned. It was now that I began to feel and taste a sweet smoke slowly being blown into my mouth and then reach my throat. And then there were the words: “Take in. Deep. Take it deep.” Much like one is instructed when first taking weed.
The woman did this to me three times, with enough time in between for me to hold the smoke within my lungs and then slowly exhale. I felt little at first, and then the sense that the back of my head had lifted off the hammock, a sensation I would initially feel each time this experience was initiated. I cannot say that I felt light headed, just displaced, my head not where I knew it was. Or thought I knew where it was, for I now had no sense that my head was connected to the rest of my body.
It could not have been more than a couple of minutes after I exhaled the third intake of slightly sweet smoke from the first woman before my face was gently pulled to the other side of the hammock and the very same process unfolded. The difference this time was that the lips were more gentle, and decidedly moist, and she lingered longer before I felt the tip of a tongue create an opening between my lips. It was akin to the warm and embracing kiss of a lover or wife, but whether because of the first unexpected meeting with my lips which so caught me by surprise or because the drug was starting to take hold I do not know. Again, there were three “injections” of the smoke that later I would infer was taken in by each of these women from the bowl of leaves and everything else that had been cooked and was Bong- gai. I should note that I never saw the bowl and what was in it while any of this was going on. I was content to keep my eyes closed as I’d been instructed.
This first time I think that these injections took place a total of four times, or four cycles, a cycle being a kiss and the smoke from each woman. Cycles that after the first one were not followed by instructions but simply by hands from both sides of the hammock holding up my head enough to sip some coconut juice, preceded by the words: “Open. Drink a little.” I think this was to counter the drying effect that the drug can have on the mouth and the throat.
The next major sensation I felt was that my body like my head was not lying in the hammock. I imagined that
I was levitating. I was in the hammock and yet above it. Though I cannot be sure of this, even after repeated experiences, since by the end of the second cycle or thereabouts images from my past began to form at a point initially just beyond the end of my nose, and then with so many of them converge into one image.
Those I saw on this first day were of my father and mother, my father in a lifeless coma and his thin head back and mouth gaping and less than a day from death, that of my mother only an hour or so from death and slipping quickly as she moved toward the Eternal Void. What seemed so strange when I could recall this event later is that my father had a blue face, blue all over in fact, and my mother a red face, and red all over. My father was on one side of me and my mother on the other side. But then they merged as they moved around to the front of my face, and now I could not distinguish one from the other, and the image, neither mother nor father exactly, was clear. It was so transparent that I could at one point see through the merged image and into a tunnel that narrowed and twisted until it became a point. A barely visible black dot in the far distance.
In the hour or two that followed and still in the hammock, there were other convergences. And separations. One was a very distinctive picture of my son at the age of ten or twelve, one in which I see him charging down a basketball court from some distant point where he is not much larger than a dime. As he gets closer to me and grows, the images of his dribbling and weaving from side to side multiply into several identical pictures of him. Each image is of a different color—orange, red, green, purple, but not black. What he is doing in each image is the same. Not shooting, just dribbling from side to side and coming closer and closer.
I don’t know how long these kinds of convergences and separations took place, nor how many there were. I do know there were a good half dozen or so, and not all of them on the first day I took Bong-gai. A couple of the most frightening ones revolved around my time in the highlands of Colombia in 1969 and 1970 when I was there to work on my dissertation. In one, a scene that I have relived often when sober, or as sober as we think we are when free of alcohol or other drugs in our system, I am standing with my back to a mud wall and facing a young kid in military garb who has a rifle pointed at my face, inches away, and with his finger on the trigger. I am being questioned about what I was doing in this high and remote Andean village controlled by guerillas and off-limits to anyone but locals and the military. In this image, or one version of it, and one I would see three or four different times in the nine days I spent in this hammock, the kid is repeatedly pulling the trigger and bullets are coming at me, and then moving around my face. I do not recall screaming or feeling frightened experiencing this. I think I felt nothing. Perhaps indifferent. If anything, I was mesmerized by these bullets being shot point blank at my face and not a one finding its mark. There was no exit from this scene that I recall, it just went on and on. And then I was perhaps out for a stretch, only to wake to other convergences and separations and multiplying images when I was a very young kid living in San Francisco, and a teenager playing basketball on the Peninsula, and then in Tijuana in the year 2000 waking in an alley from a mugging and wondering where I was. These exploding and multiplying and converging images of the same thing or person or me in different colors.
I suppose I was in this levitating state for perhaps an hour and a half or two on each morning I went with Tito. When I got up and out of the hammock, I would see him near the fire preparing a thin soup with some greens and chunks of chicken. We would have this soup in silence. He said nothing to me, and I was at a complete loss for words. I would only see the women and experience them each day as I have described the first day. And despite an attempt to look for them in the village where I slept and wrote about the Four Sisters when not with Tito and taking Bong-gai, I could not find them or see any girls or women who I thought were part of these small adventures.
Surely, much of what we call the reality of our lives is nothing more than a disparate collection of loosely connected events and stories that in the end make no more sense than why that kid in that remote highland village in Colombia in my distant past didn’t shoot me in the face, or why when he did the bullets failed to hit the mark.
Four Sisters: Marta and Alvin
On this particular Thursday morning at a little after ten in the morning Marta was doing what she enjoyed doing all the time and was a topic of constant conversation among her three sisters when they were alone and when two of them were with their husbands and even when they talked to neighbors’ wives about an upcoming scandalous dinner party and why mail was always stolen from a mailbox somewhere in the neighborhood. What Marta was doing after she had a breakfast of three eggs and four blueberry pancakes and several pieces of bacon and four sausages covered with ketchup was to once again stare scornfully at Alvin her husband and shake her pointed finger and berate him for taking the garbage out a half hour later than the schedule she had established for him. She had him on schedule to do a dozen or more chores a day, detailed lists that she posted on the refrigerator door and on mirrors in their two bathrooms and in the master bedroom they no longer shared and on three walls in the one small room where Alvin slept alone at night and cuddled a pink teddy bear that once belonged to his youngest daughter Fiona.
Not satisfied with one verbal undressing that left Alvin unmoved and expressionless Marta followed with another one, this one a complaint about why he insisted on keeping his Zigana 9mm pistol on the right side of the dinner plate rather than the left side because the light that came in from the window where they ate hit the gun’s barrel and the glare bothered Marta’s eyes, something that could have been avoided had she been willing to move her chair about three inches, but three inches was more than Marta would concede to anyone. Her once very good green eyes were no longer quite so good or green and they were getting worse the doctor told her because this was yet one more effect of being overweight since the age of thirteen and then becoming massively overweight and a reckless diabetic and not attending to the program the doctor had given her, at one time to lose one hundred pounds and by the time the doctor gave up in frustration to lose a mere ten pounds, even this a near impossibility for Marta. It was not a matter of simply getting bad genes as she liked to console herself in those rare moments when she saw that she had gained another five pounds in five days from all the Tom and Jerry ice cream and other sweets she ate.
As the oldest of four sisters and always full of considerable confidence and all-knowing self-regard Marta listened to almost no one about anything of any consequence, and as for Alvin the only husband she had ever had and with her abiding hatred toward all men with one exception and that was Joseph Smith the founder of the Church of Latter Day Saints she listened to little that Alvin said, the one exception was when he said he would take his gun with him whenever they left the house and into the home of anyone they visited and then she could do no better than put a hand through her short hair and pinch her flabby thigh and clear her throat and flush satin red and meekly say, “Whatever you want, Alvin.”
For longer than Marta could remember she banished the idea of getting a divorce, settling for Alvin sleeping alone at night in a single bed at the end of a long hall in a room that smelled of cockroaches and mold because she didn’t care and even delighted in the sour memories the smells brought forth, and as for Alvin he lost his sense of smell from smelling smelly prisoners during all those years when he worked as a prison guard in supermax in Utah State Prison in Draper, Utah, an hour and ten minute commute from their home in Salt Lake City. This living arrangement was a secret that Marta thought was well kept from her sisters and friends such was her wifely embarrassment and conceit on this singular point about how poorly she treated her husband, though in fact the sisters had known about this and just about everything else in the dysfunctional relationship thanks to her daughters who considered gossip a valuable family currency, reasoning as they all did that they would be richly rewarded with food and free accommodations with two of the three sisters whenever they needed a place to stay for a week or two while rearranging their messy personal and marital lives, order of any kind for all of them a foreign country in a family with seven children and a father indifferent to foul smells and regular showers and stacks of dirty dishes and clothes strewn about the floors and two or more appliances always needing repairs, the very kind of disorder that Alvin had known growing up in a large family with parents who thought as he did, reasoning as all good Mormons reason that it is far preferable to spend whatever time one has away from a job and the most necessary chores of eating and sleeping on prayers that would give them their rightful place in the kingdoms of glory.
“Alvin,” Marta now said with a familiar grinding growl, “you never listen to me about the most important things in life. Last night you once again forgot to turn off the pink hall light on the way to your own room.” As indeed Alvin had forgotten, a problem certain to arise tomorrow and the day after and again and again with as much certainly as the fact that their second child, Violet, would get involved with yet another ex-convict covered with tattoos that she would have a child with before she threw him out for not following a schedule like her mother had established for Alvin, in her case for ignoring her command that there was only one way to have paper roll off a toilet paper roll and that was from the top down. Violet had been the smartest of their three daughters, smarts in Martha’s mind and never mind Alvin’s parched mind measured by the fact that Violet
rarely missed school, never got less than a C in any of her high school classes in which she mostly got Cs, and never wore a dress that came to her knees except on Wednesdays because this was the one day of the week when young boys were least likely to leer at her or any of the other uncomely girls in class, because Tuesdays were the days on which they invariably watched pornography and masturbated. Violet didn’t get pregnant before graduating from high school as her other sisters had though this was a technicality since she had had two spontaneous abortions by the time she was sixteen, which are not considered pregnancies by Mormon church elders Marta was informed not long after her conversion to the Mormon Church, since they were pregnancies brought on by the Devil while Jesus was playing Go with one of his favorite angels and therefore she could think of her daughter as only a slightly tainted virgin, a condition that could easily be fixed and the word tainted banished from her mind with a doctor’s deft needle and a couple of stitches.
Compliant and easy to please Alvin had slept alone in a single bed at one end of the house ever since the doctor told Marta that seven kids were all that she could have unless she wanted to die an untimely and painful death, at one point informing her in a mild pique of frustration with her unbending ways that since she did not want to listen to him when he spoke the polite and indirect language dictated by his profession and the Hippocratic Oath, she should know that her uterus
resembled a junkyard of disparate parts and that one more hit to this cherished site where children are born and then demand entry into a world of love and hate and fiery renunciations of all things good and tasty and memorable would be more than her outsized body could take, a thought so unsettling to Marta on hearing the anorexic and diminutive Chinese doctor’s words that she could think of no good reason for staying with Alvin, and yet she feared that were she to divorce him she might feel so unsettled and lonely that she might well become a trashy streetwalker in high heels and pasty makeup not unlike the women she saw all the time when she went shopping for secondhand bras and panties, a practice she had picked up from her frugal mother, who in addition to being mindlessly fanatical about saving pennies and nickels in old strawberry and blueberry jam jars thought that women should wear neither bras nor panties, and the only reason they did so was to make it more difficult for men to undress them and thereby increase the likelihood that they either could not get an erection or maintain one other than when following the Lord’s command to create new Mormon life, an idea long trafficked among Mormon families before feminism was spontaneously hatched in the minds of a few self-important frigid women who had never experienced an orgasm and could not imagine what one was like, other than to now and again imagine and imaginatively so that it robbed a woman of her dignity and self-respect, not unlike Gloria Steinem’s take on the matter when she declared before a crowd of 50,000 people in Yankee Stadium that a woman having an orgasm is akin to visibly peeing down one’s leg in a crowded ballroom while dressed in formal evening wear.
Alvin to his very considerable credit and open- mindedness surprising to one and all had taken the news that there would be no more children stoically just as he took almost everything that Marta said to him, the most recent notable exception to his calm phlegmatic demeanor occurring not long ago when he wanted to move the lawn mower to the opposite side of their sprawling suburban house so that a thief in the night would be more likely to trip and make a fateful noise on his way to their bedroom, thereby giving Alvin enough time to retrieve one of his five loaded pistols from the safe at the foot of the bed and shoot the intruder, an idea that Marta found so ludicrous for reasons she could explain to no one that she bought a second lawnmower and put it on the side of the house where there had not been one before, and to insure that neither one would henceforth be moved she hired a plumber she once admired for his big hands and cackling laugh to fasten each of the lawnmowers to the concrete walkways with large bolts, the heavy chains around the lawnmowers hard to cut by anyone and especially so she thought for a man with Alvin’s meager intelligence and poor imagination when thinking about anything not related to guns and where to hide the Skippy Peanut Butter that he hoarded and often called a meal on three pieces of toast. This frustrated concern of Alvin’s followed one that occurred some months earlier when he wanted the gun safe moved from the master bedroom to his own small room that beside the single bed contained little more than stacked boxes of old and broken kiddie toys and dolls without heads and kitschy plastic kitchenware and clothes that Marta could no longer wear because of a size that grew larger and larger through the years after she got the news from the doctor about dying were she to have another child, and then finally and quite reluctantly came to the conclusion that she had to have a hysterectomy, thereby virtually destroying that part of her anatomy that she understood was only for reproduction since the only thing worse than having any kind of recreational sex was to be without her chocolate or ice cream or orange popsicles she loved to suck on in the middle of the night while listening to “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Just Like a Woman”, and for completely inexplicable reasons Bo Diddley singing “Pretty Thing.” But it was a room that was more than good enough for Alvin who for years now had a mind that Marta and the other sisters agreed had given new definition to the word small, and without getting a proper diagnosis most certainly had to be a form of trauma-induced late-stage dementia, really taking hold on a fateful day when working as a prison guard he’d been taken by three prisoners who without apparent provocation smashed his face and head so thoroughly with their fists and shoes and toothbrushes that he spent two months in the hospital, at first hovering between life and death and then miraculously recovering, Marta the whole time praying that he die quickly and painlessly and not because of their life insurance policies but because she could not in any way then be implicated for his death, a fear she acquired from watching an HBO movie one night where a woman in northern Arkansas was accused of killing her husband by holding his head in a toilet bowl and then flushing it several times, a near impossibility since the accused woman was half the size of her husband and only had one arm and like Marta had long been confined to a wheelchair, one in fact that was too big to fit into the bathroom where her husband was found hugging the toilet bowl with his head submerged in soiled water.
This feeling toward Alvin was not so malicious and hateful in the beginning, certainly not during that fateful moment and in the months to follow when she met him when he accidentally wandered into a woman’s restroom at the University of Virginia and on asking where he was and seemingly not knowing she laughed and fell immediately in love with him, because she could not imagine he did not know where he was, a trait so charming and beguiling that she could only bring to mind one other animal who behaved similarly and this was the Great Dane known as Pluto she loved more than she loved her parents or her sisters, or so she once wrote in a fifth grade essay that got her an A in the class because unbeknownst to her and the other students at the time the teacher had been abandoned by both of her parents and she grew up in an orphanage in East St. Louis that took in children and abandoned dogs. So smitten was Marta by what she saw on the hot and humid day on the university campus when she ran into Alvin in a place he should not have been that she quit her studies in the humanities majoring in art and design and soon abandoned what looked like an up and coming career as a concert violinist, to then follow Alvin to Utah and enroll at Brigham Young University and shortly thereafter convert to Mormonism and along the way heartily agree with her then much-loved Alvin that it would be a marvelous idea to have twelve or fourteen children, a dream that had consumed Alvin since the time he had been a teenager and became aware of the happiness in his own family of ten children, which would have been an even larger family had his father not gotten uncommonly drunk one afternoon on a pint of gin and then wandered out of the house where he was immediately run over and killed by two teenagers madly racing down the sidewalk on ten-speed bikes.
As the words came out of Marta’s mouth, Alvin’s head slipped to one side and he nodded off and drooled onto his arm and an edge of the wooden chair, and even onto the tacky bright orange and blue linoleum floor, taste not something that was ever given much thought by Marta even though in her job as a marketing consultant for two-piece swimsuits for disabled
adolescents she was around women who rattled on endlessly about how they had recently decorated this or that room with new lock and fold floating hardwood floors and colorful Venetian blinds and were constantly thinking of changing what had been changed in the last six months or so, the opinions of their husbands or lesbian and transgendered lovers on such matters irrelevant as they always are in such matters.
Alvin’s nodding off condition began about three years ago, the first time when they had invited some friends to their home to celebrate a wedding anniversary. Marta had lit the red and blue candles on the anniversary cake and was about to lie about how beautiful and satisfying their marriage was and how much and for how long she had loved Alvin with all her heart when Alvin nodded off and his head fell back and then almost immediately he began to snore, Marta always quick with excuses, telling the guests to pay him no attention because he had been up all night talking with one of their sons by the name of Rodney who was a Mormon Missionary in Tahiti where he had fallen in love with a twenty-three year old Tahitian woman with three children who he wanted to marry as soon as she said she and her children would become devout Mormons and follow this new light in their life anywhere Rodney took them. This incredible turn of events with their youngest son was wholeheartedly welcomed by Alvin and much less so by Marta, who confused Tahiti with Hawaii and Hawaiians she didn’t like one bit because of stories she had heard about Captain Cook who was allegedly cooked and eaten by Hawaiians after he was killed by them in 1779, a story told to her by a ninth grade teacher who loved the British because they still had a queen and he once had an English wife whom he called Queenie because she was bald from birth and he wanted to make her feel good about herself. Alvin imagined that Rodney would have several more children with this Tahitian woman who like all Tahitian women always wore a red flower in her hair, and the very thought that any one of his seven children might have more than he had with Marta made him quite happy and in this case enormously so since he imagined that Rodney would have another eleven children with this woman before she ran out of viable eggs at the age of thirty-eight. Alvin was in fact so elated on hearing this news about his son that he went to the local gun store that he frequented at least once a week to admire guns he wanted to buy and would have had his allowance from Marta been more than two dollars a week, now to inquire whether it would be possible to buy a handgun to send to Rodney and if there was a concealed gun permit to carry in Tahiti that he could arrange for his son at this very shop, a shop distinctive in that it sold guns to one and all without background checks, made possible because two years after the shop opened its doors three young children and their parents were shot at point blank range just down the block from the shop, a horrific event that everyone agreed never would have happened if the parents had guns somewhere in the house when the killers entered as delivery men delivering a couch for a guest room seldom used. Alvin always feared for the worst even though in the eighteen years he had a gun wherever he found himself he had not once been threatened with violence or anything else that would have made him go for his gun, or for the homemade six-inch knife that he always had in a sheath next to the holstered gun, with the one exception of the time that a neighbor’s kid snuck up behind him with a plastic machine gun and pretended to shoot him again and again in the back, an event so traumatic that Alvin fainted and an ambulance had to be called because a woman passing on the street who saw the prank could not revive him and feared that he was dead, assured that this was not the case only when she carefully examined the plastic gun near Alvin as the kid ran wildly down the street shouting and celebrating his first kill.
Making knives had become Alvin’s singular preoccupation ever since being forced into retirement at the Utah State Prison after twenty-six years of undistinguished service, a forced retirement brought about not because of the inmate injuries that nearly killed him but rather because some seven months before this rending event he had let two prisoners escape because he incorrectly read some transfer documents handed to him, and then escorted the men who were in prison for rape and second degree murder through doors to freedom, his sole excuse for this mistake that the men looked like they were no longer criminals which was true his friends said when he showed them photos of well-dressed men in suits and ties, photos that he bought from a box of old photos in an antique store three blocks from Temple Square.
Marta as was her usual practice did not take her husband to his room to allow him a restful sleep on this day that he failed to take out the garbage on time but instead did what she so frequently did. She connected two bungee cords around his upper body to keep him from falling out of the chair while he slept. And sleep he did like a child until he awoke five minutes before the early evening edition of the national news which he rarely missed and yet had almost nothing to say about when Marta or one of his children would ask what he thought about anything that was garnering headlines around the world, unless it happened to be about the most recent bribe that the NRA had given to a member of the House or the Senate to argue that without guns in everyone’s hands we would become a nation of marauding naked Bolsheviks and crazed Zionists and lapsed Southern Baptists talking in tongues.
When Marta secured Alvin to his chair she invariably went to the effort of loosening his colorful silk tie, wearing a tie around the house Alvin’s sense of how a proper and dignified Mormon should dress in the presence of family even when they were not physically present, presence or absence one of those distinctions
he found hard to make long before prison convicts smashed him so brutally in the head, for by this time he was having trouble remembering the month and year in which he was born and whether or not it was true as his mother claimed that he was as hairy as an orangutan when he was born, a story that was in fact not true because his mother really said that he was as hairy as a gorilla when born. Marta for her part thought that wearing a tie around the house all the time was another foolish behavioral tic of Alvin’s, and yet when she secured his chair and loosened the tie she did so out of fear that were he to die in the chair she would be charged with a capital crime and executed in the very prison where Alvin had witnessed the execution of Gary Gilmore and then told anyone who would listen that Gilmore should not have been executed because he never heard him once swear in all the time he was in prison, a not unreasonable thing to say when a day did not pass in his role as a prison guard that a prisoner failed to question Alvin’s manhood and whether or not he had a scrotum and a mother who was a certifiable toothless bitch.
One of Marta’s sisters, Charlene, the most playful and generous and gregarious of the four sisters, had various theories about this loosening of the tie behavior by Marta which she had witnessed on numerous occasions, sometimes wondering for hours while on her eighth or ninth cup of coffee how and why her oldest sister had acquired such compassion for a man that she otherwise so blatantly detested and nagged endlessly. Her theory was that as much as Marta hated her husband she was deathly fearful of Alvin dying via strangulation from his tie because were this to happen she would be thrown out of the Mormon Church, and she knew that little mattered more to Marta than spending two or three hours a day reading from the Book of Mormon with particular attention to the fall of Adam and Eve and the Atonement, all of this having something to do in Marta’s mind with her life-long dream of being Joseph Smith’s twenty-ninth wife, the number not in dispute in her mind despite the fact that historians right down to the present never tire of arguing exactly how many he had, for some the number approaching forty, which makes other historians shake their heads in wonderment over whether or not Joseph Smith is at the top of the all-time list of men notable for sexual prowess, a list that all non-historians know is headed first and foremost by Wilt Chamberlain with his 20,000 sexual partners, his feat of unparalleled manliness having absolutely nothing to do with wanting to refer to any of his conquests as women he was either married to or had any desire of being married to and in any event had nothing whatsoever to do with Joseph Smith who did not live long enough to get anywhere near Wilt Chamberlain’s record, one that makes his basketball accomplishments including scoring 100 points in one game seem trivial. Marta believed that Joseph Smith would be everything that Alvin was not and would be man enough to walk around with a rife rather than a pistol and not in need of homemade knives, a difference she knew came from the fact that the infallible founder of the Church of Latter Day Saints personally saw God the Father and his Son Jesus Christ, and anyone who would be so blessed would always opt for a rifle over a pistol, the difference being that manliness and the ability to procreate can be measured by the length of the barrel she was once told by a Deacon of the Church in her living room while the two of them ate the better part of an apple pie she had baked for Alvin and Alvin refused to eat because she wouldn’t tell him where she bought the apples, which she could not tell him since she stole them from a neighbor’s tree, that kind of sin that despite Alvin’s small mind would bring to mind the fall of Adam and Eve and the four wounds which he could never name.
It was little more than ten minutes after securing Alvin in his chair that the phone rang and Marta saw that there was a call from the one sister, Pearl, who almost never answered her calls and was constantly fighting with all of the sisters because she was certain that they were telling their father to stop giving her money and gifts, something he had been doing for more than thirty one years and now by one calculation totaled almost six hundred and twenty thousand dollars, perhaps not a sum of money worth drawing attention to were it not for the fact that he gave nothing to his other daughters, even for Christmas and their birthdays, and because of what he had given Pearl through the years his entire retirement savings were less than fifty-one thousand three hundred and forty dollars. What occasioned this call was that Pearl had not received a check from her father in the mail and therefore she would not be able to have another meal at Burger King with three of her friends who worked as she did not work at any kind of a job but clearly understood what a free ride is all about and that every meal they didn’t have to pay for meant they could reduce the time interval between manicures and pedicures from ten to eight days, manicures and pedicures nearly as important to these Mormon friends of Pearl as their firm desire to abstain from drinking coffee and alcohol except when carrying on extra marital affairs in cheap strip hotels with young virgin Mormon boys about ready to spend time abroad doing missionary work that they barely understood and about which they would become thoroughly confused when asked about the difference between the Old and the New Testament and whether or not Moses had as many children as church elders typically have.
Pearl who was never one for details was not aware of the fact that her always punctual father who was now in declining health had misplaced his checkbook and then when he found it discovered that he was out of stamps and would have to get Charlene, the daughter he had been living with for almost twenty years, to pick up some on her next trip to the grocery store, unwilling as he was unwilling to do so much on his own, even to ask if there might be some stamps in the house and that one of Charlene’s two children, one still in school and living at home, might know where they were among the piles of opened and unopened letters and bills and late payment notices from credit card companies that cluttered the kitchen counters. Marta was not aware of why her father had not sent the check on time to Pearl and yet she felt compelled to give her younger sister a reason for the unsent check, fully aware of the fact that whatever she said would be met with disbelief and derision, no excuse legitimate or otherwise good enough for a sister whom the other sisters had come to refer to among themselves as the Shark, the most recent and kindest of labels they used to describe this wayward sister lacking principle and scruples and a relentless critic of Mormons and Christians and Jews, only Muslims given a pass because Muslim men really knew how to guard their wives’ virginity and treat them in her view as all women should be treated. Shark was not a label the sisters either shared with their father or anyone other than their husbands, because to this very day they could not figure out the very strange relationship he had with this one sister, a relationship that Charlene attributed to the death of their mother from liver cancer many years ago and the need for a wife substitute, but a need in fact that preceded the mother’s death by eight years and two months. So what the father was up to with Pearl who was willfully and voraciously eating away at all of his retirement assets was a continual source of wonderment, and not least for the very reason among many reasons that Pearl’s only friends other than her Burger King friends with whom she treated twice a week were the nineteen cats she lived with and had been living with for five years and which would all be strangled by her one day when her father informed her that there had been a precipitous drop in the stock market and therefore the next two checks for three hundred dollars that he would normally be sending her in the next couple of weeks would not be forthcoming. This event not only resulted in the precipitous death of all of Pearl’s cats and a pungent and memorable odor that could be picked up a block away since she did not get rid of them for eight days after killing them one by one in her bathroom, cats it should be noted which she often told her sisters she loved more than any one of them. The killing of these cats caused such an outcry from the ASPCA when a neighbor told one of its members what Pearl had done that he took a photo of Pearl one day while shopping in her night gown and then put this photo on a flier that was plastered on Mormon churches and in Walmarts and in gas station convenience stores everywhere in Raleigh, North Carolina where Pearl lived. The poster had these lines beneath her photo: This woman is a despicable mass killer and may she be scratched to death by every cat that has ever lived!
“Pearl,” Martha purred, “you should try at least once to get hold of yourself. This is not the way to behave toward a father in the late fall of his life when he begins talking about relatives who never existed.”
“I demand my money!” Pearl shot back. “Now why won’t he give it to me? Is it you again who is conspiring to get my weekly allowance from dad decreased instead of weekly adjusted for inflation?”
“Don’t be like this, sis. You know we love you in spite of your shouting and mean-spirited ways.” Which was a half-truth at best, this claim about love, though in fairness to the other three sisters they invariably tried to find the most sympathetic words they could when in a conference call and not around their husbands, Alvin not one of the husbands who could be counted to be included in any discussion about anything that did not involve the details of how he made and sharpened his handmade knives and the nature of the forms he had to fill out when carrying his guns on flights with Marta, the details of which he kept in a leather journal and had asked his wife on more than one occasion if upon his death she would be kind enough to publish these notes and with his share of the estate send copies to those men and women who were both Mormons and had been members of the NRA for more than five years.
“No you don’t love me,” Pearl shouted, enough to make Marta pull the phone several inches from her ear. “You all hate me for dad’s generosity! I am the only one deserving of his money because I pray for him daily even though I don’t believe anything he believes in.”
“Well, it would be good if you could hold a job for even a couple of months,” Marta said.
“Then you would have no need for dad’s money. Has this ever occurred to you?”
“I will not put up with insufferable people like you and my other sisters, and this unreasonable demand that I work. Ever!” And with these words she hung up.
Marta was happy to find herself off the phone for it was approaching that hour of the day when Tom and Jerry came to mind, a time she relished and when she had to decide whether it would be Bourbon Brown Butter or Coffee Carmel Fudge or Cookies and Crème Cheesecake or Chunky Money or others flavors that filled one whole side of a long floor freezer in their kitchen. The decision about which flavor or combination of flavors to feast on in her daily Happy Hour as she called it had become so complex that upon retirement from a job she was happy to leave because she no longer got coffee brought to her office three times a day Marta had taken a night class on classical decision making at the local community college with the aim of being rational in her choice of what flavors would pump up her weight in the most satisfying way, a problem that finally led her to the insight that the only way to deal with this issue was to turn to Bayesian statistics, advice she had gotten from her hair dresser who had used Bayesian statistics to calculate when it would be ideal to commit suicide, which she did one evening by lying down on the Union Pacific train tracks on a night when one of its freight trains was carrying five tramps from Alabama who were notorious for stealing Milky Way candy bars and low pulp orange juice from 7-Eleven stores. Once this momentous ice cream decision was made, and it was rarely one that could be made in less than twenty or thirty minutes, Marta would go to the TV room and look for a recent movie on Netflix or an old one that she might have seen several times, such as one featuring John Wayne, a star she admired for his great head of hair, never knowing that he wore a toupee and even if told this truth by Mormon Elders would be unwilling to believe that this could possibly be true of a man who was second on her all-time hero list behind the incomparable and manly Joseph Smith, a man too busy with his many wives to have time to wear a toupee.
The fifth trip to familiar if distorted and mangled countries in my mind neared an indeterminate end of floating calm and indifference, and as I turned in the hammock and got up I was met by the sound of barking dogs. I stood, and I looked for the dogs, and Tito. I didn’t see Tito anywhere, more or less expecting that once again he would have a simple chicken soup or something else for me to eat before I returned to the village.
The fire where he fixed the Bong-gai and the soup or anything we ate was dead, no hint that it had been used since the morning preparation of the hallucinating drug that I came for daily. Now more clear-headed than I might’ve thought, I noticed that there were only three of the small mongrel dogs running about. I could not see the fourth one anywhere, all with names I did not know.
I put my T-shirt on and felt the urge to pee, and I went to the end of the bamboo platform. As I began zipping up, my eyes fell on an area just to the left or north side of the nipa hut. What I saw startled me. For I was certain that I was looking at the head of the missing dog, now atop a five to six-foot crooked pole.
I jumped off the platform and without putting on my flip-flops, which I had begun wearing on the forty to fifty-minute walk from the village, went up to the dog’s head and saw that it had not been there long, perhaps even killed this very morning. I had no idea what this meant, or whether the dog had been killed or died a natural death. What I was looking at was something I’d seen nowhere in my extensive travels in the Philippines, or the Sulu Islands where once I saw the picked head of a rich Chinaman in a large jar who had failed to pay a ransom demanded by Muslim separatists. I was, I must confess, familiar with stories of Filipinos eating dogs in hard times. I had even had a dog meal—learning about it after the fact—in eastern Luzon, and another time on the southeast coast of Samar, that very part of the Visayas that in recent years has been hit so hard by typhoons.
As for what else I might say about this unexpected spectacle before me, I can only note that most of the dog’s neck was missing. The decapitation had been rather crude, the head probably removed with a machete. And yet almost everything was as one might expect a decapitated dog’s head to look hours after death, imagining that in a day or two it would have been run over and eaten by armies of ants and other insects. There was one other thing that I did note and this was a small ring earring on the dog’s right ear. Whether or not this was added after the dog died I don’t know. I had not approached nor looked at the dogs that closely.
I returned to the bamboo platform, thinking that shortly I’d begin the slow and easy walk back to the hotel to get some food and clean up with a bucket bath before I tried to write more about the four sisters. Suddenly, I saw the two young women. They were standing beside the hammock and staring at me. This took me by surprise, because I had not seen them on the
four previous mornings after I began my out-of-skin journeys. They simply disappeared after giving me Bong-gai, and I assumed returned to the village to do whatever they do in their normal lives.
When I got to them, the slightly taller one, who I’d named D.–because her lips were always dry when they came to mine with Bong-gai, the other one I named M. for her moist and soft lips, she said, “Tito say today death talk time. We go chat and to big rock and special shelter.”
I had no idea what this was all about, other than probably having something to do with the dog’s head on the stake. But this was a welcome addition to this experience, for now I would have my first real opportunity, I imagined, to talk to these two mysterious women.
I followed them up to the hut, staying some ten to fifteen feet behind, again amazed that they were not wearing shoes or flip-flops. As we approached the dog’s head, I said to D., “When did he die?”
“Tito kill him last night.” “He was sick and dying?”
“No matter. Death is death, you know.”
“I see. But why did he put the head on the long pole?” “To let us know dogs no different than you and me.
“You’re Catholic?” I said, aware of how loose this designation can be among Filipinos, wondering how what she had just said fit with churchly concepts of the hereafter. Assuming of course this is what she meant: that all life goes to the same place.
“Tito. Is he Catholic?” “Maybe. I don’t know.”
“You believe you and I and your friends are like dogs?”
“Maybe. We all die. Same same.”
I didn’t pursue this train of thought, at this point satisfied that I had gotten one of them talking, and for the first time was starting to open another window on this place and this experience, both of which were now Bong-gai in my mind, one a real place with a geography, the other place one within my mind that was taking on peculiar and weird and spectacular forms.
One of the things I wanted to know, and one reason for staying and meeting up with Tito every morning, was not only to experience further states of mind that I had come to think of as convergences and separations, but novel ways of going back into my past and into experiences that now resided in parts of my mind that by other means I could not access. I was fascinated with the possibility that I could learn something about how good and happy times can appear in a drug-induced state, and was hoping that I would get there before thinking I had had enough of Bong-gai.
As we got closer to the nipa hut, and the unsettling dog’s head, I could see little more than the edge of a sleeping mat, and near the narrow wood frame entrance a pair of broken sandals and a crumpled shirt, one that I had not seen Tito wear in our time together. I assumed there might be a place in the corner of the hut for cooking rice and fish on those days when it was raining and too wet to cook at the kind of fire where Tito prepared Bong-gai. I also had a small hope that were I to get inside the nipa hut I might see something that gave me further insight in Tito, almost as much a mystery as the two women who blew Bong-gai into my mouth and lungs.
About ten yards or so beyond the nipa hut we met a thin but quite rocky trail that rose slightly before heading into a huge thicket of bamboo. Just outside the tangled and close-knit cluster of wood and leaf that I have so long admired, and have some in my yard at home, there was a steep climb among some large rocks that were muddy and slippery. They were easy enough for these two women to negotiate, even in their long dresses and with their bare feet, but much less so for me. I took off my flip-flops to avoid slipping or falling, and did not refuse hands from both D. and M. to help me. All this took only a few minutes, and then we were once again on a trail with me behind the two of them, one that quickly widened out and was flooded with midday light. We passed a snake that was barely visible just off the trail on the left in some low tangled shrubbery. It was thick and brown and I could not see much of it, only the head and a bit more. I assumed the two women saw it but neither said a word nor changed the direction of their
feet to avoid a possible encounter. Perhaps it was as harmless as a garden variety garter snake that I might come upon from time to time at home.
Suddenly we came to a large boulder about three yards off the trail on the left. It was big and flat enough on top for the three of us to sit on, and this is what we
did when M. took the lead and motioned for me to follow and sit next to her, with D. on the other side. Immediately on sitting both of them inched closer to me, their legs touching mine Both of them also with an arm around my back above my waist, firm and yet not what I would call clutching or loving. Both of them also placed a hand on one of my bare thighs, almost as if resting them. The hands were dry, and I noticed that they had long and narrow fingers with unpolished nails. Some were long, some were short. These were not, I inferred, women who gave a lot of attention to how they looked.
We sat there for several minutes, and they said not a word to me. I in turn said nothing, content to wonder what they might be up to, thinking back to Tito’s instruction to them and what they said about that ominous dog’s head. In a curious kind of way it was as if despite this closeness each of us was alone in his or her own thoughts. But then perhaps this is not at all how they saw me or what was going on? Right away, I did see that this was not a desirable place to be should I get dizzy or lose my balance, for directly below us was a forbidding and deep and shadowy ravine, directly below our dangling feet.
D. slightly moved her right hand on my bare leg and said, “Good?”
“Good,” I responded, thinking she meant that what she did to me felt good. Or did she want to be told that I felt comfortable here with the two of them?
The words were barely out of my mouth when I felt M.’s hand gently rubbing my other thigh.
M. said, “Bad?”
“Bad?” No, it feels good.”
D. immediately responded by saying, “Bad.” And M. quickly followed with “Good.” Then D. again said “Good.”
“I’m confused,” I said, turning to one and then the other one, believing that the drug had run its course. Or had it? I had to admit that what I was writing about the four sisters and how I was saying what I did was most unusual for me. When I returned each day to my room I seemed unable to write as I normally do. As for these recollections, they are from notes, and these narratives I would only write while in Cebu several weeks after last taking Bong-gai.
“It is the way for everyone, and it always lead down the same trail,” both of them said as one. The words were measured, little more than a whisper. They seemed practiced.
“I see,” I said, not exactly sure what they were trying to tell me. I resist dichotomous thinking, find it crippling, the sign of a primitive and unchallenged and dead mind. I had these thoughts but I said no more, and neither did either of them.
It could not have been more than a long minute after this somewhat elusive exchange that I heard M. sniffle, and then she started crying. Her hand began to squeeze my thigh. Harder and harder. It was suddenly painful.
I did not try to remove her hand, but instead looked at my thigh and saw that two of her nails, long ones, had broken my skin and there was blood. I don’t know why but I didn’t push her hand away, and curiously enough I wanted more. I wanted her to dig deeper and see more blood. It is not the first time I have asked myself if I have a masochistic streak and not only enjoy but seek pain.
I turned to M., and said, “I want to see your face.” “You cannot,” she said, still crying, harder now, and
digging the nails deeper.
“Why won’t you let me? I just want a peek.”
I am like so many men I know. I first judge all women by their faces before I move my eyes over the rest of their bodies. It’s a habit among men cut deep into their ancient genomes. I often think this must be the case, such is the frequency with which I see so many other men beginning their assessments of women as I do, always of course quickly moving on to the breasts, the ass, the thighs, the telling stomach. The minds of unknown women last on male lists. Sometimes relevant, often not.
“Why?” she said. “I now crying and not pretty. You will not like what you see.”
“I want to see your face to see if knowing what you look like will make a difference after you give me Bong- gai in the morning. I want to see how you look because your lips are always moist and inviting beyond what you share with me.”
“You cannot see me,” she said, insistent. “That is not how you do Bong-gai. Tito would not be happy. He will say me make it go wrong by showing our faces. It is better not to know, he tells us. It is more…it is more everywhere, he says.”
I thought of saying I would pay her to see her face, knowing that everything has a price. But I resisted, thinking it too crude and wrong in this moment. I could wait for another day or two, maybe demand with a show of several thousand peso notes to see what she or her friend looks like. But then it occurred to me that perhaps seeing one or both of their faces would spoil everything. No different perhaps than the way seeing a woman naked destroys all that was there in the imagination, even when barely dressed.
I looked at my thigh and. M. was still squeezing it. Harder now and there was more blood. It was running down the side of my leg and dripping onto the rock. I could see droplets falling and falling, into a dark opening or hole in the ravine over which we were sitting. I was getting aroused, and hard. I wanted her to continue and dig deeper, bring on more blood. I wanted to move with her closer to the edge and the ravine.
I momentarily got hold of myself and thought I should pull her hand off my thigh. But some primitive urge told me not to, that there was something about the pain that was drawing me closer to her. And that she was in more pain than anything I was feeling. I wanted to feel her pain as she was feeling it.
I said, “Tell me. Why are you crying?”
She released some of the pressure on my thigh, and she pulled up one of the two nails that had broken skin and brought on bleeding. And then she said, “I have a four-year old brother who was blind at birth. He died ten days ago. He needed a companion.”
The dog? I thought. We are social animals in life and death. Someone at bedside with that last breath—for most of us, not all. Is this the symbolic meaning in a dog’s head?
No, surely not! This kind of reasoning is madness on my part!
I felt slightly stunned by this revelation from M. I said, “I’m sorry.” Not knowing whether or not it would have been better to say nothing.
D., picking up on my words, I am sure, said “Is that good or bad?”
“Her brother dying?” I said. “Yes. Is that good or bad?”
I could not read the message in the words. But the words were hard, and I did not know where all this might go, or how it would affect what the two of them did to me in the morning. I thought it was good for the blind child to have died. But I was reluctant to say so, all but certain that I could not frame exactly what I meant in just the right words and would be misunderstood. I said, “Is the family large and poor?”
“There are four brothers and three sisters,” D. said,
M. still crying.
“They live in a nipa hut?” “Yes.”
“The father is a fisherman and the mother does not work?”
“Sometimes there is no fish, no food?” “Yes.”
I went silent, and neither of them asked me again if I thought the death of the four-year blind brother was good or bad. I felt like I’d been lucky in finding just the right way to say what I felt. Or did they understand what I was saying?
We stayed there on that large rock another ten minutes or so in silence, their hands not moving from my thighs. M. had stopped crying, and in a crude way that I took no exception to she tried to deal with the wound she had made. She had wet two of her fingers with her saliva and used these fingers–twice she did it-
-to wipe the blood from my leg. Or much of it at any rate. Then she used a thumb with pressure to stop the bleeding. It probably was not necessary.
It had occurred to me, even before M. began crying and telling me about here young brother, that the two of them—silly as it seems—had their arms around me and their hands on my thighs to prevent me from slipping or falling into the ravine below. Silly, really, because had I slipped they most certainly could not have caught me. And some fall it might have been. Into a vast tangle that was brushy and thorny and thick with growth, and there were very large and sharp black rocks I could see. It would be a long fall. One that most certainly would break several bones and scar the skin in several places, perhaps kill me. Or them too if any of us slipped and fell.
A little later I would wonder why we sat here, at so dangerous and precarious a spot. A reminder of…? I did get a partial answer, maybe the only one that was meant to matter. Minutes before we backed away from where we sat and got back on the trail, M. said, “You know evil?”
“Mostly in what I have read and heard about,” I said. I brought to mind a book I’d read in the last year on the millions and millions of Poles and Ukrainians and Russians, and not just Jews, who had died at the hands of the Germans and the Russians, a carnage between Berlin and Moscow far larger numerically than that large and horrifying number that is the Holocaust.
D. now said, “There could be evil right here. You know, huh?” She did not turn to look at me. The feeling of her hand on my thigh did not change. Nor did I feel any change in the arm on my back.
“I can imagine,” I said, looking down into the ravine. Again, that telling and numbing book came to mind. I could not remember the title, or exactly when I’d read it. It sits on a high shelf in my home office, and for some reason I cannot fail to see it when I turn away from my large computer screen looking for a word in a story or an essay I am writing. It is a detailed and haunting book about evil on a monumental scale, and yet I cannot when reading it easily bring to mind the famous Hannah
Arendt words: “the banality of evil” when I read it. The word banal seems so banal and unrevealing.
“Out of many one,” D. said.
And M. added, as if on cue: “From one many.” Her voice was now normal, not crackling, no hint of the crying and what had brought it on.
I am sure I have heard or read these phrases or similar sayings before, and often, but I don’t know where. I have not through the years had much interest in contemplative Eastern religions, or in this or that attempt by philosophers and notable religious figures to finger and proclaim so-called eternal truths.
M. turned to me, inches from my face, large brown eyes on perfect white, and matter of factly said, “You know we could kill you here?”
I was a bit stunned by her words, by her saying this. Speechless in fact for several long seconds. Then I said, “I suppose that is true. That would be an evil act if you killed me. But I do not believe either of you are evil. Nor is Tito. You have already had plenty of chances to kill me if this is what you wanted to do.”
“Now is not before,” she said. “Each moment forward is a new history,” She paused, then said, “It would be easy to kill you now.”
“I know,” I said. “Two hands and two arms at my backside and it would not take much of a push. You could have done it already. But you didn’t. And you won’t.”
They said no more and got up separately and slowly backed away from the edge where we should not have sat. Then we returned to the trail and continued on, before long stopping at three sizeable banana plants. D. and M., their scarves pinned on one side of their face as they always were to not allow me to see them, cut several large leaves with knives I had not seen before. They made no attempt to tell me what they had in mind.
We walked on, the trail slightly up and down, bending to the left and then the right. Then suddenly the both of them, ahead of me, made a sharp turn to the left and we followed a clean but distinct trail that soon brought us to another bamboo thicket. This one was immense, bigger than the biggest ones I have ever seen in Borneo. At first it was like being inside a huge room with a high ceiling, the ceiling a bent and stunning design never before imagined. The bare ground in this room was clean, almost immaculate. But we did not stop here and instead went straight through this bamboo room into one that was much smaller and intimate, and so dark I could barely see the single straps on my flip-flops.
Just inside the room, both of them took one of my hands and pulled me down, wanting me to sit while they took the banana leaves and spread them on the ground to make a bed, or what I would call a bed for lack of a better word. D. then asked me to take off my T-shirt and use it for a pillow, stuffing it with banana leaves. She wanted me to lie down, and have M. get beside me, and be close. Which M. did, getting as close as a wife or lover seeking a midnight loving cuddle, M. pulling up her dress enough to be able to put one leg over two of mine. She then informed me that I was to close my eyes and she was going to remove her head scarf and put her head on my shoulder. She said she did not want me to try to see her face. I promised I would not do so. She removed the head scarf and as best she could covered her face with it once she had her head on my shoulder.
D. got on the other side of me. She was close but did not put an arm over my chest as M. had, nor did she make any effort to seek a place on my other shoulder with her head. But before she did this, she went to an edge of this small and very dark room and found a large candle and lit it. There was enough of a glow to cast eerie shadows here and there, and to allow me to see by slightly raising my head a frightening collection of nine skulls of different sizes, side by side, the teeth scary and prominent and threatening. Dog’s skulls, I was certain. It was only minutes before M. fell asleep on my shoulder, this after letting go with a few tears. For the brother, I was certain. She remained in this position for a good thirty or forty minutes. Several minutes after she fell asleep, and trying to shake the image of those dogs’ skulls, I dropped into a light restless sleep.
I awoke when I heard M. awake. I looked up and saw her pinning the head scarf to one side of her face, which I again had not seen and could not now see even in the shadows cast by the still lit but rather short candle near the dog skulls.
I got to my feet before it occurred to me that D. was gone. I asked M. what happened to her but she did not answer me, and instead took me by the hand and then we went to the candle and she blew it out. Then we exited into the large bamboo room and were soon back
on the trail that would take us to the nipa hut and that place I have come to call Bong-gai.
We were not five minutes down the trail on the way back when M. stopped and dropped my hand and said, “Thank you. You have been kind. You are a nice man. You now must go on alone, so wait till you do not see me.”
I waited until she was gone, and then a few minutes more before leisurely walking back along a trail easy to follow. It would be no problem getting back to the village, a route that had now become familiar. I could get back by mid to late afternoon and maybe get in an hour or two of writing about the sisters before calling it a day.
But a strange thing happened. When I got to the nipa hut and that place where I had this very morning seen the fresh dog’s head on the bent pole, it was no longer there. Nor was the pole. I was so momentarily shaken by its absence that I got down on my hands and knees and searched the ground for where the pole had to have been stuck. I could not find a hole where it had been, nor could I identify ground that had been disturbed. I could find no evidence of blood from the dog’s head. Nothing at all in fact to suggest what I was dead certain I had seen.
This was a day on which I would not write a word, for after getting some barbecued chicken off the street in the village not far from the hotel and the Catholic Church, I
bought three large bottles of cold Red Horse and returned to my room and before drinking any beer I went to the small hotel porch where in the morning I could see Tito coming with his dogs. I sat there and drank the three large bottles of quite strong beer, and I cannot say that I thought about much at all. Perhaps I just felt numb and was looking for words that would not come.
I gulped the last of the third bottle of Red Horse, by now uncertain whether or not I could get back to my room without help or crawling along the floor. As I got to my room and made it to the bed, dizzy and certain I would throw up, I wondered what had really happened this very day. Had anything at all happened other than what I had just done to myself with Red Horse?
Four Sisters: Charlene and Tom
In a musty room with only one window that’s never open and cannot be opened because it’s covered with posters of butterflies and dogs and flying elephants, and cannot be easily reached as an exit in the event of a sudden and ferocious fire because of a pile of old shoes and four guitars and two large stacks of seventy- eight records at the foot of the window, Scooter, as his parents Charlene and Tom refer to their sixteen year-old compulsive- obsessive son, is once again sitting lotus-style and humming inside a green pup tent in the middle of the room to give himself extra cover from the comings of goings of his indulgent mother and caring father and his always snoopy and carefree sister Zandra who never tires of teasing her brother about his habit of cutting the large grassy area on the north side of the house twice on the same day four days a week, once in the early morning and once in the afternoon, the second time to coincide with the arrival of his father who on arriving home demands a detailed update on what Scooter accomplished in the past twenty-four hours with his home study program, one that neither parent approved of and yet went along with for reasons that have never been openly discussed and debated beyond agreeing that maybe it was a good idea because Scooter is so shy and reclusive, and yet perhaps it was not a good idea as Charlene once voiced to Sasha because this was a near certain way for Scooter to lose the one caring girlfriend he had who made him happy and a little outgoing and opened him up enough to willingly eat lunch with his grandfather who has been living in the house for nineteen years with him and his sister Zandra before she went off to college and got a rose tattoo for each breast and a nose ring and a tongue stud as a way to show disdain for her parents not listening to what she so insistently believed they should do or have done in light of the father having given Charlene and Tom the paltry sum of ten thousand dollars to move into their house upon the death of his wife, and then contribute little toward food and never offer to cook or help with cooking, the money part of a decision he made years before the death of his wife, believing that this would make it possible to give his daughter Pearl the kind of money she expected and demanded from him, in part because of her unwillingness to work at any job for more than two or three months, and knowing that on quitting it would be easy enough to remind her father that as the third daughter of four in the family she had been the one most neglected and therefore it was only fair that she be allowed to freeload on her father until he died, long privately knowing and only sharing with her Burger King friends, and now and again whispering to her cats when they were alive, that the very last thing she would do would be to attend his funeral.
As perhaps is not obvious in light of the various relevant and irrelevant detours that I have thus far taken, the father of the four sisters is the real inspiration for this story, since it is now very late in the winter of his life and he will soon die after a very long life, a goodly portion of it living largely in one large room in Charlene and Tom’s big and sprawling and messy house on a little traveled suburban road in Raleigh, a street notable for large populations of grey squirrels which the father right down to the present cannot get far from his mind and for this very reason sits outside at every opportunity to admire and photograph them with a boxy studio camera made in 1941. The interest in squirrels begun when he was a small boy with a famous head of unruly blond hair, and even more famous for his uncanny ability to find the largest caches of squirrel food in the neighborhood and then replace most of these treasures with hard candies which he stole
from his mother because he erroneously believed that the hard green and red candy she ate was making her sick when in fact she had been a sickly child from birth and would die for reasons an autopsy could not uncover when this son and three other children she had with her second husband had not yet become teenagers.
The father has two advanced degrees in mathematics, for once in college he came to love the calculus and linear algebra and other kinds of math even more than grey squirrels and the wife he would marry on an impulse one weekend when she made him believe that she was not only as good as he was in math but that she would be the best cook and housekeeper he could ever find, claims so contrary to fact that within months after marrying her he found himself often depressed and anxious and drinking Johnny Walker Black Label whenever his wife went shopping or early to bed, until one day he made the discovery in a dream that the only way to deal with a marriage which he now deeply regretted but would never leave would be to have four daughters, a dream that while possible for any man and woman was not possible to arrange by wishing it so, though in his case he was in fact able to get the four daughters he wanted because of his rather ingenious and wide-ranging mind, good enough in fact to discover that he could get daughters by noting how his wife responded to his sexual advances before or after dinner and on those very rare occasions when he felt any desire for her, all this daughter mania seen as highly desirable for the very good reason that it increased the chances that since it is invariably up to the woman to do the cooking and see that a house is orderly in a marriage having four rather than three or two or one would increase the likelihood that at least one of them would prove to be the good cook and housekeeper that his wife was not, never unfortunately giving any thought to the well-known fact that daughters imitate the habits of their mothers to a degree that men ignore only at great peril to their marital happiness and is that kind of discovery that is far more important to know than the results that the father once sought, the sex ratios of grey squirrel populations in his neighborhood calculated on the basis of how much he was taking from the caches of alpha squirrels.
The daughters, who the wife named Marta and Sasha and Pearl and Charlene, got their names from a New York City phone book that a roommate of the mother inadvertently left on her bed in their dorm room, on the very day that the attractive and sexy roommate who never had a problem getting boyfriends dropped out of college because she was failing three of five classes and was afraid of telling her parents what happened, and in fact deathly fearful of how her strict father would punish her, a fear so great that she went to the Hudson River on this afternoon after using the phone book to find the number of a long lost aunt who she wanted to tell what she was about to do, because what she was about to do was jump off a pier and drown because she could not swim, reasoning as beautiful and sexy young women who rarely think about more than keeping themselves pretty and sexy and in the latest fashions that this kind of untimely death would be more acceptable to her father and even her mother than having been forced to leave school because of poor grades, not knowing at the time she committed the irreversible act of self- destruction that her father was so preoccupied with how she was doing in school that he had found an ingenious way to bribe the university’s matronly and never married registrar to keep him up to date on his daughter’s grades in all of her classes.
How the daughters got their names they were never told by their mother or father, and for the reason that not a one of them every asked this question of their mother or father because it was assumed by all of them that it had been a decision jointly made by the parents and in consultation with the greatly admired church pastor for whom the mother was especially close, because she once inadvertently kissed him on the lips at a wedding, and to assure herself that she had no romantic interest in him played bridge with his wife two days a week on days when she told her
gullible husband that she was doing the bookkeeping for the church, a claim she attempted to make credible by coming home with stories about how much this or that church member did or did not give to the church and which ones were especially niggardly despite boastful claims to the contrary, stories that the husband enjoyed hearing to such an extent that it was a source of continual amusement and became a way to get closer to his wife in ways that he had not been able to do by any other means, but not as it so happened without a personal cost since it was while listening to her invented stories four nights a week that he began smoking almost as much as she did, and then as he aged could not stop the habit any more than he could resist giving into daughter Pearl’s outrageous and childish demands.
On this one Wednesday afternoon when it had been raining for two straight hours, Scooter emerged from his tent when he thought no one was in the house other than his grandfather. He went to the nearby bathroom where there was a space behind the medicine cabinet where he hid three photos of nude women with huge breasts from old issues of Hustler magazine, photos that he had now used more than two dozen times to stare at and kiss while masturbating, which in his own wise way he had concluded was a harmless way to release the tensions and anxieties that plagued him, to say nothing of a way to get around the desire to try to sleep with the girlfriend he was losing and who claimed to be a virgin but in fact has lost her virginity to her high school American history teacher on a day when he had let the class out early on the pretext that he had a pressing meeting to attend, a pressing meeting indeed but with Scooter’s girlfriend before she was his girlfriend. This most unseemly occurrence, which by state law is rape punishable by twenty years in prison, occurred in a storage room on one edge of the classroom where security guards rarely ventured during their daily rounds, unless one of them was having an illicit liaison with one of the high school students, though in their case never with a virgin since they
reasonably reasoned that no one would care if they occasionally got a blowjob from a student that other students were enjoying and for rarely more than ten dollars, a charge discounted by the girl to eight dollars if a student or security guard came to her within the next three days for another stand up session in a room only lit by a forty watt bulb.
Scooter had no more than gotten his Hustler images placed on the floor in front of the toilet when there was a knock on the door by the day nurse who had made an unexpected visit to bring the father some pills she had forgotten to give him in the morning. She needed the bathroom for the father who told her upon arriving that he had an unusual urge to pee and would not as the nurse had told him to do repeatedly do so in the diaper she insisted he wear as a precaution, the father feeling as all men feel as they approach the end of their lives or for whatever reason have to go all the time that if there is any way to maintain some sense of dignity while dying it is to be found in such small things as not wearing a diaper, and in his case in insisting on feeding himself even when he found it hard to bring a fork or spoon to his mouth, and then too in not being told when it was time to go to bed or stop talking about imaginary people in the past when it felt quite comforting to rearrange his history around people who increasingly he did not recognize.
The nurse knocked a second time when she did not get a response, and on hearing this second knock Scooter flushed the toilet and kicked the photos at his feet and inadvertently tore one of them, the tear going right through one of the breasts of a naked women that Scooter admired most of all and repeatedly kissed and especially when he was about to come, something that he was at once embarrassed about when it happened and yet rarely failed to note with a kind of academic pride just how far he had shot his ejaculate, an interest that of late had him wondering whether getting a shot that went three feet would be anything to brag about to a girlfriend or wife were he ever to share these kinds of very private moments with one, a thought that he tried unsuccessfully to banish from his mind each time he thought about it but was rarely able to do, eagerly returning as much as possible for another private session to just this one bathroom in a house that had three toilets, all with medicine cabinets that would have served his need for hiding what needed to be hid.
With his head held low and feeling great shame, Scooter exited from the bathroom with the Hustler photos folded and tucked inside his shirt because he did not have enough time to return them to their hiding place, photos that he thought no one knew about though his mother had in fact long known about them and rightly guessed what he was doing with them, but never told her husband Tom for fear that he would think his son deranged and juvenile and not the man he should be at sixteen, believing that what he should be doing was scoring with the girlfriend who even he thought was a virgin. Tom erroneously believed this would be better for Scooter’s mental health, not understanding as nearly all women and a surprisingly number of men do not understand that learning the art of masturbation while young serves one well in middle age and beyond, when the wife has gone dry and mentally sour and it is psychologically and economically too costly to have an affair with the office secretary unless one wishes to live out his final years alone in a low-end motel on the seamy side of town where bed bugs multiply at astonishing rates and create the offspring that will later invade neighboring homes, and then before long even the beds of the upper-middle class men of means and stature who have had a twenty-minute go with a hooker in one of these rooms and takes the bed bugs home and before long has his dull wife wondering where they possibly could have come from, never giving any thought to the fact that the bed bugs in an otherwise immaculately kept house could have anything at all to do with her frigidity and growing obesity.
The father who could still walk but had to be held while he searched for his penis and then miraculously found it and slowly dribbled what little liquid he had in his increasing pinched bladder that he had long referred to as a shrinking tank felt that this day like the previous three days had now been a success and he could return to his recliner chair and once again channel hop, searching against odds he was no longer capable of calculating for an uplifting story of young romance and always happy children who produced lots of grandchildren who would come to the house and sit on their grandfather’s lap and tell secrets about their parents, the very kind of secrets they would reveal to no one even when in the condition of this dreamy and increasingly mentally challenged father who on most afternoons had to settle for the history channel and another rerun about the rise of the German National People’s Party which always included a segment on how Hitler came to his distinguishing if somewhat effeminate mustache, which made him feel superior and the man he never was or could be in his own mind, this touch something all by ignored by historians in their quest to understand why he was so anti-Semitic.
The father was about to look for another channel when Charlene came through the front door after a long day of commiserating with cranky coworkers who felt that they were underpaid for their herculean efforts and if nothing else deserved considerable year-end bonuses. When she heard the phone ring and picked it up and recognized older sister Sasha’s voice, she correctly inferred that this conversation as with others with this sister who lived on the other side of the continent with her mysterious husband who was Rod but now went by another name, would be about Pearl and her latest tirade against what Pearl increasingly referred to as her conspiring sisters. They were in her mind conspiring about how they were going to get the mother’s sophomoric landscape oil painting which the father had in his most recent will decided to give to Pearl, working on the misguided assumption that this would be a way for Pearl to remember him after he died by recalling how much he told his wife he admired her paintings when he in fact at the time he had made this known to his wife and neighbors and daughters it was his way of trying to uplift her spirits, not believing a word of what he told her. His wife was then into an on-again off-again hobby phase of her life because she was going through menopause. So by all measures the father was working with a twisted causal chain of reasoning that would make no sense whatsoever to anyone and yet made perfect sense on realizing that the father was losing his mind, and much of the time thought he was an alien from Pluto and living in a house that he and his wife owned and had sold more than thirty years ago because the wife didn’t like one of the neighbors who engaged in long and frequent shouting matches over whether it was the right time to buy a new car or instead a house with more rooms. Why Sasha or any of the sisters including Pearl would want the mother’s tacky oil paintings was a complete and baffling mystery to Rod who on seeing them in one of his first visits to the Raleigh home while the mother was still alive remarked to Sasha that they were an embarrassment to the very idea of any kind of taste, and that were the paintings to find their way into their home he would put them out for garbage collection at the first opportunity, an off-hand remark so off- putting and insensitive in Sasha’s mind that she would not speak to him for a week, and when she decided to do so she told him that for the health of their marriage it was now incumbent upon him to take up oil painting and prove to her satisfaction that he could do better than her mother, a challenge that Rod found so laughable that he went to a cheap art supply store that sold kitschy landscape paintings and bought two of them and put his name on them and hung them in the living room where they stayed for exactly two days before Sasha took them down and cut them into small pieces and put them on Rod’s dinner plate, something that did not have the intended effect because on the very night she did this Rod had been out drinking with friends at a bar that specialized in Flemish reds and he was so drunk on arriving home he barely made it through the front door and into bed without falling on his face. But on passing through the kitchen on the way to the bedroom he saw the cut-up paintings and thought they were pieces of colorful cardboard, and so without looking to see what they really were he put them on Sasha’s desk with a note to the effect that maybe she could make a collage that they could hang over their fireplace.
The conversation this night between Charlene and Sasha proved as unenlightening on the subject of Pearl as such conversations almost always were, for the two sisters concluded as they had on more than one occasion that perhaps what the three sisters should do would be to contribute in equal measure to a fund to institutionalize Pearl before she did something genuinely reckless, meaning that Pearl might collect another ten or fifteen cats from the streets of Raleigh and then before long kill them as she had the others, and this time the bad press would extend to the entire family, a horrifying thought because all of the sisters embraced vague notions about Southern honor and honor above all else, which expressed itself in the craziest kinds of way as when Rod began teaching first in flip-flops and then in bare feet to classes of three and four hundred students, a small behavioral tic that the campus newspaper wrote a front page article about and for a week thereafter the local and one national newspaper kept calling the house when Sasha but not Rod was home wanting an interview and photos, and in particular wanting photos of Rod’s feet because there was an unfounded rumor that he had six toes, which would make him the first professor in the history of American universities to not only have this rare trait but to have put them on exhibit for the benefit of all his students, an irony of sorts in that the students had a genuine fondness for Rod’s lectures and not least the one on polydactalyism among the Amish and his stories about similar traits among Thai women where he showed photos of old Amish men and gorgeous young Thai women with six toes on both feet.
When Charlene finally got off the phone she went to see how her father was doing and was surprised at how alert he was, and then more or less out of the blue he asked his warm-hearted daughter who had taken him into her home as the others sisters would not if she could remember the time when she was nine years old and he had bought her a new yellow bicycle that she loved and rode every day, until that day when it was stolen and Charlene cried for a week and wanted another one which her father promptly bought, a bike that was never the same in Charlene’s mind because he inadvertently forgot to ask Charlene if the color mattered and it did indeed, so much so that Charlene only rarely rode the new blue bike and then one day gave it to a friend at school and told her father that it had been stolen, and two stolen bikes were enough, so please don’t buy me another one, she told her father.
Charlene waited until Tom got home and had gotten a report from Scooter on what he had done this day in his home study, this a day on which she would warm up spaghetti and meatballs which her father loved and they had had three times in the last seven days. She would, to make the meal complete, prepare a salad of beans and carrots and Swiss cheese and Romaine lettuce, because Charlene did not want to eat too much spaghetti which she could not resist and was of great concern as she was putting on more weight than Tom liked or she thought advisable, finding it nearly impossible to eat only the meat balls as her doctor had advised.
Tom was told by Scooter that this had been a very good day because he read 104 pages of War and Peace, and then worked on an essay for his English class about the Norman conquest of England in 1066 and the 41 castles that William the Conqueror had built by 1072 and where they were located, including a hand drawn map showing their locations, the kind of attention to arcane detail he knew the teacher was looking for and would not try to check because the English teacher cared about little more than how commas and semi-colons are used, and with this in mind Scooter knew that he was free to invent the number of castles and their locations just as he had invented so much for other thematic papers for this teacher who hated semi-colons more than atheists dislike hearing a Mother Teresa miracle. Always mindful of just how smart his father was with teaching Latin to tenth graders, Scooter knew that he also had no way of knowing that the number of castles and that their locations were nothing more than figments of his imagination, though the father was rightly suspicious this day when he asked Scooter about War and Peace and Scooter said it was a story about Russia and love and war and peace, the exact words he repeated when his doubting father asked a second time, none of this lying necessary because his father only wanted to hear some different words, words that did not come to Scooter because he had spent so much time thinking about his favored Hustler image that was ruined, and he was distraught over what he would now do since it was this very photo that he thought would allow him to break his current ejaculate record of three feet two and a half inches and with a little luck get him into the Guinness Book of Records.
It was a morning in which I could not, until after the fact, place the events I am describing in their proper sequence, my careful notes notwithstanding. Nor as I write these words am I really certain the story about the pig feast to follow came from M. or D., who were translating for Tito, all of us sitting in his nipa hut—I think.
Her hands were tied with a belt and her panties were stuffed in her mouth and then she was raped until she bled and would never again want sex, and would have it only reluctantly with her husband and never with an orgasm as she had known before she was raped.
The daughter of the mother who was raped was raped seven years and three months and fourteen days after her mother was raped. She was raped by the very same man who raped her mother, who this time did not tie her hands or stick her panties in her mouth but instead put a hand over her mouth and told her to be quiet while he raped her or he would kill her, a threat credible enough to keep the daughter quiet and as obliging as any woman can be obliging while being raped, meaning that in this case she did bleed as her mother bled. But because of the rape she forever feared men and would see them only for a short period of time before breaking off any budding relationship.
Seven months and two days after the daughter was raped, three men came to the house of the rapist at around midnight. They were wearing black hoods and only one of them spoke, and he did not have to speak much, because while one of the men pointed a gun at the head of the rapist the other two men taped the wife’s mouth and tied her hands and feet and put a black hood over her head. A day later a call would be made to the police informing them of the woman who was tied up. She was unharmed.
The husband and rapist, whose hands they tied and put a black hood over his face when he was taken from his house, was now sitting on a mat in one corner of a nipa hut several hundred yards from the edge of a small village. His hands were still bound, and his head was still covered, and he had been given only water to drink since he was taken from his home a village several hours away from where he now found himself. Now and again he would ask questions about where he was and who the men were who had taken him from his home. He was given no answers, and no one spoke to him. Nothing was said or suggested about his fate.
The following day the rapist was taken to a rectangular yard several hundred meters beyond the nipa hut where he was being held. He was stripped naked, the hood still on his head, and taken into the rectangular pen. He was thrown onto his back, and while one man stood on both of his arms his hands were tied to stakes, his arms fully extended from his body. His ankles were then similarly secured to two stakes. He was now naked and lying on dirt in a pen home to three large and four quite young pigs.
The black hood was removed from his heard for the first time, and as it came off the husband and father of the wife and daughter who were raped by this man stared down at him.
He said, “Do you know who I am?” He nodded.
“You know why you are here?” “Yes.”
“What shall we call what is about to happen?” “I don’t know.”
“What do you think will happen?” “I don’t know.”
“I think you do know.” “You wouldn’t?” “Why not?”
“I don’t know why.” “It is not fair and just?” “I don’t know.”
“Was it okay for you raped my wife and daughter?”
“Maybe not, you say.” “Maybe.”
“Tell me about maybe. Maybe it was okay what you did?”
“I don’t know.” “You don’t know?” “I don’t know.”
“Should I not know what I am about to do?” “I don’t know. Maybe.”
“Then you want me to proceed right away?” “You won’t, will you?”
“Tell me why I should not do what you see coming?” “You are not like me.”
“You are a predator and I and my family are merely prey. Predators do what they want, prey at their mercy. Is this what you are saying?”
“I don’t know about that? Maybe.”
“Did you think maybe my wife or daughter would not want to be raped by you or anyone?”
“Maybe. I don’t remember.” “Should it now matter?”
“If you are not like me it should matter.”
“So rights for you are not the same as justice for my wife and my daughter and me?”
“Justice is merciful.” “Because you say so?” “Because I have heard this.”
“Are rapists like you merciful?”
“Maybe. I could have killed them.”
“So you did not kill them and therefore I should not kill you. Is this what you are saying?”
“I think we have a problem here. I don’t think my pigs know how to rape you the same way you raped my wife and daughter.”
He said nothing. His head fell to one side.
In another pen, less than ten yards away, there were two very big and fat pigs, and four not so big quite young pigs. They had been fed nothing for the past two days. They were squeaking and restless, moving about and lying down. If they think they don’t think like humans. But now having not eaten for two days they were thinking just like humans might think if they had not eaten for two days. They were hungry. They wanted something to eat. Pigs do not draw a distinction between eating human flesh and garbage. Food is food. The husband and the father leaves. He goes to a fire that he lit an hour ago that is near another nipa hut. He puts a long stake through a whole chicken, and he barbecues it by turning the stick over the fire. He thinks of his wife with whom he has rarely had sex since she was raped. She sits in chairs for long hours and goes silent. She wakes in the middle of the night screaming and is unable to say what she is screaming about. She sees men that she once liked and a cold chill runs down her spine. He thinks of his daughter ageing faster than she should. She is becoming less attractive to men and she doesn’t care. She has begun talking about killing herself. He does not know if she is serious. But sometimes he thinks she is very serious. How is he to know, until it is too late?
He returns to the rapist who is sweating all over in the hot sun. His lips are cracked. His eyes are closed, and when he hears the husband and the father approaching, he says, “Why are you torturing me? Why are you not doing what I know you are going to do?”
“How do you know what I am going to do?” “I can hear them squealing behind me.” “Maybe they are hungry.”
“You should feed them?” “Maybe I will.” “When?”
“I should give you an answer?” “Are you not merciful?”
“You want me to tell about my wife and how she is now?”
“I don’t know.”
“Why don’t you want to know?” “I just don’t.”
“You don’t think about what you did?” “No. Only a little. Not much.”
“You see what?”
“I see what you just told me.” “So what do you think?”
He had brought a chicken leg with him, and now he stands directly over the man’s face and slowly eats it. Juices drip from the chicken leg onto the rapist’s face. He opens his mouth and tries to reach the juice on his face with his tongue but he cannot. A small piece of the chicken leg falls onto his face and then rolls onto the dirt on which the rapist lies.
“This is not fair,” the rapist says. “Why?”
“You are being cruel. You are torturing me.” “How long have I been torturing you now?”
“Maybe two days. Since you took me from my home.”
“Two days. Forty-eight hours. How long have you been torturing my wife and daughter?”
“I don’t know.”
“Longer than two days?” “Maybe.”
“You are a man of many maybes. Before you raped my wife and daughter, did you think: maybe I will, maybe I won’t…catch you and do what I am doing now?”
“I don’t know.”
He finishes the chicken leg and drops the bone beside the man’s face. Then he says, “What do you think they will eat first?”
“I don’t know.”
“I cannot. I won’t.”
“Shall we let them have you a little at a time? Or all at once?”
“Can I pay you to let me go? I am rich.”
“I know you are rich. That’s why you thought you could do what you did and it would not matter. That is how it is in the Philippines. That is how it is everywhere. Rape is a metaphor, a word of many meanings. It mutates and multiplies when you have money and power.”
“How much do you want?”
“Will the amount you give me erase what you have done?”
He says nothing.
He still says nothing. There is no expression on his face.
The husband and the father leaves the pen and goes to a Styrofoam cooler in a shady corner of his nipa hut. He takes out a beer and walks to a nearby meadow and at the edge of the meadow he sits and thinks about the rapist, and what he will do next. When he finishes the bottle he turns it upside down and slows grinds the neck into the soft earth. It goes down and down, and then it will go no further.
He returns to the nipa hut and gets another cold beer and goes back to the meadow and drinks this beer much as he had the first one. When he finishes the beer he grinds the neck of the bottle into the ground, and this time he notices that it goes somewhat deeper. And the next one that he will bring to this very meadow will go still deeper. But then one empty beer bottle will not go deeper than the previous one. It does not go as deep as the first one. That tells him what he thinks he wants to know.
But what does he want to know?
He returns to the rapist, and he has with him some of the barbecued chicken that he had eaten. He puts pieces of the chicken in the man’s mouth, and as he does so the man begins to cry. He doesn’t ask him why. He does not want to know why he is crying.
As the sun begins to go down, the rapist is taken from where he was lying and again tied up and the black hood
placed over his head. He is left tied up throughout the night on the ground outside the nipa hut. There is nothing in his mouth to prevent him from shouting, or asking for help or mercy. But he says nothing. He does not cry or moan. He is left to his thoughts. He is left to wonder.
He is left to wonder for two days, and then three days. And then he no longer wonders.
It was said that they began around the belly and the thighs. And after the belly and the thighs they moved onto the calves and arms and meat around the shoulder and neck. At first there were screams and cries for mercy. Shrill shouts of pain. And then there was silence. And then—the accounts vary as to how long—there were only bones.
It occurs to me now, sober I think and in a somewhat reflective state of mind, that there are a variety of ways to understand this brief narrative of revenge.
The story is a whole cloth fiction and what one gets here in no more than a very small window into my sometimes twisted and revengeful mind, a state of mind in which I might well have been entirely sober at the time these words were written. Or tripping on Bong- gai.
Does it matter?
Maybe the basic facts of the story I did get from M. or D., who got it from Tito, and then onto this basic story that I got while under the Influence I added some dialogue. Where did the dialogue come from? I don’t know. I did not think of any of this dialogue while having something to eat this morning. Or yesterday or the day before. I did not think there would be any dialogue last night when I thought about what I needed to write, which was not very much.
There may have been a reason for writing what I have written here, but maybe the reason is irrelevant, just as the dialogue is irrelevant. Or is it? Do we often want a prolongation of a story that has caught our imagination and we are not sure how it will end? Or do we most of the time prefer as some people do to read the last couple of pages or chapter of a story after they have read the first couple of pages or chapter of a story? All else like so much in life is superfluous. We can talk of beginnings and equally of endings. All but one.
It occurred to me a couple of days ago that I could not remember–or this is what came to mind and may or may not be true or relevant–if I got the complete story while with M. and D. and Tito, or whether some of it had come to me before or after while in the hammock and on Bong-gai. It also was and is unclear to me if some of this story of revenge was written by me in longhand in a small notebook, or if it was written on my laptop and nothing went into a notebook. I cannot be sure of this now because I cannot find the notebook that it might have been written in, and I do not remember how many small notebooks I took with me when I left home several weeks ago, and therefore it is nearly impossible to really know if there was a notebook in which the essentials of this story were written.
So, I am not sure where all this leaves me, other than in my mind it had a great deal to do with Bong-gai, and maybe that is all that is important, and yet irrelevant, utterly irrelevant to the little story, and perhaps to anyone who would take the time to read it. Just as it is irrelevant whether or not it really occurred, the rapes and this pigs’ feast. For I have not said exactly where this story occurred, and it will not be easy for anyone to find out who might want to find out (though why anyone would care I do not know). I suppose it would be possible to get an answer to this question by putting me in a position where I might be eaten by two large pigs and four small ones, but why would anyone go through the trouble of doing this? There is no rape involved,
there is no crime that has been committed, there is only-
-in my mind–a story I heard or think I heard or imagine I heard that allowed me to see where my mind would go and how I would resolve this small story, an ending that I confess in utter and complete honesty I did not imagine until roughly ten minutes before I finished writing the very last word of this sentence.
Four Sisters: Rod and Sasha
Two fat and happy crows that had eaten a piece of ham snatched from the lip of a garbage can sat atop a tree broken in three parts by a recent storm and the solid ice that hung everywhere. They were peering down at a graduate student by the name of Rod who was casually walking down the snow-clotted street, and at one point kicked into a snow bank a barely visible baseball that a boy from a neighboring street had lost ten days ago. Rod or Rodney as he was sometimes called by professors to get his attention when his attentions were on thoughts that had nothing to do with another seminar gone awry was on his way to a two-story brown house built with borrowed money in 1931 during the Great Depression, a house where on this very night he would meet a young woman seven years his junior by the name of Sasha who had just turned twenty-one and had been invited to a party of graduate students from different disciplines, all of whom were full of themselves about what they thought they were learning in classes where professors weren’t sure what they were supposed to be teaching, a satisfaction so large in the small minds of these self-important future always left of left university professors that they bought twelve bottles of six dollar
red wine for the party and invited everyone to drink and be merry, exactly what this fourth-year undergraduate chemistry major Sasha, who seldom drank, was doing and was now beginning to feel giddy and reckless, ever since her eyes fell on Rod, who was casually leaning against a wall near a framed early evening aerial photo of the Finger Lakes in high tourist season. Sasha was positively mesmerized by the way Rod held his drink and canted his head. The more she drank the more she found herself staring at Rod, and with plenty of obviousness lasciviousness, rather unusual for someone majoring in organic chemistry who wanted to work on molecular puzzles that no one has had much luck with for over 100 years according to one of her dotting professors who once claimed that there has been no major discovery worth talking about since the discovery of radioactivity in 1896.
Sasha boldly approached Rod and asked if he was alone, and within minutes became uncharacteristically aggressive and flirtatious as she asked him where he was from and what he did and why he didn’t look cold and frozen like others who came to this mixed student party on this very windy and snowy night, an opening that led not so innocently to a question about whether he had a girlfriend and why not when he said no. Presently she had him telling her without prompting where he had been for the past two and half years and for a period of time how he had gone native living among boorish and dirty and smelly natives on a remote
branch of the Rio Negro in the Amazon, a sketchy story that she warmed to and especially to every hint of an adventuresome glint in his eyes, not yet knowing that within the hour they would be upstairs and intimate and in a bed that had once belonged to the sole son of the couple of this house which the owners had inherited from the wife’s parents upon their untimely death by drowning in an Athens boating accident, and now was used as much as it was used for anything for boarding undergraduate and graduate students in the home’s six bedrooms, only one of which they used and only infrequently since the wife often stayed with a sister in Philadelphia and didn’t miss her husband, because he had come out gay fourteen years ago and slept with his lovers in their apartments and homes when his wife was away. This revelation about her husband’s sexual preferences did not matter in the least to the wife since like so many women her age she had no interest in sex or intimacy long before she learned about her husband, and once having learned about his sexual preferences was not the least concerned about what he did since he was uncommonly discrete about the size of their meager savings to close relatives and their son and where they bought their salami. The wife also knew that her husband was equally discreet about the faculty with whom he had sex in well-known rundown hotels in this famous college town, one famous for gay men having affairs with married faculty men, professors who told one and all that they were straight because admitting that they were gay or bisexual would mean that they could not show their liberal credentials at the next faculty hiring meeting since there were pushes on everywhere in the country for more gay and lesbian faculty.
On this particular Friday night Sasha and Rod would find themselves in a bed with a thin comforter in the house’s smallest room, which was adjacent to the attic where little was stored other than two pieces of antique furniture and a grown son’s childhood games and school awards, and in one dark corner an album of photos of all the faculty the gay husband had slept with during the previous two decades, nothing that Rod or Sasha would ever know or care about even if they had known on this night about the couple’s barren sexual life and the gay husband when they began to crawl all over each until exhausted and then fell asleep only to wake an hour or so later for another round of sex, the crows by this time having moved onto a window sill that allowed them to stare as they often stared at copulating couples, and in their crow-speak world asked as only birds as intelligent as crows can ask if he satisfied her and she satisfied him and how long it had been for both of them, not having any way of knowing that it was almost six months since Sasha had been with an engineering student whose last name she could not remember even though he took her virginity, and that it was less than a week since Rod had found himself in a queen-sized bed with a lacy canopy in a room larger
than the living room where the party was being held and with an emerald-smuggling Avianca stewardess six years his senior who had a Colombian boyfriend who was a steward and was about to be apprehended by federal agents in New York and sentenced to twenty years in prison for trying to smuggle three kilos of cocaine into the U.S. in a false bottom suitcase, an event that his off and on stewardess girlfriend eleven years his senior simply thought of as the cost of doing business, and that it would be no problem with her emerald smuggling wealth and considerable good looks and insatiable appetite for sex to find another man who would meet her needs, most likely to happen when as with Rod she hit on a passenger flying into Colombia on business or for research or for any other reason, the reason of little interest to her other than the man’s willingness to meet her voracious sexual needs and snort coke before and after sex and at any other time that caught her fancy in fancy restaurants when she was not flying.
Sasha woke on hearing Rod snoring after their second go around and wanted more of what she had so enjoyed, and now to her very considerable surprise found herself thinking of love and marriage and children and reacted by reaching for what had already given her pleasure of a kind never before experienced. She saw to her surprise what would not have been a surprise were she not so young and naïve and her thoughts never far from the intricacies of a complex molecule, for she saw that Rod was again ready and so without saying a word rolled him onto his back and got on top and started doing what women so enjoy doing but what Sasha would not know for many years is called going cowgirl, not until she was nearly thirty one years old and quite by chance happened upon an article claiming that Hugh Hefner had never allowed a one of his playmates to ride him like this because cowgirls in his mind are without exception big and fat and have small clitorises and are therefore incapable of the kind of orgasms that only Centerfold Playmates can enjoy.
As Sasha brought Rod to yet another orgasm while he was half asleep and not really sure if he was dreaming or this was the real thing, Sasha wondered what her mother would have thought about her daughter having sex with someone she knew almost nothing about, and if her mother had ever done this kind of thing before she married her father and how she came to it, and why the one time Sasha had tried to talk to her about how she should behave with a man her mother turned away and lit her eighteenth cigarette of the day, and then answered by telling Sasha and not for the first time what she knew about good and bad bacteria and how the wrong kind can kill you as effectively as being caught naked on a seashore in a raging storm. This was an answer that puzzled Sasha no end for several days, until she reluctantly concluded that this was probably the same kind of answer she gave to Marta who might well have been a naïve virgin when she met Alvin at a time when it had become common knowledge among all the sisters that her father and mother never gave each other more than one fleeting kiss when one of them came into the kitchen after getting out of bed or showering, in line with the accepted fact among the sisters that kisses from mother or father to any of the sisters was as uncommon as turtles being able to walk across the Sonoran Desert and not get run over unless they hitched a ride with a sleep derived cross-country trucker who needed company.
She finished and he finished, and she fell beside him and he put a hand into the thick black hair on her head and rubbed gently and tried to imagine how long it would take her to wash and dry her hair in the morning, and if she would still have waist-length hair after they had two kids and she was working and never again had time to carry on like this all through the night and with such obvious relish with someone whom she knew no more about than that he was a graduate student who had recently returned from somewhere in Colombia, a young man who looked so thin that perhaps he had had problems with the very kind of bacteria that her mother loved to talk about, a preoccupation Sasha would come to realize had something to do with a course in college her mother had taken in which the professor had told the class that her body like all human bodies was little more than water and bacteria and parasites and that if she or anyone else had a soul then the person should know that the soul was also largely composed of
bacteria and parasites and water, a thought so unsettling that her mother could not shake for weeks this very thought, and it got her to read more about deadly bacteria and parasites than she thought she would ever want to know, leading to that kind of discovery of knowing more than one wants to know that all people make and then more often than not cannot remember the precipitating event that brought on a preoccupation that can be healthy or debilitating or simply no different than a mild fall or winter cold.
Sasha decided this very night to take Rod home to Raleigh if he would fall for her the way she had fallen for him after all the alcohol and three orgasms had so twisted her mind. She could not help but wonder if her mother on seeing this man she barely knew would question at length where her daughter had found him and why she had not had more sense than to have gotten together with someone who had an unruly beard and rarely combed his hair and wore tennis shoes that had holes in them, and by the second time he visited the family in their suburban home on a street where no one parked their cars on the street was sporting an earring in his left ear, which Sasha’s mother on seeing it considered sacrilegious since the earring was a gold cross. Rod casually said when asked about it that he was an atheist and thought that all religious people live deluded lives and cause trouble for others with their moral pronouncements, and then to assuage the obvious anxiety that the mother showed on hearing this told her
that she should know that the cross that hung from his left ear represented nothing more than an impulse that he got one night while watching King Richard and the Crusaders with Laurence Harvey, a claim that utterly confused Sasha’s mother since if this was true then she would have to believe that Rod was really a Christian or a closet Christian and he should realize that this is what God was telling him when he impulsively got an earring and decided to wear a cross rather than a simple diamond or plug or something else. Little did Sasha’s mother know or would she ever know that the only serious question Rod entertained about the earring was which ear should sport it since he didn’t like the idea of gay men hitting on him, and from all he had read and learned it was a crap shoot and all about whether you were in England or Ireland or America, because finding yourself in the wrong part of the world or around an Englishman who sounded like an American but lived in Ireland where gay Irish men were also confused about which ear to use for an earring led to a large number of hard to calculate possibilities on the likelihood of being hit on when the only kind of hit Rod ever wanted was from a woman who was not more than twenty-six years old and liked to walk around naked except when among friends, a prejudice acquired while spending three days in the Bahamas on a flight home midway through his dissertation research, a trip made necessary because of an infection he got from leeches on his legs while crossing a river on his way to a hostile village where villagers still engaged in cannibalism but of a peculiar kind because they rarely ate more than hearts and brains.
On the night that Sasha was to meet Rod and before he arrived to be greeted at the door of this house built during the Great Depression by another undergraduate student with a diamond in one front tooth, Sasha found herself seated on a long couch next to Rod’s dissertation advisor who was into his third glass of wine and quietly celebrating because his gossipy and frigid wife was out of town and this meant play time, and toward this end his opening gambit was to lecture the three young women at his feet, including Sasha, on Mesopotamian religious practices followed by the Sumerian and East Semitic Akkadians, a mini-lecture that was not supposed to be a lecture at all but instead was meant to mesmerize these young students who mistakenly believed that this kind of esoteric knowledge would make them better wives and more mindful mothers and responsible P.T.A. members, though what an understanding of polytheism has to do with being a better wife and mother and P.T.A. member is in fact that kind of unanswerable question that comes out of universities whose chief value no matter the nature of the degree is that it makes the host of a dinner party sound like she is more educated than she is, all by way of dropping words like East Semitic Akkadians in the middle of a sentence on how she cooked the beans, a coupling of words that only scholars studying this part of the world at this time in history know or care about, notwithstanding their snide and arrogant claims to naïve undergraduates that such knowledge is crucial to getting insight into why nine rather than ten or a dozen nations have nuclear weapons.
In the morning Sasha asked Rob where he was living and he said with four other graduate students in a house three blocks away, roommates he in fact rarely saw. He only knew the names of two of them, and guessed the names of two others based on the messes they left in the kitchen and the toilet, their signatures evident because each of them had a coffee cup with his initials on it that invariably was found in the mess they had made, that kind of an observation that one can acquire easily enough after spending more than two years collecting all manner of ethnographic data, little of which adds up to much at all unless it’s about kinship and where the garden plots are located and who will inherit them when the husband or wife is killed in a fit of jealous rage, and most crucially whether or not the student’s advisor can with good conscience steal what his graduate student has found and call it his own, a practice more common in American universities than the frequency with which mothers are regularly overcharged for baby diapers in all but six grocery stores in Texas.
It was only a matter of three days before Rod and Sasha were living together and would continue living together through in-house fire storms and front windows broken with flying whiskey bottles and times
when they saw each other so infrequently that they forgot one another’s birthdays and what the other person looked like since these absences were long enough for record-setting weight loss or weight gain and the onset of illnesses that only arose because of such absences, illnesses now that are at the forefront of medical research at John Hopkins University and the University of Chicago, such is the number of couples who remain couples but in ways that others cannot image or want to imagine and for reasons that have surprisingly little to do with sex or breakfast conversations or the beer drinking habits of the husband on Saturday afternoons.
It was less than three weeks into this unlikely coupling of Sasha and Rod when Rod first began to hear the stories about Marta and Pearl and Charlene, enjoying them most of all after a Sunday afternoon dinner of shrimp and steak followed by a joint or two and while listening to “Hotel California” and some Johnnie Cash songs, and in between these songs wondering whether or not his mother who lived on the other side of the country and was more often than not absent-minded because of all the Canasta she played and friends she felt compelled to talk to for two and three hours at a stretch would finally discover just how much money he was stealing from her bank account on which she had unthinkingly put his name. He had long been ready to tell her that he had taken such money because of a fall down six flights of stairs in which he had broken his left arm and right hip, that kind of bogus claim she would not only believe but would then promptly send him more money, believing that more money would result in a speedier recovery and additional filial love. like mothers everywhere never got enough of unless they are still in the reproductive game and have occasional affairs with insurance agents who are as poetically inventive as Wallace Stevens.
Marta, Rod would discover in one of these quiet and generally peaceful chats with the abiding love of his life and before long the mother of two rambunctious twin sons who would prove to be as unlike as any two sons might be, had been a bully since she was three and liked nothing better than to take Sasha’s food and especially deserts away from her when their mother left the room to enjoy a cigarette in private, and then following this lonely and highly addictive habit would threaten to cut up Sasha’s dresses and destroy her favorite dolls if Sasha had the audacity to curl her nose or purse her lips in protest of the nauseating smell in the house because her mother could not stay away from unfiltered cigarettes.
After Sasha had orgasms with Rod like she could not have imagined, she would cry a little and hide in her room and regret that she had an older sister, a regret however that never took into account Rod’s suggestion that what she should have done to Marta to straighten her out was to catch some house mice which were everywhere in the house because her mother had no idea what good housekeeping was all about and then after they had been dead for two or three days and had spent several hours in the sun to bring out the smell of death put them under Marta’s pillow and with a message attached to the tail that read: Enjoy your dessert, sis!
As much as Sasha would candidly say she disliked her older sister and perfectly understood how she had given her something of an inferiority complex, she simply did not have the heart or meanness in her to do what Rod said she should have done, though once in a candid moment after she’d exceeded her reasonable limit of two glasses of wine she cried that when Marta was nine she took two of her favorite fire engines that she had had for several years and put them under the rear wheels of her father’s car, certain that he would run over them. He did run over them and crush them and this was cause for near life-long speculation as to how the fire engines got behind the wheels of her father’s car because no one wanted to believe that Marta was this mean. In the beginning and right down to the present Sasha has firmly held to the story that it was the third sister Pearl who put the fire engines behind the wheels of her father’s car, which while patently false was one of the precipitating factors that made the father feel so sympathetic toward Pearl and in ways that made the other sisters wonder whether or not their relationship was incestuous, a thought far too hideous to suggest out loud with this particular word but said in such a way
that everyone understood what was being said unless they were in denial as most people are except when painfully constipated, and then as everyone knows become unusually inventive as they sit and grunt and then finally find relief.
On a fishing trip for Muskie one fall in northern Wisconsin Rod was in a boat with Sasha who was shivering like she was about to fall into a state of hypothermia and needed to be taken back to the lodge as soon as possible, which was not possible because the engine wouldn’t start and there were no other boats about. Finally the engine did start and while Sasha was now uncontrollably shivering on the return trip, Rod slowed the boat because he had hooked a large Muskie of the sort he rarely caught, and while playing the large Muskie he turned to Sasha and said that he had a good solution for Pearl’s voracious appetite for her father’s money, and that would be to get her in the very condition that Sasha was now in, and when Pearl was in a state of hypothermia he would tell her to take off all her clothes and jump into the freezing water and stay there for five minutes, because by getting still colder than she already was it would slow the rate at which her temperature was dropping and this would give them the needed additional time to return to the lodge and slowly warm her body in front of a fire. This was an idea that Sasha did not find funny, and on hearing Rod accused him of having committed a murder in his mind, which she had once learned from a pastor of her Episcopalian church was the same as a real murder, the pastor having gotten the idea after Jimmy Carter announced to the world at a United Nation’s World Health press conference that hard as he tried he occasionally had lust in his heart when he saw a woman with enormous breasts and an equally enormous ass, and for these lascivious thoughts was roundly condemned for committing adultery and not only by Born Again Christians who had been born again in the previous year, a sin that years later he would confess as pastor of his local Georgia congregation to have committed repeatedly and had reluctantly come to the conclusion that it was an incurable addiction that came from God to remind men and men more so than women of the Fall of Man.
Sasha took a quite different approach to thinking about Pearl and this was the idea that it was best for everyone to wait until their father died, at which point there would be no more money for her to siphon off from the father and she would then have no choice but to find herself on the street begging for food and sleeping behind large garbage bins, until one day someone would find her dead and full of scabs and without identification and she could then be buried in a pauper’s grave at city expense, a fitting end to a misspent life where the only good thing one might say about Pearl is that ten of the cats that she killed she had rescued from the streets in Raleigh in the middle of the night when she could not sleep because her check had not yet arrived from her father and she was two months behind on her electrical bill and rather distraught over the fact that her Burger King friends had not come around, always calling first to find out if the father’s check had arrived, reasoning that they could always go to other friends who would similarly treat them to a Burger King and a large order of French fries, or if not find a fresh young Mormon boy who was horny and didn’t know why or what to do about it and so take his virginity, an act of kindness and understanding that these friends of Pearl could claim to be a genuine service to the Church and that would be recognized as such by church elders on the rationale that the principal aim of the Mormon Church is to populate the world with Mormons, and it is incumbent on all Mormons to begin to have children as soon as it is possible to do so and to have as many as one can, never really caring or giving much thought to the health of the mother and whether or not she would come to resemble a blimp and wind up in a wheelchair and die at a relatively young age because she had more children than her body could deal with, not a thought of course that ever occurred to Joseph Smith who is alleged to have had a good deal of procreative seed but not so much that he could keep twenty-nine wives both happy and pregnant and fulfill the true mission of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Sasha got a call from Charlene and said that their father had been to the doctor and there were some tests that suggested that his pancreas was not as healthy as it should be, and to make matters worse their father had taken on a jaundiced look that worried the doctor for other reasons, though what those reasons were the doctor was unable or unwilling to say at the moment, news than when Sasha told Rod about this turn for the worse with her father put Rod in a contemplative mood and brought forth the memory of the night he found himself with a hooker from Santa Marta that he had been with for three successive days because she was so good in bed and in the way she bathed him, so good in fact that on the very day that he got the thought that he would take her south to Pasto with him where he would have to spend a couple of months in the field gathering data unrelated to his dissertation or any useful end he could then imagine, she got word that her four year old brother who had been blind since birth had just died. The news was so unsettling to this young Santa Marta hooker with Indian blood in her that she went to a corner of the room where they were staying and curled up and stayed there speechless and crying for several hours, and nothing Rod could do for her would bring her around or out of the deep depression she had fallen into. Before long Rod found himself thoroughly depressed because she was depressed, even though he knew nothing about the brother and had never even seen a picture of him and had by this time seen two dead Colombians lying beside a road who had been hacked to death by guerillas. The following day Rod was to leave for Pasto, but he did not do so because he felt so sympathetic for this hooker who had treated him so well, and as a result stayed with her for another day until she recovered enough to be able to return home to her family and be there for the funeral, all of this a footnote to a small piece of Rod’s history, for the very day he had planned to take an early morning bus down the mountain on the long road to Pasto, a trip for which there was only one bus, the bus he would have been on careened off a mountain and everyone was killed, which Rod found out about on the following day when he took a bus from the very same bus station that made the same trip, one on which he found himself with a small peasant woman with one missing foot who sat on his lap for much of the trip because there was so little room in the bus, but room enough for him to contemplate and come to the statistically profound conclusion that the only bus that anyone who has any sense would ride in the highlands of Colombia is one as packed as the one he was on, because should the bus go off the mountain road and into a valley below finding oneself packed in with as many people as possible significantly increases the chances of living to tell what happened, and in a life long enough meet other hookers like the one Rod met from Santa Marta, which among other things would provide the opportunity to once again give more thought to that one thought that no one wants to give much thought to, extinction of the self.
She asks me what’s in Bong-gai.
How am I to answer? I don’t know. I only know about the big leaves from a plant whose name I don’t know and have not tried to find out, thinking that it is best not to know.
So I don’t give her an answer.
She tells me that she read what I wrote about the dog’s head and the pigs’ feast, and she says, I don’t have one fucking clue what you are up to or are doing. She uses the word fuck maybe once or twice a year. She is that kind of person.
How can I answer her?
Why doesn’t she know? She has known me for more than half of my life.
It occurs to me later when thinking about her question that Bong-gai is not just a drug, and not just a place, but a now recognizable place in my mind. It is this place I find myself of late.
A long time ago, she said, You are third standard deviation. I wasn’t sure who she was measuring me against. I am a pretty rational person. I do not drive on the wrong side of the road. I have not yet burned down a house or killed anyone.
I offered to take her to Masbate and meet Tito and I would introduce her to Bong-gai. She said thanks but no thanks. You’re crazy, she said.
About a week later, maybe it was five days later, I am not entirely sure, I went into my study and on the corner of my desk was a note written in red. It read: Read what’s inside the folder.
I opened it and the word divorce caught my eye. I read no further. That afternoon I booked a flight to Manila. I imagined that I could get to Masbate in two days or so after my arrival, and then I would look for Tito and do what all rational men would do.
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