By Michael Hughes, or “Chicago Mike/really from Gary”
Roger was a happy father. He had three closely spaced daughters and a younger son. The son was the apple of his eye and named for him. As one of the best and most artistic carpenters in town he easily earned sufficient money and found work whenever he needed it.
He had plenty of time for his three girls and his little Jun. As a third generation carpenter in a very small coastal town he was known and respected by the community at large. If he had a complaint, it was only that his attractive and jolly wife was not that interested in sex. It was a not a great problem however because he still took it when he wanted as customary in this traditional community. His charm, musical ability and reputation also afforded him ample opportunity to sow some wild rice around the community. But sometimes fate rears its ugly head.
When Jun was about to turn three the Town Doctor informed Roger he was to present Jun for vaccination shots. Roger was not keen on vaccination because two of his girls had had adverse reactions, some fever and infection. But as the good Doctor was one of his Barkadas (drinking buddy) he reassured him that it was safe as well as mandatory. Roger reluctantly presented Jun a few days later. Roger at first felt relieved when the boy seemed to suffer no obvious harm. But suddenly loss of appetite and wasting set in. Despite the efforts of the whole family and the good Doctor, Jun became increasingly listless until he died in his sleep. Roger was inconsolable, the family in shock.
Roger went from social drinking to raging binges. He seemed to blame the whole town and God Almighty. The good people of Mapanas and his own family began to fear him. His normally jolly wife went about on pins and needles, shushing the girls anytime Roger was about. Roger took to killing dogs just for barking at him. People began to give him a wider berth; and the good Doctor avoided him altogether. With no one left in town to console him, Roger began taking his rage out on his wife. At first she endured the beatings, sought to excuse them and became over-protective of the girls. But as the beatings increased in severity, she feared for her very life. Finally, as Roger slept off a drunken spell, she got two of the girls and herself out a window and fled to the protection of her family far off in the Bondak. This left Annabelle, age seven.
Annabelle had the sunny disposition of her mother and the natural muscularity and physical grace of her father. More than that she had taken all the eruptions and disruptions in stride and emerged unscathed. She liked to play with the boys as one of them, and she had the strength and coordination to do it. But she retained her femininity and desire to grow into an adult woman. She quickly took on the household duties. She would gently sing to herself as she swept the tiny house and lot. She loved to organize and reorganize their few possessions, pretending they were many and like the ones she saw in the grand houses of Manila on TV. She cooked the rice and prepared the Ulam (protein course) with pride and joy. All this was not lost on Roger.
Roger soon became less morose and given to anger. He found new Barkadas (drinking buddies) and paramours around town. He was quick with a joke and sweet with a song. His hot temper was again reserved for those who got out of line and dogs that got too threatening. He could not just leave little Annabelle home alone, so he just took her along on his drinking sorties. Roger became less of a binge drinker and more a social drinker. Despite his many promises not to stay late, his parties often continued well into the night. The only sensible option for Annabelle was to sleep with other children of the house where her Father drank. Her sweet and lively disposition made her popular and acceptable everywhere they caroused. People would gossip how “poor little Annabelle spent the night” but they were secretly glad. Soon Annabelle had endeared herself to the whole town.
Annabelle was one of those few in life that could take a flaw and make it badge. Her single flaw was a massive overbite she inherited from her Mother. She had widely separated buck teeth. For many girls this would have been a tragedy. You would see them always covering their mouth and afraid to smile. But Anna was a Belle that was always ringing. Her natural joie de vivre made her totally unselfconscious and spontaneous. She giggled and laughed at the simplest of pleasures and found joy where others may have found boredom.
As the years passed the memory of her Mother and Sisters faded. Annabelle could hardly wait to grow up. When her breasts began to bud, she managed to get a used bra and stuff it with a little tissue as she dreamed of being a great lady and an Artist. She had two close friends with whom she would compare naked breasts and giggle in the dark of night. She dreamed of her first real kiss and did practice kisses with her closest girlfriend. Her nights alone at home were sometimes more erotic.
Roger was quite the lothario. Women of the town, usually married, sometimes crept into his house in the silence of the night. Annabelle would wake up to the sounds of their passion and feel a tingle in her secret spot. On these occasions she would clutch her pillow against her chest, with the corner tucked firmly between her legs in a kind of delirium and imagine herself a woman and the pillow her husband. She dreamed of a time when her strict Filipino Father would allow her a boyfriend. When she got her first spot of blood she was overjoyed. She was barely thirteen but felt complete.
Annabelle had taken her sunny disposition and work ethic to school. She was a favorite of the teachers and students alike. Her papers were decorated with stars. Roger supported her efforts with encouragement and praise, but he was kuripot (cheap skate) with the funds needed for school supplies and activities. Annabelle found herself to be a sixth grade dropout and her thoughts turned to Manila. There were women in Mapanas that acted as agents for girls like her. They had taken many a girl there and got them jobs as maids in exchange for the first month’s salary. Tradition had it that these girls sent much of their income back to their families. Most returned for a visit after a year or so bearing pasalubog (gifts) for the family and large tins of Danish Cookies for all. They were little heroines in their nicely starched clothing. Annabelle soon approached her Father with a proposition.
Annabelle promised her Father that if he would allow her to work in Manila she would send half her salary back to him and save the other half for her schooling. Gradually she wore him down. Roger agreed to let her work for a year if she kept her promise to re-enroll in school. They got a popular agent, and Annabelle found herself on the road to Manila. The road out was most difficult, twenty-five kilometers of muddy, unpaved mountain road. This was followed by two boat rides and a van to Catamaran. There Annabelle found herself gawking at the large buildings, the traffic and the bustling citizens. After a night there, they boarded the bus to the ferry at Allen and onward to Luzon and Manila. The Agent deposited Annabelle at a karenderia (canteen) in Pasay and took her commission. Annabelle adjusted rapidly to her new job.
Her main duty was to wash and arrange the dishes, but she also found herself sweeping up and handing implements and dishes to the cook. She was quick and efficient. Soon she found time to wait on customers and learn a bit more about cooking. Her winning ways gained the appreciation of her co-workers and popularity with the customers. She even got a few treasured tips. The frequent immersion of her hands in the harsh detergent took a toll on her young hands, Annabelle brushed her worries aside and smiled all the while. On her days off Anna managed to see many of the sights offered by Metro Manila. She especially enjoyed the huge and bustling Baclaran open market. There she used her tip money to buy some nicely selected clothing at the Ukay, Ukay (used clothing) stalls. She was proud of her efforts and hardly gave a thought to the long hours and daily grind.
Meanwhile, Roger was not so happy. There was no one to cook his rice and prepare the ulam. The floors and yard went un-swept. At times, it seemed eerily silent and the small room empty and bare. At first Roger took to heavier drinking; but this just made him more morose. The old anger came back. His isolation increased as friends found ways to avoid him. Ladies no longer slipped in at night. In just a few months he was gaunt and haggard. He did the only thing he could. He found the lady Agent and sent her back for Anna.
While the Agent was shocked at Nini’s return, Nini actually felt relieved. The long hours and toll on her hands had begun to take the play out of the work. She readily agreed to return to her father in Mapanas. She had saved all three thousand pesos of her salary and had a few additional pesos for her travel.
Annabelle was at first relieved to be back. Her hands had suffered and the attractions of Manila had worn thin. When the proper time arrived she re-enrolled in the sixth grade. As the time rolled on she began to contemplate graduation. Ever industrious she made charcoal from discarded coconut shells and sold them from door to door. But her father often demanded her earnings to buy rice and ulam. After all they had to eat whether her father found work or not.
As sixth grade graduation approached Annabelle found herself short of funds necessary for cap and gown and other school supplies. Her appeals for loans from relatives got her sympathy, but no funds in the cash poor town. Alas! Within a couple of months Nini’s pesos were spent, and she had to drop out of the sixth grade once again. Having to drop out with only weeks to go, gave the child her first taste of bitterness. She vowed to return to Manila and make a life for herself there.
In addition to making charcoal, she began trading in ending cards, a popular lottery in which players had to select ending numbers on certain professional basketball games. Her criminal activity was more lucrative than making charcoal. Soon, she had enough money to secretly hire her own agent. Knowing they could never again get her father’s permission, they picked an evening when Roger was well into his cups. They hired a motorcycle and made a dash for it. Two days later, after a boat ride and a long trip on a dilapidated bus, they were back in Manila. Knowing her father could find her in the karenderia, they sought employment for her as a maid in the neighboring Province, Bulacan. Annabelle was never to see her father again.
The job as a maid turned to gold for the fifteen year old Annabelle. As an ‘all around maid’, she had the full line of duties: child care, cooking, cleaning, laundry and yard work. Her boss who had made her fortune as an entertainer in Japan appreciated her industrious and cheerful disposition. Soon the kind and understanding woman began to gift Annabelle with her cast off but still attractive clothing. The clothing was a good fit, and she treasured every piece. I know because she still had every piece when I met her in Angeles five years later. Her wonderful disposition and work ethic makes her my perfect wife, a treasure beyond all treasures.