A water ox swims in the distance. Come back, fool beast! Ponklong watches the ox wading up to its head in dirty water. A small group of tourists trundles by, swatting at flies. Manong Taloming will return soon. Ponklong doesn’t want to be found lounging.
The ox is stubborn and won’t come out of the water. On the stream bank, Ponklong waits. His feet are caked with mud. It crumbles and peels in the sun. In his hands he holds a worn stick, soft from oily fingers and dust. It is hot and there hasn’t been rain in the afternoon. People are starting to worry, but no one will say anything.
Ponklong misses the afternoon rain shower, the bit of relief it brought. Soon it will be the dry season, and the long, dull trudge through summer. He thinks of school and how he will miss it. There will only be the neighborhood kids left then, and maybe the occasional sighting of Luz on the street. He would try to say hello to her before the school year ended.
* * * * * * *
He awakens to the cries of a man selling balut. Through the screen door he hears the little cart crackling along the dirt road. Ponklong pushes the night netting aside and looks across the room. Manong Taloming’s bed is empty.
The sun is high. It must be late. He will be in trouble for missing mass. Padding over the dark wooden floor boards, he trips on the karaoke cord and curses his sister.
“Mayette, move this!”
There is no answer. He slides his feet into a pair of ratty flip-flops and pours a cup of stale coffee. It is cool and bitter, and he swallows each mouthful with a wince. It makes him feel grown up. The ashtray on the counter is filled with crumpled filters. He vaguely recalls the murmur of voices last night, the lonely scent of old smoke and faded visits.
In the backyard, Ponklong wanders along a decaying wooden fence. Maybe the mango is ripe. An old tree is propped up against a worn board, its branches reaching just over the fence. The mango he was waiting for is gone. He returns to the kitchen and looks half-heartedly for its remnants, any scrap of evidence relaying its fate, but the garbage and sink are empty. Someone could have stolen it at night. That had happened before.
The province was growing. Too many people passed through it now. Ponklong recognized fewer and fewer of them. He thought about Luz. She had smiled at him yesterday as they passed on the street. He was with Ronnie then and couldn’t smile back.
* * * * * * *
“You’re late,” Manong Taloming said as Ponklong arrived at the stream bank. He took up his station under the tree. The water ox was not in sight. “No one…” Taloming muttered, walking away. The van that took the tourists around was parked up by the street. Its white color was stained and dulled by dust, but it ran well. Ponklong got to drive it when Manong was busy and the tourists were antsy. He smiled at them then and they always gave him lots of coins. He could tell they found his broken English amusing. Sometimes he played it up, pointing and gesticulating when he knew the English words for certain things but didn’t feel like letting on. They seemed to like him more for it. A few extra coins.
Today the van was empty. No tourists were around. Probably better, in the midday heat anyway. There was no air conditioning and they always got mad at that. Ponklong kicked off his flip-flops and leaned back against the tree. The shadow grew as the afternoon passed.
Manong Taloming returned and Ponklong ran home without saying anything to him. The family was half-assembled for dinner. He pushed between his cousins and spooned some rice into his bowl. Taking his usual place at the end of a bench, he set the bowl on the edge of the table and looked across to his sister.
Her face was damp. It glistened under a bare fluorescent light bulb. Ponklong felt annoyed. He got up and spooned some soup over his rice. It was hot, and his Aunties were loud. There was nowhere to go. Children ran outside into the side yard, squealing and laughing. His sister chased after them. He sat down again and watched a fly circle his bowl.
Manong Pedring walked into the room, filled a plate and started to leave.
“Where’s Taloming?” he asked, then left before anyone answered. The kids outside spied him and followed him out.
“Where’s Manong Taloming?” Mayette repeated, a squirming child in her arms.
Ponklong shrugged. He left the rest of his rice and soup on the table and walked away. One of his cousins quickly scooped it up.
* * * * * * *
At night Ronnie came over and they walked into town. When they turned the corner Ronnie pulled a cigarette out of his pocket, lighting it with a dilapidated book of matches.
“Hurry, let’s see the movie.”
The boys ran through the street. Ponklong wondered if he would see Luz tonight. He followed Ronnie as they weaved through the crowds. A group had gathered outside the movie house. Ronnie squeezed through and saw the sign on the chain link fence: “NO MOVIE TONIGHT – PROJECTOR BROKEN.” He came away from the throng and told Ponklong.
They moved down the street, following the sun as it dipped behind low buildings and peeked through alleys. It would be dusk soon enough and they were expected home if there was no movie. Ponklong looked over his shoulder at the dissipating crowd.
Ronnie kicked a rock ahead of them and Ponklong returned it. They kept it up for about a block.
“Pool?” Ronnie suggested. Ponklong shrugged. It wasn’t likely that they would encounter Luz playing pool. He thought they’d see her at the movie. Disappointed, he mumbled agreement and they made their way to the pool hall. At the door, Ronnie’s Uncle stopped them. He wore dark aviator glasses and the stump of a cigarette wobbled on his lips, perpetually stuck there. Ponklong couldn’t remember ever seeing him light one – they were just always there, smoldering at the edge of his mouth. He waved them in with a half-smile.
The cracking of a cue ball broke through murmured voices. Inside it was dim – the dark smoky province of grown-ups – and the mysterious actions behind the high bar took place beneath low lamplight. They would take their places here someday, and the thought was thrilling but tinged with dismay. Would it be a failure to stay, to go no further than this town?
The boys shuffled to the side as their eyes adjusted to the darkness. A pair of heavy-set men lumbered around the pool table, their outlines diffused by the thick smoke and flowing short-sleeved shirts. Ponklong felt at home with these men. They’d known him since he was a baby – friends of his Uncles – and they’d taken him under their somewhat-disinterested tutelage, begrudgingly touched by the boy whose father had left.
* * * * * * *
The scream of a rooster woke both of them. Manong Taloming stirred a little beneath the mosquito net, grumbling that it was too early. Ponklong slowly opened his eyes and looked at the ceiling through the white mesh. A tiny lizard scuttled into the corner. The sun was already cutting through the window. It looked to be hot today. He didn’t feel like getting up. He remembered Luz’s smile and forced himself to move. The floor was cool.
He pulled on his school clothes. The shirt was wrinkled but it was too late to do anything. Only the English teacher would notice it, and he didn’t care what she said.
“You’ll be late,” came the warning from Manong Taloming. Ponklong looked over at him, but his eyes were still closed.
Ronnie was waiting on the corner, furtively taking quick drags on a crumpled cigarette. “Come on,” he urged, walking ahead, “I want to get some juice. No breakfast today.” The boys hustled along, stopping quickly for Ronnie’s juice. Students were already filing into the main entrance when they reached the school. Ponklong searched for Luz, but he made his way to homeroom without seeing her.
He didn’t want to be in school today. Only the thought of a brush with Luz impelled him to pass through his classes. At lunch he met up with Ronnie and the two of them ambled outside, passing a dried stick of salty beef between them. Ponklong kept his eye out for Luz, mistaking others for her, seeing her face in other girls, and always feeling disappointment when they looked back. Maybe she was home again. He had heard that her mother was not well, and she spent some days taking care of her. His heart ached for that.
* * * * * * *
The next afternoon it rained. Not enough to dispel the drought, and most of it ran off the dusty crust of dirt anyway, but for an hour or two the temperature went down a few degrees, and the small storm sucked up a bit of the humidity then released it all at once. Ponklong ran outside when he heard the first rumble of thunder, waiting beside the mango tree for the gray sky to open up and pour down. When it only spit a quick sheet of water, he went back inside, dreading the agitation of Manong Taloming.
“This is bullshit,” Manong mumbled. “Too dry. The season is bullshit.” He ambled into the kitchen, a pair of well-worn flip-flops scraping on the dirty cement floor. Ponklong decided it would be better to leave. “Boy! Where are you going?” Manong yelled as the front door squeaked open.
“Going to see Ronnie.”
Taloming stood in the kitchen doorway, surveying his nephew, before letting him go. “Watch out for the buses,” he said gruffly. “Bullshit drivers don’t care who they hit. You watch out!” Ponklong let the door fall back with a crack.
He paused on the corner of his street, mindful of Manong’s warning. The buses were a constant threat now. They drove recklessly down the road, dust swirling in their wake. Most of the horns were broken, so there was no warning apart from the sickening roar as they bore down upon anyone in the way. They were different from the jeepneys, and their size meant they were harder to maneuver and control. Every few months someone got hit, and at least once a year one of them died.
Ronnie didn’t answer the door. Ponklong went back out through the broken gate, slowly meandering home, taking his time and looking down at the road ahead of him, making an occasional glance back over his shoulder. The day was hot again, and humid from the little bit of rain. Surely there were better places.
* * * * * * *
“Your friend won’t be going to school today,” Manong Taloming said as Ponklong untangled himself from the mosquito netting. “You know… Donnie.”
“Ronnie?” Ponkong asked absently.
“Yes. Saw his Uncle last night and he’s sick.”
Ponklong paused in putting his shoes on. He didn’t like doing to school without Ronnie, but he might be able to talk to Luz now. He didn’t know why, but he wanted to keep Luz a secret as much as he wanted to tell someone.
At school he sat beside Ronnie’s empty desk. Looking out the window, he watched the younger kids playing ball on their break. What would he say to Luz if he saw her? He allowed himself a thought of the future – a wish and a hope – and she was there. No one had taught him to think beyond the day. He was growing up.
* * * * * * *
Without Ronnie, Ponklong ate lunch alone, wandering the inner square, alternating between the shade of the building and the midday sun. The shifting of light alleviated his boredom, but almost made him miss Luz, seated in a shaded corner, and suddenly appearing, before his eyes had a chance to fully adjust. He stood in front of her and two other girls, blinking and unprepared. He tried to think of what to say, of what he had rehearsed, but all he remembered was the voiceless ache of want and longing, and a certain choking sensation that now gripped him. He couldn’t even smile. One of the other girls giggled. Luz looked down. In that single gesture, she did her best to absolve him of his embarrassment. When she raised her eyes again, he had gone.
* * * * * * *
That night he kept his torment to himself. According to Manon Taloming, Ronnie would be out of school again the next day. Ponklong wished he was sick too. He would try to fool Taloming the next morning. He couldn’t face Luz again. It was still slightly light outside as he restlessly, worriedly, turned in his bed. Mosquitoes hovered outside the netting. He wanted to cry because of everything he didn’t understand.
When Taloming shuffled in a few hours later, smelling of smoke and some salty brine, Ponklong was still awake. “Manong,” he began, “I don’t feel good.” He had showed his hand too soon.
“Go to sleep,” Taloming said in a raspy voice. “You’ll feel better in the morning.” Ponklong wouldn’t try again.
* * * * * * *
In the first moment of consciousness – one that he would remember and instantly miss when it was over – Ponklong had forgotten what so worried him from the night before. Then the shame came flooding back into his face. He tried to pretend it wasn’t that bad, and maybe Luz hadn’t noticed. He really hadn’t done anything, but that was the problem.
Ronnie was not at the corner that morning. If he had been, Ponklong made up his mind he would tell him. He had to tell someone. As he walked to school alone, the sun rose in the sky. It looked to be another hot day. The coolness of the night had already dissipated. Ponklong felt sticky. He thought of the water ox. The ease of the beast. The way it slowly seemed to glide in the water. He wished for such a life. He had always found it easier to do as he was told. Not to fight back. Ronnie had that fight in him, ready to take on the world in his scrappy way. Ronnie would have spoken to Luz. He would have said something teasing or funny, and she would have laughed. A pang of unfounded jealousy disturbed even the abstract idea of it. Everything was confusing him. He chased a lone chicken on the street, kicking at the air behind its quick haunches. ‘Dumb bird,’ he muttered.
* * * * * * *
As much as he felt foolish over his inability to talk to her, Ponklong still sought her out, watching for her in the hallway, staring out classroom windows for a glimpse of her hair. The morning stole slowly on, taking the relief of its shade with it. It would soon be lunch. Ponklong was torn over what to do. He finally decided if she was in the same place, he would be brave and simply say hello. It was agony. There was no other choice.
In the moments leading up to lunch, he felt a sudden clarity. It was settled then, and no matter what the outcome he had made up his mind. Sometimes it was the indecision that hurt the most; the possibility of it all bore down with greater heaviness than a definitive answer one way or the other. As the teacher dismissed them, in the midst of the noisy surge toward the door, he felt a certain peace. It was out of his hands now. If it was meant to be, it would be.
* * * * * * *
He didn’t look for her at first. He didn’t want to be seen looking like that. Even with his newly-felt sense of calm, a nervous dread and excitement threatened to overtake it, thrilling and tumultuous, and the simple notion of sharing the same space, the same air, the same sunlight, left him giddy and terrified. He had made his way around the square twice, furtively glancing in the direction of the corner where she had been yesterday. She was not there. He sat down beside the space she had occupied then. He would not see her that day.
* * * * * * *
At night, the sounds of the karaoke machine alerted Ponklong that it was almost the weekend again. He listened to the muffled words of his sister Mayette, drunkenly slurring some popular song written before he was born. He stayed in his room, not wanting to look at her, her shiny face or damp hair. He fell asleep to the loud laughter, the shouts, and the stumbling of his sister, wondering if Luz’s sister did the same thing. In the house without a father, he dared to entertain the dangerous idea of how things might be different.
* * * * * * *
It felt like even the chickens were quiet the morning he found out. No rising clarion. No unbridled bleating. The rooster remained silent. Manong Taloming was already up. Ponklong worried he might have overslept. The sun wasn’t that high though.
He rushed into the kitchen, stilled at once by the visage of his Uncle’s back, hunched over the table, as if in prayer. He had only ever called him ‘Manong’ – out of respect. Even if he was more or less the man who raised him, Manong Taloming would always be his Uncle, never his father. It could only have been him to deliver the news.
Luz was dead. A bus accident, Manong Taloming said. “You kids should be more careful,” he warned gruffly. It was how he showed love. He had waited until Ponklong was up, then told him before rising from the table and getting on with his day. This was not a place for sentiment. He was old enough. Ponklong would wear his best shirt and throw all his coins at the funeral procession as it passed. He could give up his dream of her now.
* * * * * * *
A water ox raises its head above muddy water. On the bank, the boy gazes through cloudy eyes, dried rivulets of salty streams crackling upon his cheeks. His ancient Uncle watches from a distance, wondering when the rain will come.
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