by Joanna C. Scott

          _______________________ ...Manila, the eighties
Under dawn-bursting mangoes, skies dropping starfruit,
_______lean palms slung with orchids like Christmas streamers
in a child's nursery, beside a glazed pool to which frogs
_______and thin snakes fled during typhoons and were trapped there
next day by two yipping spaniels skidding this way and that
_______on tiling reflective as mirrors, on a street lined with
glass-topped stone walls leading down to a golf course,
_______in a garden where servants in starched pink check housecoats
brought goblets of fruit juice, I sat--folded hands, folded fingers--
_______on a pale blue chaise longue. I lived, those years, like a goddess,
and yet I lived a conundrum: outside my gates, beggars,
_______inside, servants calling me Ma'am.

Each morning my driver came to my office, stood
_______on the head of the dragon carved into the red Chinese rug.
"Ma'am?" he said, grinning gaptoothed, and we planned
_______our day in the festering city (he stop-wait, I stop-do)
among bright swirling jeepneys, chrome fighting cocks
_______strutting their hoods. Small urgent boys rapped
at our windows, brandishing Marlboros two for a peso.
_______Wild-haired beggars brandished limp, naked babies.
My driver ignored them, yearned into the rear vision mirror,
_______telling me how, in a while, he would go to America
where he would have teeth, an inner spring mattress;
_______and his dreams were like golden crumbs strewing the road.

One morning I waited, phone in my hand, words stuck
_______in my throat like sodden leaves blocking a storm drain.
x-ray, infectious --how could I say them-- How could I
_______tell him? And yet when he came there was no need
for words. My face and my hand on the phone said dismissal
_______sure as a finger of fire burning it into the wall.
A hiccup jumped from his throat, tears from his eyes.
_______Spittle shot out in a gob, sat on my desk like an accusation.
"Three young children," I told him. "The risk . . . I'm so sorry."
_______"We will starve, Ma'am," he said. And I said,
"Two thousand pesos for medicine, a reference, a new sack of rice."
_______"But Ma'am," he said, "what about America?"

Then he rubbed the back of his hand across his eyes.
_______"Goodbye, Ma'am," he said, proud and desolate,
went to crouch in the dust by the gate like a leper
_______while I listed his virtues on gleaming white paper.
Calling the guard for a new sack of rice from the storeroom,
_______I went to my driver, the reference and two thousand pesos
stones in my hands. Watched him walk down the wide
_______tree-lined street, past grand high-walled houses,
their guards and Mercedes, arm straining to steady
_______the forty-pound rice sack slung on his shoulder.
What befell him I drew, thread by thread, from tales spun
_______by servants who, over time, weave the myths of the city.

The driver went home to his wife and his son who was three
_______and still could not talk. Gave to his wife, like an offering,
fine white American rice with no stones or pieces of asphalt
_______swept off the road where the farmer had spread it for drying.
Read her the reference (she could not read), counted the money
_______onto the wooden slat bed. Then he took it and left.
Fearful that he would get drunk, violent, killed in the street,
_______his wife prayed all night to the red-skirted Christ-child;
but when a stupefied sun reeled into the city, it found him,
_______drunk but not dead, in line for a visa to go to America.
Clutched in his hand were the reference and two thousand pesos,
_______his face bleak and hopeful, a hungry ghost seeking Nirvana.

All morning he waited, all afternoon. Hot crush of bodies,
_______fumes, jeering and chanting of anti-American protesters
rose in his throat. Talked to the other men waiting in line
_______in their sneakers and jeans, t-shirts depicting American
icons --Braves, Cowboys, Disneyland, Statue of Liberty.
_______Some had rice balls in paper, some plastic bottles of water
tucked into belts. One had a fish head. They smoked,
_______swapping stories of visas: this one was lucky, that one
had failed. The driver asked how long to get one
_______and somebody said the last ambassador's driver waited
for twenty-five years. The driver sat down on the sidewalk.
_______Clamor of voices, clanking of jeepneys, banged in his head.

Down the path came a man wearing brown leather shoes
_______and an air of authority, sent, so he said, by the consul
to check their credentials. Some of the men showed their papers,
_______the driver his reference. Then the man, smiling soft as a serpent,
beckoned, hand downward, spoke with solicitous eyes.
_______"Fine credentials," he said. "For just a small fee . . ."
"How much?" said the driver. The man said, "Five thousand."
_______Now the driver could beat all the locals at two-up but never
played poker. "I have two only," he said, showing his hand.
_______And the man who played poker with dreams like the devil,
said, "Only for you." For the driver, next morning dawned double:
_______new day and the realization that he had been fleeced.

Big city, small town. The man in brown leather shoes
_______was not hard to trace. By midday the driver had sniffed
out his house, which was much like his own, small,
_______of tar-painted paper, but a shiny antenna clung to the sheet
iron roof, a fighting cock pecked on the end of a leash
_______by the real wooden door. He elbowed his way through
the crowd in the street, tested the handle, edged in,
_______bedazzled by dimness. On a green square of matting,
a bare-footed woman washed glasses and plates in a pink
_______plastic basin. A grandmother crouched on a stool, her skirt
full of beans she was snapping into a hill on a small
_______metal table. A rerun of Dallas flashed in one corner.

In the other, a statue of Mary, eyes piously upward, ashes
_______of incense strewn at her feet. On the wall hung a black velvet
painting of Elvis. Below, on the wooden slat bed, two children
_______slept on an inner spring mattress patterned with roses.
The driver stood staring, his heart a bell with no clapper.
_______The bare-footed woman jerked upright. "What do you want?"
She was edging her way to the children asleep on the bed.
_______The driver followed her movement. Thorns of roses
drove into his eye and the bell in his chest found a voice:
_______his fist was the clapper. The grandmother moaned, stumbled
out of the door as beans flew in the air, the table smacked down,
_______legs splayed like a crushed baby goat.

The woman snatched up her children, sidestepped the driver,
_______dragged them, wailing, feet dragging, into the street.
Screaming, he smashed their poor things, slammed the rice sack
_______up and down in a hailstorm, beat his head on the doorpost,
stalked from the house, blood running out of his eye.
_______Like flies on a carcass, the crowd waited, humming,
fell back as the driver, soft as a specter, sought out
_______the woman, gave her the smell of blood on his cheek,
disease in his lungs. Spat on the ground at her feet.
_______"You tell him" -- his voice was rats in bamboo -- "you tell him
I will not rest till I find him. Then I will kill him."
_______And his words rustled back through the crowd.

On a stark yellow platter cast down from the streetlight,
_______by the sari-sari store on the corner, in a circle of faces,
eyes hollow, mouths gaping like overboiled fish heads,
_______the driver sat drinking Red Horse, telling his trouble (Aie,
said the fish heads, "Anopa"') when a small boy came running,
_______swollen with news. Two men had shot holes in the house
of the driver, beaten his wife, smacked his son's head on
_______the ground. Foam arced from the bottle spun into the air
as the driver ran home, snatched up his son, kissed the blood
_______from his ear. Weeping, he took his wife's hand, and like lost
children tracking crumbs of a dream through the forest,
_______they crept back to the province where they had been born.

Of all this, at the time, I knew nothing, but the house seemed bereft,
_______the servants had something dark in their eyes. I questioned
the housemaid about him. "Ma'am, he went back to the province," she said.
_______"The air in the province is cleaner," I told her. "Soon he will mend."
Winding her hands in the string of her apron, "Yes, Ma'am," she said,
_______and I knew he would die. Grief rose in my throat, and remorse
came to sit on my shoulder, rattling its beak. I thought of how
_______he would come to my office, stand on the rug on the head
of the dragon, tempting its strike. And I wished I had known
_______how to warn him, wished . . . Even now, long years after,
I start up at night to his face in the rear vision mirror. "Ma'am" he says,
_______grinning, or sometimes, with dignity, "No, Ma'am."

Copyright © 2021 by Red River Review. First Rights Reserved. All other rights revert to the authors.
No work may be reproduced or republished without the express written consent of the author.