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Six From Downtown

by Dean Francis Alfar

The Wet Market

A WEEK AFTER I arrived in the city, I spent a day at the wet market, negotiating my way down the slippery floors and taking pictures. I was soon lost in the brilliant rainbow of fresh seafood, laid out in ice, suspended on hooks, swimming in plastic pails and low metal drums, whose names brought back memories of my childhood: palos, pating, alimasag, pindangga, lapu lapu, apahap, sap sap, pompano, tambacol, labahita, malasugi, pugita. At other stalls, I found trays of lato, seaweed that resembled a miniature bunch of grapes which my parents loved dipping in a mix of crushed garlic and spicy vinegar, as well as palm-sized oysters, their dull shells encrusted with barnacles.

One stall’s sign captured my attention and got my taste buds going: Fresh Sirena. I smiled to myself, surprised at how many years had passed since I last tasted mermaid. When I was a child growing up in the south, my grandfather would take me out mermaid fishing. The boat of my memory was cramped and seemed ungainly in the water, but none of that mattered since I loved being out at sea with him.

“They think it’s unlucky,” he told me once, when I observed that it seemed only men went into the sea. “It does not matter to me that you are a girl. You’re what God has given us and that’s all the luck we’ll need.”

At a precise position whose exact oceanic location was known only to him, my grandfather would drop the makeshift anchor overboard and organize the fishing lines, stretching across the span of his arms the very fine filaments he purchased from American soldiers before they fled the Japanese. When all the preparations were done, he’d ask me to attach the bait. This was one of the best parts for me because I got to open the large biscuit tin with the end of a spoon and select a piece of jewelry. I would scoop out a handful of shiny trinkets and fuss over them, showing off to my grandfather how seriously I took the task. My favorite bait was a gold scapular embossed with the image of the Virgin Mary. After I had carefully attached the bait to the line, my grandfather would always tell me to sit still, watch the sea quietly and be ready with the net. Then he’d slowly lower the filament into the water, one hand unrolling calculated measures of length. Sometimes, it took forever for a mermaid to bite, and I remember thinking that perhaps they had all the jewelry they’d ever need. While waiting, my grandfather would smoke a thin cigarette between his teeth, flipping it into his mouth when only the smouldering filter remained, checking once in a while if I had a firm grip on the wooden handle of the net that was my part in things.

“Be ready at any time,” he’d intone, exhaling smoke into the air laden with salt.

The mermaids we’d catch ranged from two and half to three feet in length. Their tails, excellent steamed, grilled or boiled with tamarinds, were an iridescent green flecked with blue points of lights. Halfway up was the bony flesh that was always cast away after cutting: the torsos were mottled pink and grey, with protruding nubs where nipples would be; the thin arms ended in four fingers, a filmy web of flesh between each one. The egg-shaped heads were crowned with pale stringy hair, like the ghosts of seaweed, covering much of the face that was punctured thrice by tortoise-colored eyes and a gasping mouth lined with sharp tiny teeth.

“Here’s one,” my grandfather would whisper upon sensing the line grow taut, before exploding into action, standing up and reining in the filament, hand over hand, until the mermaid broke the surface of the sea, unwilling to let go of the shiny bait. At his signal I’d quickly extend the net, making certain to trap the glistening tail, and together we’d haul the mermaid into the boat, where my grandfather would exchange the string in one hand for a fire-hardened club and strike at the mermaid’s head until it stopped moving.

One was usually enough for our large family, but I remember during the times of fiesta how the sea would be dotted by little boats similar to my grandfather’s, and how they’d return hours later, pitching low in the water, each with several mermaids.

I stood by the sirena stall and looked over what was offered, fighting the rising disappointment fueled by the memories of my childhood years. The mermaids lay side by side and almost haphazardly on top of each other, eyes closed and mouths agape, on a bed of crushed ice, most of them barely a foot long, some even smaller, and their tails had only the barest hint of green. Sensing my disquiet, the vendor, a middle-aged man with a red bandanna and a bulging belly, explained in a lugubrious tone that it was the lean season, and that all mermaids were that size nowadays.

I purchased the freshest looking one, astounded at the price per kilo, and asked if there was a place nearby that could grill it for me. The vendor winked and, for one hundred pesos, offered to cook it himself. I suspected he was overcharging me but gave in when he agreed to throw in a handful of sea snails for free.

The Business Quarter

THERE’S THIS STORY Marie told me after work one time over turtle pie at our favorite coffee place. You would never expect Marie to be the kind of person who collects a particular kind of story – she’s barely five feet tall, round-faced in a way that recalls cherubs from the angel craze a few years back, and works for a non-government agency that is dedicated to preserving and promoting the zarzuela, moro-moro, and iyakan.

“I have a new one for you, Tom,” she began, leaning toward my good ear. “There’s this guy, okay? Around our age, regular guy, a call center guy, you know? Anyway, he’s at his third call center – you know how people move around, right? Better pay is always a great motivator. So this guy is handling customer service for a phone company in the US. He gets a call from a woman, and you know, he goes through the motions, blah blah blah, the usual – they have a script and everything; they have a program on their monitors like a walkthrough and everything’s there. I mean, everything. So anyway, this woman gets upset because she can’t get the guy to understand her problem. But the guy, our guy, thinks he does. So he asks her questions again, just to make sure, very nicely because his supervisor or whatever they’re called is listening in – they do, for evaluation, I guess. So he keeps asking her questions which I guess sounded either really useless or stupid to the woman, and she freaks out. She just freaks out. She starts calling him names, demands exactly where he is – and I don’t know if they’re allowed to say where they are, I mean, they’re pretending to be in US, right? They even have the proper accents and all. So she’s really upset and our guy’s trying to calm her down, but he’s getting affected too, I mean, who wouldn’t, you know? “

I nod, offering her a cigarette before lighting one for myself.

“Finally he says, he says to her, ‘I’m sorry I can’t help you, ma’am”, takes off his headset, stands up, leaves the call center, drives home, calls his wife’s cell phone and tells her to come home from school – she was taking her master’s in something, and, get this, she pregnant with their first child. But I’ll get to that, in a bit. Anyway, when she arrives, well, when she arrives, he stabs her seventeen times with a kitchen knife. Seventeen times. I mean, oh my god, right? Then he sits down next to her on the floor and waits for someone to find them. He just sits there, looking at her, looking at what he’s done, I guess. Just sits there. That’s when he notices fingers slowly poking out of the wounds on her stomach. I know, I know. He sits there transfixed or whatever and just watches his child pull open the wounds and crawl to his dead wife’s tits. Imagine that. I don’t know what happened next, supposedly the call center helped keep the thing hush-hush to protect their image, but I don’t know. Obviously, word got out. But it’s not in the papers though. And you’d think that something like that would make the tabloids at the very least. I don’t know.”

As I listened to Marie recount the story in her own inimitable way, her eyes punctuating every detail, every digression, widening, squinting, liquid with the excitement of sensational tragedy, I felt slightly dizzy. When her hands grasped an invisible knife and punctured the air between us, repeating the actions of the call center man, I felt myself bleed, inwardly reeling from the assault as if I were his doomed wife, coming home to the unexpected violence of kitchen steel. By the time Marie was finished, I was exhausted, and there was really nothing more to say or do, apart from picking up my fork and eating the remnants of the turtle pie.

“So, Tom,” Marie asks, checking her watch. “What’s up with you?”

The Red Light District

IN THE CITY, everyone has to make money. I dance every night for a hundred pesos. I know it doesn’t look like much – it’s more of an allowance from the club owner – but I make a good living through tips. The club is called Suave, and though all the dancers are there by 7, the doors open only at 10. That’s when the dancing begins.

Tonight’s no different. Before I am called, I sit in a small room with the other guys. I stroke myself, imagining the last girl I was with, and apply ten thick rubber bands around my hardness, each one looped twice to keep the blood in. Some guys use more, but I’ve found that my pain tolerance peaks at ten. When I’m hard as a rock I wear my briefs, white and tight, to better show off my bulge. Then I wait.

When I hear my music play, I make my way to the darkened stage and take my position, my back to the audience, hands and legs spread apart, leaning against the wall. As the vocals rise, the lightshow begins and I start to move, grinding to the thumping bass line. I turn and move around the stage, working the space to the beat, posing, strutting, slowly here, faster there. My hands touch my chest, trailing down my abs and over between my legs.

My face is impassive – I was taught to show nothing, to let the audience imbue my face with whatever they want – except for my eyes. I look at them, the ones closest to the stage. I catch the eye of a young woman in the company of friends. I feel the heat of her gaze, consuming every inch of my body. I dance for her alone, timing my next motion to a downbeat, suddenly kneeling so close to the woman that she involuntarily flinches. I raise my hips and seduce the air, running a hand over my chest while supporting myself with the other.

I know what she wants, what she came to see.

I stand up, pull off my briefs and release my tail.

It uncoils quickly, swollen and pulsing, and I urge it up. The applause that follows is deafening and I hear my name shouted above the music. I flex my tail down and sideways, letting it trail down the cold stage floor before twirling it around, slowly at first, then faster, double beat rhythm, slashing through both the hot air and the deafening music. Then as I am abruptly trapped in a spotlight, I grab my thickness and caress the hard muscle, bringing it close to my face and look for the woman I chose to dance for.

Her arm is raised, her hand clutching a five hundred peso bill.

Please, she mouths. Do it to me.

I break into a smile and send my tail out toward her, fast as a whip, and encircle her neck. Her eyes open in anticipated surprise and I feel her gasp for breath. I contract and squeeze until her mouth falls open and her tongue rolls out. I lift her up, tensing my muscles, hiding the pain of the cutting rubber bands from my face, and she is choking and everyone is clapping, hooting, wishing it was them I favored.

I hold her in the air for a few moments, feeling the tremors of her spasms on my tail, before setting her down. She draws in several deep breaths and I let myself linger, stroking her flushed cheeks, brushing against her fingers until she opens her hand. I curl the tip of my tail around the money and bring it back to my hand, just in time as the music ends.

In the darkness that follows, I return to the dressing room, making way for the next dancer. I cut the rubber bands around my tail with a pair of scissors all the guys share and feel immediate relief as the blood drains away from the hard muscle.

I’m sore, as usual, but it’s a living.

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