Fields Avenue beckoned to everyone at night. In the morning, it was merely a tiny section of the city that people barely noticed as they travelled toward the central districts of Angeles. The area was warm and dusty, like the rest of the province. But as the shroud of nighttime came, activity begins to pick up in all parts of Fields Avenue, especially in the mythical Walking Street—the Pattaya strip of Pampanga. Ordinary businesses closed at six or seven, but dozens of restaurants are just getting started for the night, and they are expecting a most wondrous flow of wide-eyed and willing patrons.
Kathy was getting ready for the night. Her mother, Aling Saling, was cooking tinumis for dinner. Wizened hands methodically mixed the tiny, beaten kaserola of blood stew, and the fragrant garlic, mixed with a bit of vinegar, fish sauce, and small slices of babi, spread throughout the small home, which was propped up against another small home, which in turn was supported partially by the old wall of a middle class subdivision. Behind the second structure was a train of interconnected homes that continued, unabated, toward the east, where the roofs began to shrink and dip into the horizon, until the lines begin to reflect how the dusk powders darkness upon the endless green fields. The gray earth, once covered with so much lahar from the Pinatubo eruption in the mid-nineties, has now recovered, in a fashion. Everyone has learned to live with the memories, the sights, and the taste of the past.
Kathy, you eat before going, Aling Saling pleaded, as she admired how Kathy could look so different every night, when she went off as a worker of Walking Street. Kathy was busy tightening the lines of her eyebrows, and she felt all warm inside remembering how that Korean guy, John, really took his time in buying her an eyebrow pencil, some pressed powder, and a bottle of perfume from one of the more expensive stores in Walking Street. She had been eyeing several cosmetics brands for months, but their price tags deterred her, like how the burning of mosquito coils drove away the nightly terrors of huge mosquitoes that came, as if on schedule, every 5:30 in the afternoon.
She felt even warmer when John sent her an unexpected message as she was downing her second plate of tinumis. She looked at her phone, a secondhand thing she bought for about 500 pesos, and saw John’s Messenger icon glowing, floating on-screen. She had never felt so taken care of, until she had met John. Kathy had given her all, and more, when John asked. And now she was getting the feeling of wanting to be with the Korean, who worked as a factory lieutenant in Clark.
– Sorry babe. Busy tonight, John said in the message.
Kathy’s heart sank. But she didn’t want to stress John out. She wanted to be his perfect angel, not like his father or mother who beat him as a kid for not being number one. She always hugged him warmly, and closed her eyes as John’s white and slim fingers coasted the inroads and byways of her tiny body. The first time they did it, John was nervous. But Kathy had already been out on the streets for two years, and making love was already second nature to her. She guided John’s hands and lips, until they found their rightful places, and when Kathy felt that John already knew what to do, she let herself go. There was something in the Korean male, who arrived in the Philippines only last year, that tamed Kathy’s tried and tested defenses, and made her want to drop everything and be with him—for good. Was it love? Kathy asked herself, again and again, as she remembered how John would appear like clockwork, at 9:30 PM at McDonald’s, so that he could be first in line.
– I’m always here for you babe, she replied.
John responded with a sticker of a cute dog that said “Thank You” in big letters. Kathy giggled and pressed the heart reaction on the sticker. One of the things that Kathy loved about the burly John was he was a child at heart. And he seemed to trust Kathy enough to show his soft side.
– My panganay seems to be in love, yes? Aling Saling tightened the braids of the nineteen year old Kathy, who was still visibly glowing from reading a message from John. Her weakened hands tried to match the perfect pattern that her daughter created.
– No ‘nang, Kathy answered. She didn’t want to tell Aling Saling just yet. She wanted to keep it a secret for as long as she could, because she didn’t want the neighbors thinking she had already snagged a Korean, and they could start knocking on their old door asking for give-outs and loans from her mother or brother. It was bad enough that they had been stuck in the “site” as it was called since she was a child. Life was simpler if people kept to themselves.
If there was one person that Kathy had told about John, it was Anna. Anna had always supported Kathy, being quite the perfect best friend since childhood. Kathy and Anna had been through a lot together, and shared not just laughter, but tears—a palanggana full of it. They held on to each other in their first year of ‘walking’, and shared stories, both light and dark, that other people wouldn’t understand. No one fully understood them, except themselves, and others in the trade.
The jeepney skidded to a halt in front of McDonald’s. As the old smoke belcher gave a final lurch after braking, the neon lights of Walking Street came into view. The golden arches of McDonald’s adorned the gigantic steel and concrete arc that welcomed visitors to the short strip of bars, cafés, clubs, lingerie stores, and whatever else have you, in the most compact space imaginable that has been wholly dedicated to pleasing males. A tarpaulin sign from the Mayor’s Office doubly confirmed that vehicles were not allowed inside (except perhaps random motorcycles and tricycles fetching patrons and their girls) and declared to everyone who would care to read that the strip is indeed a “walking street”. But the tarpaulin sign, laid atop of a steel frame, had become crumpled and crusty from years and layers of dust and rain. It lay forgotten, like so many other things in this part of the city.
Anna embraced Kathy when she arrived, as she always did every night, five or six times a week. But something was different that night. Kathy didn’t know what to make of the feeling, but something in her gut told her that there was danger, or maybe she was just stressed that John wasn’t around. The young woman tried to put it out of her mind. Kathy wore a sleeveless, black top that night that accentuated her childish arms, small breasts, and long neck. Like many other walkers, Kathy had a short stature, that she tried to make up for by eating more, so that she would gain weight and consequently, develop fat in all the right places. She made sure that her dresses always accentuated her shapely hips, and gave away just enough of her fair skin to piqué the interest of potential patrons.
An American in his sixties approached Anna. The man wore a pink polo shirt, a cowboy hat, and a pair of XXL trousers that gave up trying to contain the man’s massive belly a long time ago. He had put on his best suave face, and tried to hide the fact that the sweltering heat of the early evening was something he never liked when he was out and about in the Philippines. Steve Wilkins was a retired car salesman from New Jersey, and had settled in Angeles City because the cost of living was excellent – and the women aren’t half bad, too. Thrice divorced with four children that are now all grown up, Steve felt that it was about time he enjoyed his remaining years. He had stayed a year in Thailand, a couple of months in Vietnam, but it was in Angeles City, Pampanga that he felt at home. He had been living in the fine city for twelve years now, and despite stern warnings from his Filipino-Chinese cardiologist from St. Luke’s Hospital in Manila, he wasn’t about to give up the one thing that made him feel like a young gun again: his twice weekly, or sometimes thrice weekly visit to Walking Street and its adjacent spaces. And brandy. Brandy is always important.
Daddy you go here, Anna said as she held her waist and pushed her right hip out to tease the old American. Steve had a great feeling tonight, and he eyed the other girl beside Anna, too. Kathy wasn’t paying much attention to Steve, because she was scanning the area for John. She was still hoping against hope that he would come by tonight, even just for a quick kiss. She stopped charging him a long time ago. It was for free, Kathy thought, isn’t that good?
Kathy, I have to go, whispered Anna, as she waved goodbye to her best friend. Kathy had been so inattentive that Steve gave up trying to book her, and instead walked Anna away so he could find another girl that fit the bill. He liked two or three a night, four if he could find another, and he felt that tonight would be his luckiest night yet, yes siree. Anna wanted to bring Kathy along because patrons like Steve made her nervous, because of their age. Another worker nearly landed in jail after her customer died on top of her in one of the seedy hotels in the area. It was only after much pleading, tears, and an impromptu ‘dance’ with a policeman at the back of a patrol pick-up truck that she was able to walk free.
Kathy was in a trance. She walked aimlessly across the strip, and not even the blinking neon lights of an Egyptian-themed club cheered her up. She always loved the neon lights, despite the shadow they cast on every woman on the strip. Eyes unfocused, hands sweating, she felt like throwing up. She bumped into a huge woman, a mamasan from one of the adjacent clubs. The mamasan was pissed and eyed Kathy from head to toe. Are you stupid, or high? The woman was sneering at Kathy. Kathy mumbled her sorry and walked more quickly. What was she looking for, anyway? She didn’t want any customers tonight. There was no wind, but Kathy was shivering, sweating all at once. And then it hit her – there he is, my John. She could spot John’s cute head of hair anywhere. Amidst the throng of people, that cute head belonged to Kathy, and Kathy alone.
Kathy took off, sprinting across broken sections of the street that had leftover rainwater from the previous night’s rain. Her small feet splashed against puddles, and flecks of stale, blackened water darkened the hem of her dress. She reached John in less than a minute—at the entrance of the Maestro Hotel.
John was smoking a cigarette and had been laughing with two girls, all younger-looking than Kathy. Kathy froze when she realized that John had booked two girls and was about to enter the hotel. He was supposed to be busy. He was supposed to be at home, working on his Lenovo laptop. He wasn’t supposed to be with these two strange women, who only want money from him and nothing more. Just his money. Just his money. Kathy repeated the thought endlessly in her mind as she looked at John, relaxed and having fun with his girls for the night. She smelled John’s favorite cologne, before the smell of the two other girls intruded the air around Kathy.
–John, she whispered.
The Korean male finally lifted his head to take notice of Kathy. He had been busy gripping one of the girls’ backsides while puffing on his cigarette. Kathy knew that John was high on something. Because the real John has never gripped her like that in public. He was too shy. But once, when he came to her seemingly agitated and talkative, she knew that he was shooting something up his veins. Kathy didn’t know for sure what it was. But it made John louder, more aggressive, and more violent in bed.
What Kathy saw in John’s eyes as he looked up from the two girls made her take a step back. John’s eyes were dark and empty, and bore none of the light and warmth she thought she saw when she looked deeply into his eyes when they were making love, at the back of his car, in a hotel, behind a 24-hour convenience store, at the parking lot of a closed mall, or wherever else John wanted it.
–You can go home now, Kathy. I told you I was busy, John said.
The two girls that John booked for the night looked threateningly at Kathy.
–Why you look bitch? said one, who had pink highlights on her hair and wore an exceedingly short dress that gave away just a hint of undergarments.
– She’s yucky, you she-male! said the second girl, who wore glittering stiletto heels that were one size bigger than her feet.
The hotel’s lady guard, a woman in her thirties with her hair in the tightest of buns, interrupted the second girl and asked them if they were coming in or not. Both girls gave Kathy a final death stare before tossing their hairs and stepping inside the hotel, after the lady guard waved a firm hand that said – no fighting here.
– Bye Kathy, said John, who raised his eyebrows as if to dismiss the girl. He took one last look at Kathy before he climbed the stairs that led to the main lobby of the hotel.
Kathy was still standing outside the hotel as the trio headed upstairs for a night that she had been all too familiar with.
Mavi was proud to be the only lady guard in the whole of Walking Street. To be a lady guard in one of the ‘liveliest’ places in Angeles City took guts, lots of it, especially after the wee hours of the night where lust, drugs, and inebriation created a toxic cocktail in people that could explode any time. After stopping what she deemed a brewing fight right in front of the hotel between two younger walkers and an older one (she could tell by their faces who was younger), she felt quite proud of herself.
The owner of the Maestro Hotel, an Australian hippie with long, grey and flowing hair, had been married to a Filipina for more than twenty years, and wanted a largely all-female staff. He also owned a small resort in Zambales with a floating Tiki bar, and business was better he believed, when there were more females than males helping him run his business. Mavi straightened her uniform before fully opening the gate that separated the entrance of the hotel from the strip. The Korean male had flicked away his cigarette on the floor, the two young women who were itching for a fight were on their way upstairs to book a room.
Mavi knew better than to ask how old the two girls were. In her six months of working at the Maestro Hotel, four of it was spent stifling her maternal instincts and keeping her mouth shut. The owner had been explicit – it’s none of my business, it’s none of your business, let’s try to keep it that way Mavi, you understand?
Mavi wanted to keep emotions out of her line of work, but more often than not, she gripped her agency-issued 38-caliber revolver more tightly than usual when young walkers entered the hotel with men two or three times older than they really were. Of course they would say they were 18, 19, 20, or 21. None of it was usually true. Mavi knew what patrons did, however well-dressed and fragrant they might be, and she didn’t want anything remotely similar to happen to her own daughter, who was five years old. The father of her daughter was a layabout who did nothing right, and preferred being drunk than sober any time of the day. He scoffed at her work as a lady guard and called her worthless, before bursting into tears and bawling that life is unfair because he still couldn’t get a contract as a seaman, which is his dream job. And Mavi would cradle the broken man and remind him that he is loved, and that he will find his luck soon, but soon after, Monching would have a drink too many, and would become a roaring maniac, usually after twelve midnight.
Mavi’s phone beeped, and her heart raced. Mavi didn’t like receiving late-night messages or calls. It made her heart ache and she sweated like crazy under her uniform. Late-night texts and calls can harbor bad news. She closed her eyes and breathed deeply. She pulled out the phone and tapped the screen twice to wake it up. She saw her husband’s name on the screen, followed by a distraught text message: Loreta was sick, was in the hospital, need 3,000 pesos ASAP for medicine. It was every mother’s worst nightmare. Mavi left her post before her shift ended for the first time in her employment history at the hotel. She approached the front desk. Mavi’s face paled even more as she spoke to the receptionist in a low but urgent voice. She showed the receptionist the message. The lady at the front desk, a pretty girl in her twenties, rubbed the back of her neck and dialed the hotel owner’s number. After a few rings, the owner picked up. She explained Mavi’s predicament and in her best pleading voice, asked if it was possible for the lady guard to have a loan of just 3,000 pesos, to be deducted from her monthly salary. A few quiet moments later, the receptionist placed the telephone back in its receiver and looked at the lady guard sadly.
The hotel owner had immediately denied her request.
Mavi called the next guard on duty, Ernesto, who was due to report to the hotel in three hours, to please relieve her because she had to leave. Ernesto lived two streets away and understood immediately. He was on his way, and Mavi should get going to find the 3,000 pesos.
Mavi changed to her civilian clothes, an old white shirt with a Honolulu logo in front and a pair old jeans – the better pair of only two jeans she owns at the moment. She walked across the strip, past the blinking neon lights of the Egyptian-themed club, avoiding a drunk African who had a girl under his arm, feeling numb all over. She checked her wallet for the umpteenth time. She had three pieces of 20 peso bills, a one hundred peso bill, and bits of lint. 160 pesos. She needed 2,840 pesos more for her daughter, who was now lying helpless in a district hospital. She couldn’t bear to go to the hospital empty-handed. She has to find a way. She has to.
She crossed the road toward a fast-food joint. She always rested at Jollibee, which was just across the road from Walking Street, because the place allowed people to linger and rest, even if they didn’t order anything. Mavi seated herself near the exit, and looked at the mass of people ordering at the counter. The bright menus beckoned to her, inviting her to eat a burger, sundae, or fried chicken. A family of three entered the premises. They went up to the counter and the mother, a sickly-looking woman in her late forties, pointed at a large family meal and by the movement of her lips, was ordering a lot more from the skeptical-looking cashier. When her bill was punched out, the woman dipped her hand into her old bag, a patchwork backpack that had seen better times. Mavi saw the woman pull out an expensive-looking wallet, thick will bills and cards. She pulled out two blue bills, probably two thousand pesos, and proceeded to pay for her order. She handed the wallet to her son, a lanky teenager, who wasn’t paying attention and immediately dropped the wallet. The woman behind them looked at the wallet and saw the mustached face of an American on one of the ID cards. The family fled after getting some of their order, just as Mavi was about to stand up and approach the woman.
Outside, people were walking in the general direction of home, after enjoying the conclusion of the Tigtigan Terakan Keng Dalan. Mavi had no such luxury, and thought for a fleeting moment how their Christmas would be if she didn’t find 3,000 pesos before rushing to the district hospital in Magalang. She thought long and hard of what she saw at Jollibee, of how the threadbare family ordered a huge meal from someone else’s wallet. She was now a block away from Walking Street, and saw a local in a rush to leave his car. The shiny red Nissan’s driver-side door was left slightly ajar. Mavi walked past the car, only to backtrack. She looked around. The owner of the car was nowhere in sight. With shaking hands, she opened the Nissan’s door, and looked inside. There was some money on the dashboard – a few hundred pesos, and a single five hundred peso bill. She pocketed the bills and ran back to Walking Street.
Mavi held the money against her bosom and held back her sobs. She had some money now. She found a dark corner near a 24-hour convenience store and counted her money. She now had 860 pesos. Just 2,140 pesos more… Just a bit more…
She had been so preoccupied with her bills that she didn’t notice two best friends approaching her. Big Bill and Smiley Tom were from New York, and thought that the Philippines was way cool than the Big Apple because everything was chill here… Especially when they cash in stock trading chips from tight portfolios they’ve been tending for five years.
– Hey girl, you okay? Big Bill was the first to speak. He had an unnaturally ruddy tan, almost violet from enjoying too much natural vitamin D, but he had a kind face. Mavi wiped her tears away and stared at Big Bill’s hawk-like nose. Her eyes traveled to Big Bill’s best friend since childhood, Smiley Tom, and noticed that the two looked like two big babies because of their red, round faces and even rounder bellies, and the two were beaming at her, and looking at how shapely her breasts were through the thin fabric of her old, white, Honolulu shirt.
– Hey baby, you available? Smiley Tom was in it for the game tonight, and he prided himself in spotting “exotic morsels,” these beautiful Filipinas.
Mavi nodded, and gave a small smile as she fought back more tears.
Yes, she said, pushing out her bosom more to give them a better view. She felt a strange prickling sensation coursing through her body as the two men’s eyes savored every inch of her clothed body. Her gut wretched from the idea of being touched by complete strangers, and yet her training as a lady guard allowed her to remain calm. She remembered her training, of what she should do when being physically assaulted. Number one, she whispered under her breath: remain calm. She forced a wider smile and held her hips, inviting the two men to look closer. The two men whooped in joy and whistled loudly. Yeah sugar, lucky night for us baby!
Mavi tucked the bills away in her back pocket and added quietly through a thin-lipped smile – I know a place here at Walking Street.
The trio walked toward the Maestro Hotel, and one of them, Smiley Tom, bumped into an old lady with a patchwork backpack. Sorry, he mumbled sarcastically, as the old lady didn’t even turn her head to acknowledge that she bumped and stepped on Smiley Tom’s left foot.
Aling Becky was normally composed. But tonight wasn’t typical, and there was a lot going on all at once. She bumped against an American (she wasn’t sure, she didn’t even look), but all that mattered now was that they had some money. The plan was simple, yet elaborate. Her husband Lisandro was to be the main lookout. Gibo, their eldest child, will take the wallet and run a block away, discarding a shirt or two along the way. By the end of his run, he should have shed at least one shirt. He had four shirts on him, each a wildly different color than the last.
The flamboyant American with the thick mustache already had too much to drink, and his two companions, aged 17 and 21 respectively, could not contain his excess energy. His wallet dropped as Aling Becky’s eyes were scanning the line for a target. In less than a minute she had discreetly retrieved the wallet, as the American’s antics, which included waving around his hand like he was stroking something, was enough entertainment to distract even the burly bouncers of the Zed Club.
Aling Becky walked faster.
She thought of all the things she could do with the money. She could pay off the three tindahans that she had loaned rice and canned food from. She could pay off Clemente, the neighborhood usurer, and even pay off all the interest from last year. She had counted everything in the wallet. She still had 16,000 pesos left. The American had carried a total of 18,000 pesos in his wallet. After getting all the money, she threw away the wallet at a nearby bridge overlooking the city’s storm drain. The murky water smelled of urine and garbage. The fresh flow of rainwater did little to control the nauseating stench of the city’s combined drain system. Aling Becky knew that it was unlikely for the wallet to resurface any time soon. Because if you throw in anything lighter than a dead animal, the object would sink into the mire, never to be seen again.
She waved at a passing jeepney and went home.
Trining, Aling Becky’s second oldest child, had just turned sixteen last month and was usually stuck at home after school, caring for her youngest sibling, Raul, who was only two. She knew that her mother was up to a fresh set of antics that evening, and her nerves were getting the best of her. The last time that her mother tried to get “God’s blessings,” she landed in jail for theft. And Trining had to be the mother at home, caring for everyone, even her father, who had become more and more insistent that they sleep together, closer, in bed. The teenager tried to put the thought out of her mind. Complications. She didn’t need more complications in life.
Aling Becky had disembarked from the jeepney and was walking the muddy route toward their home near the river’s edge. The walk was slightly dangerous to untrained feet, as one had to descend a steep slope before reaching a makeshift staircase made of mud, stone, and tree roots. Aling Becky lived under one of the many little bridges that connected the city of Angeles, and she preferred their unconventional home than living out in the streets, where you always had to wake up extra early, before businesses opened for the day. She liked being able to sleep in on most days. They could all do that, as long as they could stay in their hovel under the bridge at Marisol.
All that was left now was a final, five-minute walk. The final path was full of mud and brambles from the typhoon.
Out of nowhere, a pair of hands grabbed the old woman and dragged her to one side of the beaten path. A rain of fists pounded her face, chest, and abdomen. She screamed in pain, but another hand painfully squeezed her mouth, as another wave of tight, closed fists pelted her body. She felt a rib crack, and then another, until she felt that her whole body had been broken.
The attack took only three minutes, four minutes tops. Aling Becky’s patchwork backpack was gone.
Aling Becky had always loved looking at the moon, and the city’s lights. It reminded her of better times. She tried to touch her face, but could not feel it properly. Sleep, she thought. Just need sleep. And Aling Becky’s eyes finally closed as the full moon continued scintillating in the night sky.
“Angels in the Mire” earned the author the English Fictionist of the Year Award from the Gawad Digmaang Rosas XIV at the Holy Angel University on February 9, 2019 in the province of Pampanga, Philippines.