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  • Bowling at Camiguin

    John Michael Gorrindo

    “So where ya headed?”  James seemed a friendly sort.  He sat next to the stranger on the bus.

    “To Camiguin,” replied the stranger.

    “Oh, yeah?  An’ ya got a place to stay theh?”

    “Thought I’d look into a couple of beachside places in Agoho.”

    “Yeah?  That’s wheh me ‘n’ my wife live.  Got a beautiful place by the beach.  Homestay it is.  Yeah.  If it’s all the same, why don’t you come along and check it out.  The wife’s a great cook.  Sehve ya two meals a day- breakfast and dinnah an’ a choice of rooms.  Only set you back 600 pesos a night.  If it doesn’t suit, I’ll recommend a place neahby.”

    The stranger looked at James for a spell and sized him.  “OK.  I’m game.  I’ll come along and take a look.”

    “Good, yeah.  I’ll arrange the transport once we’re at the harbor.  Got ya covered on that.”

    “Thanks.  It’s that last leg from the harbor to a hotel where they gouge you.”
    “Yeah, right.  Got a van theh at the harbor.  We’ll split the cost with a couple of others.  No problem theh.”

    It was a ninety minute ride from Cagayon de Oro to the port.  The stranger drifted off to sleep every few minutes only to be rudely awakened by a bone jarring jolt as the slower traffic and other impediments in the two lane road caused the impatient bus driver to continually slam on the brakes.

    Arriving at the port, James and the stranger bought their ferry tickets at the port kiosk and then retired to a small restaurant.  They ate a simple meal of rice and chicken as they waited for departure time.

    “First time heh in the Philippines, mate?” asked James.

    “Yes, and it’s been a blur so far.  Arrived in Manila 5:30 this morning and had to wait four hours for a connecting flight to Cagayan.”

    “Wheh you from?”

    “San Francisco.”

    “California, heh?  Yean, been to San Francisco onece.  Beautiful place.”

    “Listen, since it’s yoah first time heh, can I give you some advice?”

    The stranger looked up from his food.

    “Ya see, thehs this story about a little female mouse.  One time she went down to the railroad track an’ a train came along an’ cut off her pussy.  She returned the next day to look for her pussy, ya see, and anotheh train came along and cut off her head!”  James pause for the shortest moment imaginable.  “An’ ya know what the moral of the story is?  Another pause- just slightly longer.  “Don’t go losin’ your head oveh a little but of pussy!”

    The stranger resumed eating and wondered if his host wasn’t a drunk.

    “Look, mate,” James resumed given no incentive other than his sole need to advise. 
    “You’re goin’ to run across lots of opportunities heh.  The Pinay are always on the hunt.  Now you can ‘ave a good time an’ all.  Jus’ watch yourself an’ don’t go givin’ away the store to the first little girl ya nail in bed.”

    “Hell no.  I won’t be doing such a thing on your watch.”

    James didn’t catch the reply.  “Take me pahtner for example.  He’s a Yank like you.  Now he an’ I went in on the land in Agoho togetheh ten years ago.  A few years back he went an’ married a Filipina an’ like a damn fool he put heh name on his Philippine bank account.  The girl’s motheh took a dislikin’ to him an’ had heh daughteh raid the account an’ reported to the police that my partneh beat heh daughteh.  He damn neah went to jail.”

    “So where’s your partner now?”

    “He ran outta money.  Had to find work abroad.  Been in Bangkok the last three years teachin’ English.  Maybe you’d be interested in buyin’ out his portion.”

    “How’s that?”

    I got the upstaihs an’ him the downstaihs.  A million pesos would coveh it.”

    “That’s 20,000 American dollars.”

    Somethin’ like that, yeah.  I’m rentin’ out the downstairs now to anotheh expat.  Bernhardt’s his name.  The guy can build o’ fix anything!  Mechanical whiz he is.  Now I jus’ give him free rent and he keeps the whole place up.  That’s the deal.”

    “Sounds fair enough.”

    “Now with the German, Bernhardt- he’s a fuckin’ genius, but stupid as hell when it comes to women.  I can’t understand it a twit.  When he firs’ arrived in Camiguin, he had a tidy sum of money.  Bought some land up the hill aways.  Built a nice home up theh.  Got married to a Pinay in short ordeh.  Now an expat’s gotta have a Filipino included on a land or house title.  Can’t own land er housing heh if you’re a foreigner without a Philippine partneh.

    “Anyway, Berhardt put his wife’s name on the title.  Well, that had a fallin’ out- a real bad one.  Bernhardt’s a man who values his peace. M He didn’ want any trouble.  He went an’ handed the house oveh to his wife- lock stock an’ caboodle.  He lost everything.  Didn’t want the grief.  So then he went chasin’ skirts- again with no sense about him.  Soon enough he found a local girl.  Lives in with heh downstairs now.  But she’s got five kids!  Can ya believe that?  Bloody five kids!    And she’s an ugly one that one.  What an ugly woman!  Five fuckin’ kids!  How can such a smart man be so fuckin’ stupid?”

    The stranger disliked answering rhetorical questions.  “So they all live together downstairs?”

    “Yeah, they do.  It all works out fo’ me.  An’ they don’t mind me keepin’ my five dogs down theh eitheh.”

    “So how did you meet your wife?”  James had given the stranger a business card a while earlier.  It contained a picture of James and his wife.  The stranger now took it out of his shirt pocket and studied it more carefully.

    “Yeah.  That’s me an’ Jenelyn.  Ya see, a friend of mine- anotheh expat- was taken her out and didn’t take much of a likin’ to her.  He asked me if maybe I’d be interested.  I asked Jenelyn to meet me in Cagayan, her hometown, cuz I was going theh on business.  So I met up with her a Jollibee’s in Cagayan.  She was nineteen at the time.”

    “Jollibee’s.  Sounds romantic for a first date.  Nineteen years old you say?”  James looked to be over sixty.

    “Yeah, well she’s twenty-five now.  When I first met heh she couldn’t cook an egg, mate.  I bought some cookbooks afteh we were married.  Taught her how to make all my favorite dishes.  Properly cooked meals are important to me.  Love my food, I do.  She’s a fine cook now.”

    “So aside from food, what about love?”  The stranger decided it was time to tip-toe up to the line to see what kind of hell might break loose.

    “Oh bloody hell!  Love?!  You aren’t goin’ to fin’ love in the Philippines, mate!  She’s a good cook and great in bed.  What else could a man ask fo’?  But I ain’t stupid like most of these Camiguin ex-pats.  I already owned my place when I met her.  I give her a monthly stipend for the household concern and her clothes an’ cosmetics, but she ain’t on the title and not party to my bank account.  No way she can fuck me aroun’.  I mad damn suh o’ that.”

    “Astute of you, James.”

    “And her motheh lives with us as well.  And one of her brothehs.  He’s our house boy. Deaf and dumb, he is, but he keeps up the place real nice.  When you marry a Pinay, you’re marrying the family, ya see.  Some ex-pats don’t realize that until it’s too late.  I only have to deal with two family membehs livin’ in.  And I ain’t botheh’d by the rest.  I made damn suh of that befo’ I tied the knot with Jenelyn.”

    “I admire forethought as it concerns marriage and all its hidden costs.”

    “So it’s time to boahd the ferry, mate.”  James stood, paid his bill, and headed straight away for the ferry leaving the stranger straggling behind, loaded down with luggage.

    Once on the ferry, the stranger chose to pay a little extra to sit in an air conditioned sitting room on the boat.  Alone with his luggage, he sat and ruminated for a while.  He had a feeling staying at James’ homestay would at least suffice for the night.  Jet lag was beginning to dampen his spirits, and even the sight of Camiguin and its seven volcanic peaks approaching in the distance didn’t inspire him sufficiently to leave his air conditioned digs and take a closer look at his tropical destination from on deck.  When the ferry docked, he waited for everyone to disembark before wearily grabbing his baggage and descending from the upper deck down the steep metal stairs to the vehicle holding level and on to the docks.

    James had been first off the ferry, and hustled back from the van on the dock, looking for the stranger.  He was impatient to get going.  “Hey! Up this way!  The van’s parked ahead.  We’re leaving momentarily.”

    Forty-five minutes later, the van dropped James and the stranger off at the roadside.  The stranger followed his host down the tree lined dirt path for a hundred meters leading them to the homestay which was shrouded with tall trees and other jungle vegetation.  They turned onto a blind path which narrowed, the vegetation closing in over them as it grew taller in height.  Soon a wooden archway appeared, providing entrance into the grounds.  Mid-span of the arch was tacked a small white wooden sign stenciled with green, uppercase lettering.  The sign read: “MY DOGS HAVE AIDS.”

    Balking for a moment, the stranger called out to James, “So where’s the welcoming committee?”

    James was loath to stop.  He only cocked his head a tad.  “Heh?  What’s that?”

    “The dogs mate!  What about the dogs?”

    Oh, don’t worry ‘bout them!  The fo’ pups ah tied up.  Somewheh ‘round heh is Shawna, theh motheh.  She does what I tell heh.  She’s no problem.  Heh she comes now.” 

    A German shepherd slunk down the homestay’s steep wooden staircase towards his master.  Neither James nor the dog acknowledged each other as James stood quietly allowing the shepherd to reach the bottom of the steps.  It then turned away and walked slowly towards a clearing in the back underneath a prize mango tree and slumped against its trunk, panting.  Nearby, a score of white ducks waddled about in the rich, freshly raked volcanic earth spreading out under the magnificent tree’s broad, leafy canopy.

    “Got the bitch when she was a pup.  Prefer Doberman actually, but she was available at the time.  Lateh I had heh stud with a Dobie a friend o’ mine had in Mambajao.  The fo’ pups I got in the kennel out back were the whelp.”

    The stranger could hear the whelp straining at their chains, aroused and yelping due to James’ arrival.  “It sounds like they could use a romp on the beach,” said the stranger.

    “The beach?  Oh yeah, it’s just down the way.  There’s a path out past the Mango tree.  But first things first.  Up this way, mate!  Watch your step.  My wife’s been naggin’ me to replace these staihs for a coon’s age.  Now thehs a room up heh the top of the stairs and two mo’ inside the house.  Yo’ choice, mate.”  James energetically climbed the stairs his dog had just descended, and the stranger followed with his baggage.

    On the landing at the top of the stairs, James tugged opened a loosely hinged door and walked into one of the homestay’s guest rooms.  It was spacious.  On either side of a king sized bed were walls consisting of a set of latched panels leaving a wide open air gap above them. There was a long counter top, sink, and rusting refrigerator.  The bed was draped over with mosquito netting, and above was fixed a large, spindly ceiling fan, its white metal blades rusty about the edges.

    The stranger dragged his baggage into the room and slumped into a rattan chair.  He looked up at James, his eyes sunken and feeling bone weary.

    “Would ya like to se the otheh rooms, mate?  We got one special on the third story.  We call it the honeymoon suite.  It’s got an open-aih, panoramic view.

    “No thanks.  This will do just fine.  I’ll take it.”

    Yo’ private bath’s inside jus’ pas’ the kitchen on the left.  Hot wateh unit on the wall with the showeh wand.  All the comfahts o’ home.  I know yo’ tihed, mate.  Showah up, take a rest.  We’ll call you lateh for dinneh.”

    “This door doesn’t lock, does it?”

    “Oh yeah.  Don’t worry ‘bout yo’ belongin’s- that’s what the dogs ah fo’.  But I have a safe of course.  I do recommend lockin’ up yo’ valuables with me just to be on the safe side.  I  should wahn you about the Philippines- thievery is a national sport.  But like I said- that’s what the dogs ah fo’.”

    “OK.  I’ll give you a couple of items to lock up when I come in for dinner.  By the way, may I smoke in my room?”

    “Suh, suh- anywheh ya want, mate.  But that will kill ya, ya know- smokin’ I mean.”

    “I’ll take my chances.”  The stranger was dying for a cigarette.

    “`K, mate, I’ll leave ya to yo’ leisuh.  Dinneh’s ready about 7:00 PM.”  James walked out of the room and closed the door behind him.

    The stranger let a cigarette.  Breathing deeply, he leaned his head back against the rattan chair and blew rings of smoke. Closing his eyes, he relished the silence and the first moment of relaxation he had enjoyed in more than twenty-four sleepless hours.  I f only he could remember to take a couple aspirin and drink a liter of water before turning in.  He knew he’d awake with a bad headache the next morning if he didn’t.  But he didn’t trust he’d get around to taking care of himself as he should.  His brain simply didn’t function well after long, international flights.

    By the time he’d finished his cigarette his allotted time of peace and quiet was rudely terminated.  From another part of the house, he heard a man and woman quarreling.  The stranger couldn’t make out many of the words being spoken, but the tone was self-evident.  What stood out was the female voice, which lunged and bit with a snapping bark.  Sometimes it tore off small chunks of words, followed by brief, abrupt silence that lapsed into yet another snippet of brass.  At other times, the voice would cut loose a shrill torrent that would swell with tidal fury.

    The argument didn’t last long, but it was unsettling.  This is all I need, the stranger thought.  Let’s hope the night brings some peace, for Christ’s sake.

    The stranger hadn’t much time to rest after showering and changing into fresh clothes.  He was called to dinner early, and was ushered into the homestay’s second floor dining area.  A most pleasant open air space, it served as both a dining and recreation room that overlooked the ocean to the north and the beautifully verdant rice field adjoining James’ property to the west.  Its ceilings were lofty and the space itself was dominated by the presence of a massive billiard table.  The sun had just set, but to the north the stranger could easily make out a cluster of white sand bars about a kilometer out to sea, bordered by light turquoise waters.

    Next to the billiard table stood James’ custom designed rocking chair- its flat wooden arms greatly elongated.  They looked like giant tongue depressors. 

    James was exceedingly cordial, inviting the stranger to sit at a long dining table, covered in white linen.  Large serving dishes brimming with food were placed about a table setting for one.  A folded linen napkin stood like a starched sail on his white china plate.

    “Please sit down, mate.  I trust you’ll find the food both nutritious and delicious.”  The care with which the food had been prepared and the table set gave James immense pride.

    “Before you get down to the business of dining, I’d like you to meet my wife- the establishment’s renowned chef.”  Clasping his hands together, James turned his head away in the direction of his bedroom, which adjoined the dining and recreation spce..  “Jenelyn!  Please come and meet our guest!”

    A few seconds later, Jenelyn emerged.  Dressed in a flower print sarong, she took a few quick short steps in her bare feet towards the stranger and took his hand in both of hers before he had a chance to stand.

     “Oh please- sit- and enjoy!”  Her smile was forced, as if the only way she had to smile was to command the skin of her face to pull back the corners of her mouth.  Like pieces of hot obsidian, her black eyes burned with the danger that they might explode into shards.  

    “Tonight’s entrée is fettuccini noodles with a chicken curry and cap cay vegetables.  I hope you like curry!”  Her voice crackled and belied a feigned enthusiasm; the smile remained rigidly fixed.
    “Oh, I’m simply overwhelmed, let me assure, dear lady.  This was certainly not expected!  It’s not a meal- it’s a feast!”  The stranger was indeed impressed.

    “Oh thank you- you are too kind.  Now please, enjoy your dinner!”  Jenelyn purposefully scurried off towards the kitchen; her impending exit signaled by a sharp and quick nod of courtesy- more a mechanical twitch that snapped her head forward ever so slightly and then violently back into place.  The centrifugal force of her pivot away from the two men caused her waist long hair to fly out and spread open like the cape in the hand of a matador.

    James was wearing only a pair of swimming trunks.  As the stranger began to serve himself, James settled into his rocking chair, slinging his left leg up onto its extended left arm.  He sat back comfortably and rubbed his chin between his index finger and thumb; the gray grizzle of his short beard making a crackling sound it was so brittle.

    “That’s quite a rocking chair you have there,” said the stranger..

    “Yeah.  Had it made special.  I can really take a load off and rock at the same time.  Great way to digest one’s food afteh a good meal.”  James smiled in smug satisfaction.

    “Sure you wouldn’t care to share some this meal, James?”

    “Ah, na thanks, mate.  Already had me dinnah.”  He sat for a few moments in great relaxation, happy to watch the stranger eat hungrily.  “Care fo’ some music?  Ya like music?  How ‘bout Johnny Mathis?  I’m in that mood.”

    “Sure, thanks.  By the way, you know Mathis is from my hometown, San Francisco.”

    “Really?  Well, looks like we’ve got somethin’ in common!  I’ll sehve up some tunes heh fo’ us straight away.”  James stood and walked over to the room’s entertainment system, the wooden floor boards creaking under the weight of his heels.  He quickly found the tape cassette of “Chances Are,” and popped it into the cassette player.

    The sentimental strains of Mathis’ enchanting, lyric tenor softly filled the room.  James then switched on the tungsten filament light bulb in a standing lamp as darkness was falling fast. 

    “So tell me mate, how do you like yo’ meal?  Jenelyn’s a good cook, ain’t she?  James’ blue eyes sparkled in the dim lighting.  “

    ”Taught her meself, ya know.”

    The stranger really didn’t want to answer.  He was too damned hungry for small talk.  “Oh, it’s absolutely delicious.”

    “So what are yo’ travel plans, mate?”  James’ eyes narrowed from behind his spectacles and concentrated their gaze on the stranger.

    “This curry is bliss, mate.”

    James persisted.  “Will ya be in the Philippines long?”

    “Just a couple of weeks.  My visa’s good for twenty-one days.  I have no desire to extend it.  My ultimate destination is Indonesia.”

    “Indonesia it is, heh?”

    “Yes.  I’m thinking about settling there indefinitely.”

    “Really?  Have ya ever visited theh befo’?”

    “Yes I have.  Spent almost a year there just a while back.”

    “Oh yeah?  Ya mus’ ‘ave a girl theh , don’t ya mate?”

    “Not that I know of,” the stranger replied cryptically.

    James chuckled softly.  “I’m suh  you’ll make out one way or anotheh.”
    “I’m in no hurry.”

    “So how do ya like yo’ women, mate?  Do ya go fo’ legs, o’ tits, o’ ass?  I’m a breast man, meself.”

    “Hmm…the heart and soul hold more attraction for me in the long run.  Hate to disappoint.”

    James chuckled again, this time laced with an edge of cynicism.  “These Asian women aren’t about heaht ‘n’ soul, let me clue you in, mate.  An’ we ah talkin’ ‘bout Asian women heh.  They see an unattached foreign man like you traveling alone, and the only thing they see are dollar signs.  A cash cow is what you ah, mate.  Nothin’ mo’- nothin’ less.”

    “Pretell,” the stranger replied dryly.

    James sat up straight in his rocking chair, setting his left leg back into normal position along his right while clasping his hands together, his elbows propped on top the chair’s arms.

    “Listen, mate.  How would you like me to help hook ya up with a shoht-timeh while yah heh in Camiguin?  I can’t guarantee satisfaction, but I can put ya in propah contact.”

    The stranger looked up from his plate while chewing slowly and gazed out toward the sea’s horizon.  The clear sky was beginning to break out with a rash or scattered point of star light.  He remained silent.

    “Tomorrow night is the weekly meetin’ of the Camiguin expat’s bowling league.  Usually they bring along theh Filapina wives an’ gihlfriends.  A gaggle of otheh gals come along as well.  It’s a chance fo’ the single Pinay to check out the scene.  Usually some unexpected expats such as yourself show, and it’s a convenient, casual way fo’ the single ladies to meet someone foreign and eligible.”

    “Am I eligible?” retorted the stranger.

    “Oh, yeah, mate, eligible enough as I can tell.  So whaddya say?  Kin ya bowl?”


    “Hell, it doesn’t matteh.  You’ll draw interest, I assuh ya.”

    The stranger continued to chew slowly.  The cap cay was extraordinary.  “Sure, I’m game.  What time?”

    “Oh around 7:30.  We’ll catch a ride with Bernhardt.  He’s got a nifty little passenger transport below.  Me, you, and Jenelyn will ride along in the back.”
    “OK.  I’ll come along.”

    “Good.  It’s settled then.  I’ll introduce you to the league membehs- like I said, all expats, ya know.”  You’ll have a chance to meet Al, anotheh Aussie like me. He lives jus’ across the way actually.  He’s a boxing traineh.  Trains some local Camiguin boys, ya see.  Has training facility and ring- the whole caboodle.”

    “I see.  Boxing’s big in the Philippines if I recall.”

    “Oh yeah!  And I was a boxin’ promteh meself in Australia some years back.  Here, have you had a chance to look at me photos?”  James stood up and walked across the room to where several framed photos hung on the wall.  “See heh?”  James pointed out a few select frames.  Most featured photographs taken of himself ringside next to a brawny young fighter.  “These weh taken at the World Games held in Sydney a few yeahs back.”

    “So Al sound interesting.  He’s training several fighters right now?”

    “Yeah.  Absolutely.  He’s got a compound, afteh a fashion- or should I say training camp.  He houses the fightehs, too- all at his own expense.  Al puts then all up in a kinda dormitory he has on his propehty.  Listen, I take a walk every morning up the mountain.  Come along and we’ll drop in on Al.  It’s along the way.”

    The two men chatted a while longer, and then the stranger retired to his room.  He had forgotten about his valuables, so returned to the dining room carrying his camera and money belt. 

    “James, are you here?” he called out.  “I’d like to put these in your safe.”

    James stirred from his bed where he was lying down watching television.  “Oh yeah, suh.  Hand it here and I’ll lock it away propeh.  The safe’s here in the bedroom- I’ll show you.  I’m the only one with the key and combination.”

    The stranger handed James the valuables and followed him into the bedroom.  Shaded bed lamps lit the room; one each atop two night stands on either side of the bed.  Jenelyn sat sewing on her side, huddled close to the light of the lamp.  Thread, a packet of sewing needles and scissors lie strewn on top of the night stand’s glass top.  She had just finished taking a shower, and both her torso and hair were wrapped in bath towels.

    “Oh, excuse me,” said the stranger, somewhat taken aback at the sight of her.

    Jenelyn turned towards him and feigned yet another smile.  “Oh, don’t let me bother you.”
    Setting down the skirt she was mending whose buttons needed replacing, she turned his way and allowed the corners of the towel wrapped around her body to part a judicious distance, spreading open to reveal her upper thighs and the shadowy darkness between them.  At the same time, she leaned forward on one arm and angled her cleavage towards the stranger, allowing the towel’s wrap around her breast to slacken.

    “Please don’t let my presence distract you,” she said in a subdued, low tone.

    As James busied himself with the safe, she cupped her right breast with the palm of her right hand while leaning on her outstretched left arm with elbow locked into place.  Her face remained rigid and her eyes penetrating.  The smile faded, and her mouth became a tight, flat slit; lips pursed and strained in tension.

    The stranger quickly grew uncomfortable and struggled not to show it.  He smiled politely and turned away from Jenelyn to check on James, who had just clo9sed the door to the safe.

    “Theh ya go, mate- safe and sound.”  James stood from his crouching position and nodded his head in affirmation.

    “Thanks, James.  I’m looking forward to our morning walk together.  Thanks, too, Jenelyn, for the great meal.  Well, good night to you both.  I’m off to get some much needed sleep.”
    Jenelyn had returned to her sewing.  “Sweet dreams,” she said flatly, her back now turned towards both James and the stranger.

    “Ya good night, mate.  I’ll wake you in the morning for breakfast.  It’s pretty simple morning fare we have heh- oatmeal, toast, jam, and bananas.”  James said cheerfully.

    “And coffee, too, I hope.”

    “Ya, of course.  Nescafe instant.  Hope ya don’t mind instant.”

    “Beggars can’t be choosers.  As long as it’s caffeinated.”

    The next morning James was bustling about the kitchen at sunrise.  He made breakfast for himself and ate alone at the kitchen counter.  Then he woke the stranger and returned to make his guest’s own breakfast.  A large kettle full of bottled water whistled gently on the gas range.   He poured its boiling contents into a tall, stainless steel thermos.  After the toast was ready and all, he returned to his bedroom to watch the morning news as available courtesy of his satellite dish.

    The stranger entered the kitchen and first made some coffee.  Peering into the dining area through a corner doorway out of the kitchen he spotted Jenelyn’s brother silently and gracefully sweeping the floor with a short handled, soft bristle broom.  The young man caught the stranger’s glance and broke into a gracious smile while bowing slightly in deference.  The stranger reciprocated with a smile and wave of his own.  I was the most pleasant exchange he had experienced during his short stay.

    The morning walk promptly started at 6:30 AM.  James led a brisk, military-style pace across the street and through the local barangay’s community center, passing by ball courts, recreation rooms, conference centers, and a catholic church.  James cheerfully said good morning to everyone he crossed paths with.  They were all neighbors of his for the past ten years.

     “Best to keep up good relations with the neighbors, heh mate?”  James turned to say to the stranger who straggled behind.  “We’ll take a good long hike up the mountain side a ways an’ then retuhn the way we came.  On the way back we’ll stop oveh to see if Al’s about.”

    Once they had passed through the flats which were populated by houses, people, and their livestock, they turned off onto a dirt road which followed along the contour of a mountainside, steeply ascending away from the coastal plain.  About fifteen minutes later the road turned directly inland, and a grand view of  a tall volcanic peak clad in rainforest stood before them.  The road was now cut deeply into the mountainside, and fell off steeply into a large valley spreading out far below, filled with clusters of coconut palms interspersed with flooded fields of green, growing rice.  Farmers could be seen with their water buffaloes pulling primitive plowshares through some muddy, unplanted plots.

    James pointed up at the volcano.  “The last volcanic eruption heh swept down through this valley about fifty yeahs ago.  The lava flowed down straight away to the sea.  The first eruption was actually a minah one, and the area’s residents weh lulled into thinking the wohse was oveh.  So they retuhned soon afteh.  Unfortunately, Hibok-Hibok proceeded to really blow its top.  The second eruption was a zingah.  The villegehs hadn’t a chance.  Two thousand people died heh in the valley that stretches out to the sea.  Look back theh- ya see?  Me homestay’s down theh at the valley’s mouth where the flow entehed the sea.”

    The stranger looked up at Hibok-Hibok’s 1320 meter crater.  Half-way up its exposed flank was an ugly gouge where someone had used dynamite to blast away a hundred meter wide shelf, exposing bedrock and creating a sheer cliff side that reached up to where the volcano’s flank continued on undisturbed to the peak.

    “What’s that up there, a mining operation?”  asked the stranger.

    “Na.  It’s the doin’ of the bloody idiot island govehnah.  He owns a lot of land up theh and has plans to build himself a mansion on that shelf.  Can you imagine the stupidity?  If the next volcanic eruption doesn’t get ‘im, a landslide suhely will.  Construction’s been halted now for a spell.  The govehnah’s son was arrested for possession of cocaine, and shall we say, the govehnah’s been a bit distracted by family mattehs.  They’re a bunch of corrupt thugs, the lot of ‘em,” said James with a tinge of bitterness.  “They’ll jus’ grease the wheels and spring the buggah son free as a spring lamb in time.  Meanwhile, the case is held up in couht.”

    The two men turned back, retracing their path down the mountain.  James picked up long branches he found alongside the dirt road along the way.  I use this for firewood.  Always collect a handful on the way down.  We gotta fire shed out back the house and cook up dog chow in a big pot theh.  It’s a hungry fire we gotta keep fed, jus’ like the dogs.  It’s jus’ one mo’ good reason to take a walk up heh every mohning.  But mainly it’s to keep in shape.  At sixty-two yeahs of age, I gotta keep meself up, ya undehstand.”

    Al’s boxing camp was located back down in the flats, a few minutes walk from the coastal highway.  It was a curious place; a collection of buildings set on a rocky patch of jungle partially surrounded by stone walls with two bridges that forded a creek serving as entrance onto the property.  The boxer’s boarding house was separate from Al’s own residence, and the training center had an outdoor boxing ring.

    James and the stranger clambered over the uneven rocky surface of the property- a location obviously overrun by the last lava flow.  James called out for Al- his fellow Aussie- in a sharp nasal twang.  “Al!  Al!  Ah’ ya heh, mate!”

    “Ya!  Oveh heh!  By the ring!”  He was quite alone.  His trainees were out taking a morning run.

    Al sat ringside drinking coffee and reading the daily Philippines sports section of the newspaper.  His pate was nearly completely bald, and what hair remained was a graying, fuzzy down, vestiges of a proud mane of blond curls all the girls once went gaga over.  Everything about his face and head was exaggerated- like that of a cartoon character’s.  His jug ears attached to his massive skull asymmetrically, and the whites of his bulging eyes clearly shown all the way round their blue-gray irises.  His nose had obviously been broken more than one, and was long enough to make one think of a proboscis monkey hurling itself with outstretched arms through the canopy of Kalimantan’s rainforests.  The bulky mass of his lower jaw hung lopsided and ended far forward as a stubby, scarred chin hanging slack jaw enough to reveal a mouthful crooked teeth framed by a snarling pair of bloated, oversized lips.

    Al looked a fright, and had certainly claimed his share of knockouts in the ring back in the day.  But at sixty, he was now no more than a warm hearted bear of a man- and altruistic to the core.  Upon shaking his hand, the stranger could feel the warmth in the half-calloused, half-soft skin of his palm radiating straight from the heart.  Al set aside his paper and smiled broadly, his eyes twinkling with genuine graciousness.\\”My pleasuh to meet ya, mate, ‘tis truly.  And may I get ya some coffee?  Got Camiguin’s best in a pot in the kitchen.”

    “You said the magic word, Al.  Coffee.  You bet I would,”  replied the stranger.

    Al’s lanky frame unfolded from its slumping posture and revealed its towering height as he stood up from his chair and stiffly stepped in short strides towards the kitchen.

    “Al’s me best mate, he is, “ said James sentimentally.  “He’s put his heath an’ soul into this camp- not to speak of all his money.  And all fo’ the sake of his lads.  Yeah, he’d love to develop a champion outta one of his brood, but if he kin jus’ given the boys a sense of  how to take cah of themselves and a measuh of pride, he’s mo’ than satisfied.”

    Al returned with a tray of mugs filled with black coffee, sugar in a glass jar, some spoons, and a small pitcher of milk.  For the stranger, it was a most comforting sight and put him at great ease.

    “Now this is real coffee, mate,” assured Al.  “A sight better than the swill ole James sehves up at his homestay!” 

    “Thanks a million, Al,” said the stranger.

    “How’s the boys comin’ along, Al?” asked James.

    “A mixed bag, Jimmy.  Rafael is still the best of the lot, but he’s a long way to go.  Don’t know if he’ll be up to the task come Novembeh in Manila.  The competition would chew ‘im up and spit ‘im out with no mehcy if the fight weh tomorrow.  But ya neveh know when a boxeh will rightfully come into his own.  It’s a mysterious process as ya well know, Jimmy, but keeps things mighty interestin’.”

    “Yeah, Al an’ I wohked togetheh at the World Games in Sydney,” James said to the stranger.  “He’s a helluva traineh an’ not jus’ technical-wise.  He knows how to reach inside a boxeh, shake ‘im down, an’ build ‘im back up again.  A true motivatah he is,” James said, turning and smiling affectionately at Al.

    “Well, I put me heaht into it, if that’s what ya mean,” Al replied with genuine modesty.

    “Ya mean ya put heath in those boys of yours, Al!  Let’s call a spade a spade, mate!”  James slapped Al on his expansive shoulders which resounded in a thud.

    “Do that agin and I’m likely to spill this hot brew in me lap ya buggeh,” said Al.

    “The wife wouldn’t take too kindly to that, would she now?”  James laughed heartily, the first time the stranger had heard him do so.

    “Well, not that she’d notice, mate,” Al rejoined.

    “So tonight’s bowling league.  Ya gonna show, Al?” asked James.

    Ya, sure.  It’s always a good time to be had with the gang.  Best way to keep up on the goings-on, too.”  Al had already finished his mug of coffee.  “So you’ll be comin’ along, too, will ya now?”

    “Yeah, an’ me guest heh as well.  He’s a Yank from Califohnia, stayin’ with me at the homestay.”

    “I’m quite looking forward to it,” said the stranger politely.  “If the others are half as interesting as you, it will be a night to remember.”  He smiled, raising his mug to Al in appreciation.

    “Ah, the way I bowl it’s most usual a night to fohget, let me tell ya, mate!”  Al returned the gesture with his own mug, now refilled with hot, steaming java.  “It’s nothin’ serious this league- jus’ an excuse to get togetheh.  An’ us expats need to stick togetheh heh in Camiguin.  Thehs only seventy of us heh.”

    “Ya.” said James, “Sixty-eight men and two women- those bein’ Lady Julia an’ her fat sisteh Kathryn.  I can guarantee they won’t show tonight.  Strange ducks that queer paih ah’.  The only Brits heh on the island.

    “So will I meet any Americans tonight?” the stranger asked.

    “Oh, yeah- of couhs’,” replied Al.  “Tom an’ Fred ah’ faithfuls.  They don’t bowl- jus’ love to keep scoh’.”

    “How very American of them,” the stranger quipped.

    Al laughed and his eyes lowered, looking back at the stranger knowingly.  “Ya know yo’ own kind, mate.  But in all faihness, Fred can’t bowl.  He’s vihtually crippled.  Had both hips replaced, and they still give ‘im hell.  He’ll probably have to go undeh the knife agin soon.  An’ then theh’s his reconstructed knee.  It don’t wohk right at all.  A botched job at the hands of a quack that was.  He’s an ex-fih’ fightah from New Yohk City.  Gotta hand it to Fred- he’s got a helluva sense of humah- knows how to laugh to keep from cryin’ he does.”

    “And what about Tom?” asked the stranger, intrigued by Al’s talk.

    Al paused for a moment, then posed a serious tone.  “Tom’s a Viet Nam vet, ya see.  He went through hell in Nam.  I’ve met a lot like ‘im heh in the Philippines.  So many Yanks came through Clark and Subic Bay on their way to and back from Nam in the day, of couhs’, and many retuhn yeahs lateh carryin’ with ‘im all kinds of woe and torment from their lives that neveh got back on track once they retuhned home from the wah.  The Philippines hold good memories fo’ ‘em- memories of bein’ young and fuckin’ theh brains out in places like Angeles City, ya know.  The Philippines was one big bah an’ whoh house fo’ ‘em.  R ‘n’ R central, ya know.
    Tom is a cripple, too, but emotional speakin’, ya see.  Hell, I don’ know why I tell ya all this, really!” said Al, his tone suddenly taking on a renewed bounce, “But ya seem a good type, and it’s yo’ countrymen we’re talkin’ about.  Ya know what I mean.”  Al looked expectantly at the stranger, hoping he hadn’t crossed any lines.

    “You’re right on the mark, Al.  No offense taken.  It’s a tragic side of my generation’s story.  I should know- I was in Viet Nam myself, but was one of the lucky ones.  The war messed us all up in the head and churned our guts inside out.  But I came out the other side of the meat grinder somehow intact.  At least I ‘d like to think so,” replied the stranger in kind. “I’m sure I’ll know Tom when I see him.”

    Al looked at the stranger with a growing appreciation.  “Yeah, well I’m sure ya will.  An; it’ll be a pleasuh’ to have you guest-up with us all for Bowling in Camiguin”

    James looked on with uncharacteristic silence born of respect for those who have served their country.  He wouldn’t have guessed the stranger had once been a soldier.

    “Gotta git back, Al.  Need to consult with Bernhardt ‘bout some shelves he’s meanin’ to build for me.  He’ll be drivin’ us oveh lateh.  Thanks for the coffee, mate.”

    James and the stranger bid farewell to their host and retraced their steps back across the tiny bridge that forded the creek bordering the compound.  James dragged along his collection of branches while the stranger kept his distance behind.  They once again passed by the barangay’s community center and were soon back standing on the shoulder of the coastal highway. 

    Crossing over to the homestay, James walked out back and dropped the branches off by the wood pile next to the small cooking shed standing off to the side but well under the expansive radius of shade provided by the giant mango tree.  The stranger parted company, climbing the stairs up to his room.

    For some reason, the door to his room was open.  Reaching the landing, he paused to look inside before entering.  There was Jenelyn.  She had removed the mosquito netting, gathered it off to the side, and was in the process of making his bed.

    “Good morning, Jenelyn.”

    Startled, she stumbled to her knees as she was crouched over, tucking in a sheet neatly under the mattress.

    “Oh my God!  You frightened me!  I heard no one come up the stairs!” she cried out.

    “My apologies.  I tend to tread softly.  Must be my military training,” the stranger said, smiling.

    “Well, soldier boy, you almost gave me a heart attack!”  she said sternly.

    “I’m harmless, I assure you.  By the way, I didn’t know maid service was included.”

    “Maid service!  I’m no maid!  I’m the owner!” she snapped back.

    “Ph, my apologies once more.  A thoughtless choice of words.  I do thank you all the same,” the stranger said reassuringly, but with no real sense of contrition.  “For the service….I mean.”

    “Well, OK.  You’re welcome.”  Jenelyn bustled about the bed, picking up speed.  “I’ll be out of your way jus’ a second.”  She did not look up at the stranger who had now sat down in his rattan chair and lit a cigarette.

    “Take your time, Jenelyn.  I’m in no rush.”

    “Well I am!” she said, shooting a nasty glance his way.  “I’ve got shopping to do with my mother soon.”

    “I see.  Oh, by the way, I’ve been invited to go bowling tonight with everyone,” the stranger said casually.  “Is that alright with you?”
    Jenelyn suddenly stopped, stood upright, turned around, and put her hands on her hips, squaring off at the stranger.  “I don’t think you need my permission.  You are our guest.”  The same penetrating look and pursed lips animated her face as the stranger had seen the night before.

    “Your guest?” smiled the stranger.  “Well, yes, I guess I am at that.”  He blew smoke rings that quickly stretched, broke, and disintegrated into formlessness, blown apart by the ceiling fan’s blades that churned the room’s air.  “But somehow you don’t seem too happy about the fact,” he said dryly.

    Jenelyn said nothing but returned to making the bed.  Beside herself, she worked furiously.  Suddenly she broke down crying, slumping forward onto the be, her face buried in her hands.

    “Oh, Jesus!” said the stranger under his breath.  He turned back and quickly looked at the open door. He bolted out of his chair and stepped towards the door in a quick lunge, sticking his head out to see if anyone was nearby.  Reaching out with one arm, he grabbed the door long its edge while leaning on the frame with the other and drew it shut as quietly as he could manage.

    “Jenelyn.  Please don’t cry.  I’m so sorry,” he said in a hushed tone.  As Jenelyn continued to weep, the stranger tried gathering his wits.  Walking over to the counter top where had had stored his carry-on luggage, he flung opened its flap and rummaged around inside for a packet of tissues.  Snagging several from the packet, he walked over to Jenelyn and extending his hand, held the clump of tissues out to her.

    “Here, please take these, Jenelyn,” he said gently.  She turned her head slightly towards him and peering up first at the tissues and then his face, began to calm herself some.  Then propping herself up on her elbows, she began to wipe away the tears streaming down her face.

    The stranger instinctively felt the necessity to be quiet, and remained so.  Moments passed into minutes, and two remained silent and still, the stranger having sat down beside her in wait.  He listened for signs of James or anyone else that might be about, but the sound of a few birds singing in the trees and the ducks clucking away down by the mango tree were the only signs of life nearly.

    Jenelyn slowly sat up, turned around and sat down on the bed next to the stranger.  No, it is I who should apologize,” she said in a low, husky voice.  “I’m…I’m just very emotional today.  You must forgive me.”

    The stranger felt relieved, but not immeasurably so.  “Oh, I think we were both a little out of line,” he said smiling.  But then his face turned more serious.  “I think maybe you should probably go and freshen-up, Jenelyn.”

    “Oh, don’t worry,  Everyone is gone for a few hours.”

    “And James?  I was just with him.”

    “Oh, that deaf goat?  He’s out making dog food.  Then he’ll take a shower down by the mango tree.  You’ll hear him singing some awful sailor’s song.  He won’t know the difference if I’m dead or alive anyway until he’s hungry!  Anyway, he’s planning to take his motor bike and go to Mambajao to go visit the Dane at his new shop soon.”

    “Deaf goat?” said the stranger, surprised to be feeling strangely humored.

    “Yes! Deaf!  Haven’t you noticed?” Jenelyn asked quietly, but with an unbefitting  harshness.

    “Well, yes, to tell you the truth.  It seems his hearing isn’t what it once was.  But, all in all, you probably should best get back to your room now.”

    “Please- just a minute.  I want to talk.”

    The stranger stared ahead momentarily and breathed deeply, followed by a rush of air he blew out forcefully through puckered lips, his cheeks expanding under the pressure.  He quieted himself and then turned to look at her, trying to look calm and receptive.  “OK, Jenelyn.  Sure.  Let’s talk.”

    She immediately began to tear-up again.  “I…I’m just so lonely.  Please, I just need someone to talk to and, and… I….”  Her voice trailed off for a moment and she struggled for self-control.  “I… I think you’re someone I might be able to talk to.  For some reason, I trust you.”

    The stranger looked at her, surprised and a little flattered.  “I’m not going to question your instincts.  But more to the point- sure, I’ll try to lend a sympathetic ear.  Sometimes the best person to talk to is a perfect stranger.”

    “Yes- you are the perfect stranger,” she said mysteriously, the tone of her voice drifting off as if disappearing into the dark recesses of her being’s core.

    “So what is bothering you, Jenelyn?” asked the stranger directly, attempting to wake her from her soul’s vagrant peregrinations.

    “I’m having problems with my marriage.  I used to be just like the rest of my friends in Cagayan where I grew up- running after foreign men.  That’s what I was doing when I met James.  I was only nineteen, and all I wanted was out of Cagayan and my family’s house.  James had this place here in Camiguin and it all was very attractive at the time.”

    The stranger sat quietly and listened.

    “I could divorce him now; that isn’t the problem.  It’s my mother and brother.  They are well taken care of here.  If I leave, they’ll have to go with me.  It would be especially difficult for my brother.  He’s deaf and dumb, if you didn’t know.  He is such a beautiful soul but so unprepared to survive on his own.  Camiguin is a good place for him.  It provides him a safe, simple, secure life.”

    “And what about you?  Is James good to you?”

    Jenelyn seemed momentarily paralyzed.  Then a look of resignation overcame her.  “I….I don’t know how to explain.”  Looking over at Jenelyn, the stranger waited patiently for her to continue.

    “He provides for me,  And expects the same in return.  It was like that almost from the beginning.  I think it only goes as far as that- no more.  It’s all he wants.  And I accepted it from the beginning.  But now….now I…. I want more.  And he cannot give any more.”

    “So he does treat you well as far as that goes?”

    “He does not say mean things.  He’s never hit me.  But I…..I am taken care of like one of his dogs.  I’m just like one of his bitches outback, tied up to the house.  I’m only here to take care of the house and protect him- just like his dogs.”

    “Protect him?”

    “Yes.  From himself.  He can’t take care of himself.”

    “I’m not sure of what you mean.”

    “He’s very self-destructive.  He has a long history of abusing alcohol.  Maybe you can see that, even though he is not drinking now.  A woman is something he can put between himself and the bottle.  I….I’m not sure how else to put it.”

    “Every man’s face tells a story, but sometimes it’s difficult to interpret.”

    “But he expects me to be his disciplinarian- to show him a strong hand and keep him in line.  And it brings out the worse in me.  He needs a mother more than a lover.  And so I have become a bitch- a nag; and a drill sergeant.  I can yell at him all I wish.  And though he talks back to me- it’s only as a young child would to their mother- just childish, ridiculous things all meant to play his part as the disobedient child who protests but still knows his mother’s right.”

    “And are you right?”

    “Too often; right much too often.  And harshly right.  That has been a huge problem.  I discovered I could be harsh and right at the same time.  Because I was right, my harshness could be justified.  Now I have become somebody I am beginning to hate.  The sickness in this relationship…has brought horrible things out of me.”

    “I did hear you yesterday with him,” said the stranger.  “And then there was just how with me.”

    Jenelyn hung her head remorsefully.  “I know, and that’s the sad truth.  I don’t care who hears now; and I am beginning to treat others harshly, too- even my own paying guests.  I….I just don’t know where it will stop- and what I can do other than leave here- and leave James.”  Jenelyn covered her face with her hands and began to cry again.

    The stranger arose from the bed and walked over to sit in the rattan chair and light another cigarette.

    “Tell me, Jenelyn,” he said reflectively, “How do you deal with all of this?”

    “I don’t know what you mean,” she said weakly, wiping away tears with crumbled, wet tissue.

    “What’s your escape from all this?”

    “Jenelyn looked at him, her face flushed with hesitation and fear.  “I….I still don’t know what you mean.”

    The stranger looked undecided for a moment, and finally came to the point.  “I mean, have you found another lover?”

    Jenelyn was surprised at the ease in which she answered.  “Yes, I have.”

    “I see,” he replied.  “And do you really love him?”

    I’m not sure.  It’s too soon to tell.”

    “Right.  Well, you have started the break-up process.  You have crossed the line.  Both with yourself, and with James.  Soon you’ll be on your own.  I mean the consequences will forcefully come into play most likely sooner than later.  Do you feel prepared for that?”

    Jenelyn’s face became pale and little lifeless.  “No,” she said.  Her voice was barely audible.  “Mainly because of my mother and brother.  I just feel driven not to feel alive- to be free of this all.”

    “Jenelyn,” the stranger said gently,” of course I best just listen and not give advice.  But it’s hard not to.  You seem to be high aware, and you can thank your stars there are no children involved in this.  It seems to me that you will somehow come to a decision and work it out.  It will be hellish, and cause everyone pain- but that can’t be avoided.”

    “But what about my mother and brother?” she said helplessly.

    “Ultimately, they are responsible for themselves,” he replied flatly.

    “Oh, you don’t understand Philippine culture.  It doesn’t work like that,” she said.
    “OK.  But how about your need to feel alive- to be free of this all.  Is that in keeping with your culture?

    Jenelyn closed her eyes and shook her head slowly, side to side.  “Do you mean am I a modern woman?  I….I think I am becoming one,” she said philosophically.

    “Welcome to that nifty time and place we call the 21st century,” said the stranger with a gentle smile.  “The need to be free can be deadly- but to live without it is death itself.  I’ve lived through such things myself- and more than once.  I’m still alive to tell the tale, and am more or less the better for it.  It’s something most of us face- this fight for personal freedom.  It’s the story of the modern world.  But some people have very little room to move in.  It seems to me you have some choice in the matter, though.  It boils down to what you value the most- and how you handle it all.  No one can really say what that is and how it should be done.  The decisions you make rest with you.  Ultimately you must make some decision or else circumstances will make them for you.”

    “I know that,” she said.

    “It’s a very lonely place where you sit, Jenelyn.  I don’t know if any of this has helped.  I have been happy to listen, though.  I think I’ll go take a swim in the ocean now.  Maybe it’s time to take a break.  And tonight- will you be coming along to bowl?  I’ll catch up to you later on this evening if you decide to go.”  The stranger smiled affectionately.

    “I have met many foreign men- and many Americans- but none like you.  How is it you’re different?”  Jenelyn looked at the stranger searchingly.

    He laughed softly.  “I can only tell you what made the biggest difference in my own life.  Somewhere along the road I simply stopped playing cat and mouse with others- and with myself.  No more hide and seek.  I discovered if you don’t hide, there’s not much left to seek.  It all sort of ends up standing directly in front of you, unveiled.  A new life- not an easier life- but a new and truer life begins at that very moment.”

    “So why are you here?  Are you vacationing?”

    “Hmm, I don’t know exactly.  I’m open to the possibility of living in Southeast Asia.  It’s partially cultural; partially financial.  Not playing hide and seek needs maintenance, you know.  Being in the right environment is very helpful in staying the course.”

    “I see,” said Jenelyn knowingly.  “OK, I’ll see you tonight.  I’d better go.  By the way, fish is the entrée tonight.”

    Thanks, hope to see you later.”  The stranger stood and walking to the door, cracked it open a little.  “All clear,” he said.  Jenelyn walked over, peered out through the crack herself, and then exited quietly.

    After and early dinner, James told the stranger to come downstairs at 7 PM.  He’d introduce him to Bernhardt, and then all would proceed to Mambajao for bowling league.  The stranger changed clothes and read a book, smoking in the rattan chair in order to pass the time.

    At seven, the stranger walked down the steep stairway to the grounds below and looked around, wondering where to turn next.  That was solved by the sound of Bernhardt turning over the engine on his mini-transport.  The stranger followed the sound around to the side of the homestay and spotted Bernhardt washing the windshield as he let the vehicle warm-up.

    Bernhardt smiled happily at the stranger and stopped to shake hands.  Short and powerfully built, his handshake was vice-like and full of authority.

    “Welcome to Camiguin!  Are you ready for bowling Camiguin-style?” he said laughing.

    “Half of me is still back home; the other half up there in the jet that recently brought me here.  The sound of bowling balls and pins bouncing off the boards might bring me down to earth where I stand.  Yeah, I’m ready for some action,” the stranger replied cheerfully.

    Bernhardt’s girl friend Milka emerged from their downstairs apartment; a short woman whose very frizzy hair she wore tied back.  She wore casual clothes like most everyone else- a pair of knee-length shorts, short sleeved top, and sandals.  It was already dark, and a security light shone down from above on the parking area below.

    “Go ahead and get in the back,” said Bernhardt.  James and Jenelyn will be along soon.”  Bernhardt and his wife entered the cab, and the stranger climbed into the short and narrow flat bed which had two benches running down each side and a protective roof over head.  He had to stoop while sitting to keep from bumping his head.  The engine purred as the stranger stared in at Bernhardt and his girl friend through the cabs rear window, their faces reflecting the glow of the dashboard lights.  After a short wait, James and Jenelyn arrived and climbed into the flat bed sitting together across from the stranger.

    “Hallo, mate,” said James with his customary courtesy.  “Bernhardt is a good driver.  No need to worry ‘bout that.  It’ll be about a twenty minute ride into Mambajao.”

    The three were silent for the next few minutes as the vehicle bumped its way along the dirt road out to the main highway, turning left onto the smooth asphalt and picking up speed as it moved gradually, slipping past run down village stores and dimly lit restaurants.

    “I can’t say I know who’ll be showin’ up tonigh’,” said James, “but theh’s usually a dozen of us o’ so.  Al told you ‘bout tom an’ Fred- they’ll be theh, as will al himself.  Tiny, a fat German guy, is pretty regulah.  Then theh’s Karson, the tall, skinny Dane.  In fac’, I jus’ visited his new stoh today in Mambajao.”
    Jenelyn smirked at the mention of Karson.  “You did have to go to the grand opening of that awful place,” she said with disdain.

    “Hey, I just wanted to wish him luck an’ all!  He’s strugglin’ now to keep his head above wateh and give it a go heh on the island.  If this fails, he’ll have to head home to Denmahk.  He’s got a wife and kid to take cah of for Christ’s sake!”

    “Yes, and I wonder what his wife thinks about his choice of business!” carried on Jenelyn.

    “And what may that be?” asked the stranger.

    As Bernhardt geared down rounding a corner that climbed a rise, the mini-transport’s engine raced and whined.  “Oh, it’s a movie rental shop,” replied James, raising his voice in order to be heard.  “Adult entertainment to be exact.”  He broke out with an ill-timed smile.

    “It’s a porno shop, James!  Call it what it is!” Jenelyn’s blood was already rising.

    “It’s legitimate- strictly legal!  What’s the problem?  He’s serving a need in the community!”

    “Yes- the needs of your horny-bastard expat friends!”
    “Hey- it’s capitalism, puh an’ simple, Jenelyn.  If theh’s a demand, then somebody will supply.  If not Karson- then it’ll be somebody else.  Besides, Mambajao has no other shops like it.  Karson’s is the first.”

    “That’s what disturbing,” said Jenelyn.  “Now Mambajao has its first porno shop.  And a foreigner is the owner.  It will influence others to do the same.”

    “Oh, the market place does what it wills.  Some Filipino could have just as easily opened such a place,” said James matter-of-factly.”

    “Al I can tell you is if you bring any of those trashy movies home, I’ll burn them!” threatened Jenelyn.

    “Relax, relax!  I didn’t today, and I won’t in the futuh’.”  James’ jaw was set tight and he started grinding his teeth.  “Now think of ouh guest heh, would ya?  I’m suh’ he would ratheh be spahed.”  Jenelyn and James lapsed into tense silence for the rest of the drive.

    The stranger was indeed relieved.  He’d had enough drama for the day.

    Mabajao’s bowling alley was a tiny four lane facility- a miniature of what would be considered standard.  The lanes were short; the balls the size of ostrich eggs and made of wood; the pins the size of quart-sized milk cartons.  Teenage boys stood in the cage behind the pins; righting them after each frame and feeding the balls back out to the bowlers by rolling them back down the grooves.  Their pay came from a separate charge each bowler paid on top of the lane fee.  Bernhardt and his entourage descended on the lanes, and were greeted by the sight of seven expats and a gaggle of Filipina females- most under the age of twenty-five.

    The stranger’s first impression was a product of prejudice.  He saw the expats as a motley crew of aging eccentrics and hard-bitten survivors.  The Americans as Al had already described commandeered the two scoring desks. Tom, the dour Oklahoman and Viet Nam vet, stared straight ahead.  He was blond, tall and muscular; his arms covered in tattoos. He went about his task in a dead-serious, businesslike manner.  Fred was a wholly different creature.  Terribly infirmed as Al had mentioned, he was short in stature and obese.  An extremely hairy man, his shoulders, chest and back were thickly matted with black, curly hair- much of which was exposed as he wore a pin-striped tank-top.  His New York City accent hadn’t lost a scintilla of its purity, and he was predictably jocular and talkative.  Care taking of people and situations seemed completely natural for him.  Fred could barely walk, and to watch him take a few steps was shockingly painful.  His hips and knees had little mobility or range of motion.  He chain smoked, and felt happily at home sitting, directing traffic, keeping score, and calling on the roster of bowlers each in turn, frame-by-frame.  Tom, on the other hand, was taciturn, brooding, and only similar to Fred in that he chain-smoked as well, matching him cigarette-for-cigarette. 

    The German contingent consisted of Greg, a man massive like a wrestler, sporting a
    blond pony tail.  He sucked up endless bottles of beer, and had a face as red as a beet.  He sat apart from the rest with a drunken smile stamped on his face.

    Tiny was the clown of the group; another German with slicked-back, jet-black hair, and a thick, bristly moustache. His stomach was of the Santa Claus variety, and he used it to great comic advantage, drawing attention to it whenever in motion.  This often consisted of him stomping about like gorilla with a look of half-madness and half-agitated wrath on his face.  He shook the stranger’s hand somewhat hesitantly and did so as accompanied by a downward snap of his head while clicking his heels together.  How could the stranger not be eerily reminded of a Nazi-style military greeting?  Bluster rather than words escaped Tiny’s mouth when he spoke. 

    Al was sitting next to Karson, and they were the most naturally comfortable and congenially unassuming expats in the mix.  Karson was the tallest man in the room- and possibly the youngest of all the expats present.  A good looking, athletic sort of fellow, he was clean shaven and his hair boyishly curly.  The stranger had to laugh a little thinking of how as a child his first knowledge concerning pornographic films was that some of its earliest practitioners were Danish and Scandinavian.  Maybe Karson was simply involved in a national pastime- and found his choice of business comfortably familiar.

    Finally there was the Swiss, Heinrich, who thoroughly disturbed the stranger.  Choosing to sit next to Tom as he kept score, Heinrich was a model of unhealthiness- tall and wand with pasty white skin and one leg a couple inches shorter that the other.  The large round, red sores on his right foot and heel gave the stranger the funny feeling he bore some immune-deficiency.  The subcutaneous blue that showed through the thin skin surrounding his dazed and cancelled-looking eyes was frightful to behold.  Wearing a cumbersome shell and seedpod necklace, tropical print shirt, and Birkenstock sandals, his facial gestures- which alternated between a palsy and nervous tic- reminded the stranger of someone past damage having sniffed a lot of glue and gasoline in his youth.  Heinrich’s infirmities seemed every bit as debilitating as those of Fred’s, but of a wholly different order.

    However falsely prejudicial or unerringly accurate were the stranger’s first impressions, he felt to be in-league with this cohort; a not-so-vicarious association that due to his similar age, gender, culture, and expat status could only make him wonder if he wasn’t no more than their logical extension.  He felt like the new kid on the block, and it was unsettling.  A cold chill overtook his self-concept and it was all he could do to conduct himself in a quasi-warm social manner and politely await his turn to bowl each frame with some semblance of feigned equanimity.

    The stranger had fallen on a sword of self-reflection, but his mind was clear.  There was a surprising benefit to this painful mental state.  He found himself able to grapple with some thorny issues appropriate to him.  The first was the question of his being an expat.  It occurred to him to clarify and expand upon the term’s definition.  He had to admit he had never done so.  The term felt and sounded flat to him-especially having heard it used so often in the past two days.  And now that he had been thrown in the stew with a so-called group of them, he realized that the term pertained to a social phenomena when put into context.  The social dynamic held a lot more power than just the simple idea of an expat choosing to live outside his country of origin.  Having snuck up on him, he discovered he had never really considered the implications.

    The stranger’s motivation to test the waters of living in Southeast Asia was partly about the idea of freeing himself of having a social status at all.  In the revelation of the moment, he saw it was a purely foolish thought.  At least in Camiguin, he could see such a thing would be utterly impossible.  Imagining himself settling on the island just for arguments sake, he was stricken with the insight that he would immediately be conferred the status of belonging to the “group of seventy.”  Did these men he had just met occupy that area around the statistical mean of expats living in Camiguin- or the Philippines for that matter- or were they an aberration?  It was a frightful analysis to consider.  If they weren’t a standard deviation to either side of bell-jar center, then he prayed to God he was a distant outlier in the frequency distribution.

    As the stranger tussled with his provoked thoughts, he turned over more rocks and found additional creeping-crawling lack of personal awareness.  If he lived in a small island setting with a handful of expats scattered about the population, he would have to decide how much of an insider or outsider he would want to be- or maybe that would be decided for him by the others.  Such prospects seemed unavoidable.  And distasteful as hell.  What he saw in these expats as an outsider- as a stranger- was mainly a collection of broken or unfinished men.  It would be easy to self-identify and then rebel in disgust.  Back home in America, he couldn’t help but carry a self-definition rooted in the reaction of others to his person.  The result was to be at war within oneself- at war with that social awareness whose weight had to be carried and somehow managed because it had been strapped to one’s back.  He couldn’t shake it.  Men who said they were immune from or inured to what others thought of them he considered liars, but he was more sensitive to it than was healthy.

    Possibly the greatest of human weaknesses is the most natural of human responses- that of comparing and contrasting oneself with others.  As the stranger sat ruminating about this most basic phenomenology concerning the human condition, he could fathom no saving grace to being part of an expat community.  He remembered how in his previous trips to Indonesia he had studiously avoided contact with westerners and what a relief it had been.  But in the long-term, avoidance is always an unsustainable proposition that best promotes a particularly wicked form of exhaustion born of paranoia.

    His mind turned to other things.  What about other motivational factors behind expatriotism?  Save Al, these expats whose bowling league met every week gave every appearance of being men who were non-functionaries within their own societies.  It was easy to label them losers who had turned themselves out.  But was that really such a bad thing?  There’s a place for everybody in this mess we call the world.  It seemed natural enough that place might fall outside the borders of one’s nation of origin.  In fact, it might be considered an act of both wisdom and bravery to take a step outside the margins.

    But the stranger felt fear rising up his gullet- the fear that he carried the fatal weakness that allowed him to identify with these men who he harshly judged and found so objectionable.  There was a self-hatred at work- one that created a deafening echo all too familiar in tone and dynamic.  Why, oh why judge them?  It only served to boomerang and garrote the judger.  But the stranger could not help it, just as he could not help feeling judged by others.  It was an example of a conundrum that certainly deserved its own ring in Dantean hell.

    Many of these men seemed tragically flawed, but imperfection is man’s lot.  And weren’t they absurdly comic as well?  The stranger finally smiled a moment while remembering the lines of a modern playwright.

    “There are no alternatives; if man is not tragic, he is ridiculous and painful, comic in fact, and revealing his absurdity one can achieve a sort of tragedy.  In fact I think that man must either be unhappy (metaphysically unhappy) or stupid”

    The recollection soothed him for a moment and having broken his growing inner tension, allowed his to resume the trajectory of his thought.

    What was his fear, then?  His real fear was that his life had been a failure; that his present circumstances as determined by life decisions had reduced him and placed him in cohorts with the Camiguin Expat Bowling League.  As a human being he had become incapable of maintaining a modicum of stability in his home country; incapable of sustaining a relationship with a woman of his own background, education, and nationality;  he had become a losing player at the game of work and making a decent living.

    At wits end, it became a viable option under the circumstances to leverage the favorable currency exchange between West and East in order to secure an affordable life.  But for a man who believed in the nobility of spirit, this was a notion anathema to dignity as it was born of survivalist mentality.  The lot of us here, thought the stranger, had settled on survival as opposed to doing good or nobler thinks in life.  Maybe there had once been nobility in action for all of them.  Once a fireman, a teacher, a soldier.  Once young and idealistic.  Now- old and tired; used up; emotionally blunter; spiritually exhausted, physically in decline; persona non grata in our own home towns.  Morally corrupted as well.  We had all bailed before being turned out to pasture, the stranger thought.  Survivalists- all of us.

    It was Bowling in Camiguin- a collection of misfits in league with the devil of decline.  The entire group plagued with some degree of self-hatred.  The stranger now felt himself scrambling for psychic cover.  He could not escape his addiction to running inner dialogues of malediction.  To insult to self-inflicted injury, his was the lowest bowling score of the lot.

    Then there were the women- actually most of them girls- sitting together as a group in plastic chairs across aisle from the stranger.  Most of the expats’ wives and girlfriends had indeed attended.  Jenelyn sat amongst them.  A few participated as bowlers, too.  They wore a lot of make-up and tight jeans.  Their tops were inevitably too small revealing midriffs and belly buttons as their jeans hugged their hips.  Endlessly fiddling with their hair, they laughed and gossiped.  Their ages ranged upwards to forty, but many were well under thirty.  They all seemed interchangeable to the stranger.  The more they bounced and flounced; or combed their long, beautiful hair so blessed upon the Filipinos; or over reacted to gossip with mouths agape and eyes-on-stalks feigning ultimate shock; the more static and interchangeable they all seemed to him.  A few looked the stranger’s way, stealing a glance perchance.  The thought himself not the least bit interested.  And he hoped James wouldn’t follow-up on his proposal of trying to hook him up with one- a short-timer he had called it.

    The night wore on longer than the stranger had anticipated.  After the third game, he bowed out and relegated himself to being an onlooker.  The beer was flowing steadily with only the men drinking with any seriousness.  Tiny had warmed into his customary buffoonery and Fred good-naturedly ribbed everyone as only a New Yorker can get away with.  Al was theatrically supportive and high-fived every bowler after their frame- come strike, spare, or gutter ball.  The stranger had somehow overlooked Al- he was different than the rest, wasn’t he?- thought the stranger.

    Bored and restless, the stranger strolled outside and lit a cigarette.  As was his custom, he always looked skyward when first stepping out at night.  The heavens always held great interest for him.  He stood alone trying to make out a constellation he might recognize.  Little was familiar in this latitude and longitude.  It was a cross-section of the universe one never saw in North America.

    His concentration was interrupted by James, who had placed his hand on the stranger’s shoulder, coming up from behind. 

    “Have ya had enough, mate?  Of bowling, I mean,” he asked.  His eyes glazed, a drunken smile was pasted across his face.

    “Three games was one too much.”

    “Well, listen, weh’ gonna be heh’ a while.  Hope ya don’t min’.”

    “Na.  No problem.  I can keep myself occupied.”

    “Well, good, then.   Ah- listen.  “Bout what I said befoh’,” said James in a purposeful tone.  “The Pinay have been taklin’ ’bout you, ya see.  I ovehheahd ‘em.  Look back inside.  Ya see the petite one with a red top in the back row?  She’s got the hots foh ya.”

    “You don’t say?” said the stranger disinterestedly.

    “I do say, mate.  Deed I do!”

    “And so?”

    “I can arrange an introduction.  In fact, right now if you’d like.  I can have Jenelyn come heh’ and introduce the two of ya.  Whaddya say?


    “Ya.  Jenelyn!  It’s nuthin’ she hasn’t done befoh’.” James smiled with encouragement.

    “What’s her name?”

    “Mona Lisa.”

    “Mona Lisa?  You’re kidding.”

    We’re wasting time, mate.  He’, I’ll go arrange things with Jocelyn.”

    James left the stranger standing without a chance to give his blessings.  The stranger watched James reenter the bowling alley and call Jocelyn over to the side.  Not wanting to bother watching the matchmaking activities, he walked over to a couple of plastic chairs tucked off to the side and sat down while lighting another cigarette.  Considering all he had been reflecting on, he felt his skin turned inside out and nerves exposed.  It wasn’t an opportune time to be meeting a girl for the first time.  He didn’t know if he was up to the task.

    A few minutes later Jocelyn appeared approached with the girl who shyly followed close behind.

    “Hello, again.  I’m…I’d like to introduce you to my friend.  Her she is.  Mona Lisa?  Here, Mona Lisa is our guest I was telling you about.” 

    Jenelyn eyes were disembodied and vacant as she looked at the stranger.  She’d been put up to this just like me, thought the stranger.  The stranger stood and shook hands with the young Mona Lisa.  She extended a limp, cold, and sweaty palm; her arm outstretched and locked at the elbow.

    “My pleasure,” said the stranger politely.  “Here.  Please take a seat next to me.”

    Mona Lisa sat down and nervously looked back at Jenelyn.  “Don’t worry.  I’ll be inside,” Jenelyn assured here.

    “Beautiful night out, Mona Lisa.  Just out here doing some star gazing and getting a breath of fresh air.”

    “You staying here in Camiguin for how long?” she asked sheepishly.

    “I’m not sure.  Let’s say I’m free to stay as long as I’d like.”

    The girl giggled.  “Why do you come to the Philippines?  You already got a girl here?”

    “Not that I know of.”

    She giggled again.  “You not lying to me now?”

    “Lying?  How could I lie to a girl named Mona Lisa?”  The stranger was warming to a new trend.

    “Oh my God!” she said, covering her mouth with her hands to brace against the excited laughter that was erupting from inside.  “Why?  You like my name?”  Staring at the stranger with curiosity, she cocked her head to one side, letting her long jet black hair fall neatly like a curtain of velvet down across her shoulder.
    “Sure I do.  And you know the song by the same name don’t you?”

    “Yes, I do,” she said sentimentally.

    “Many men they have come to you doorstep; and they lie there; and they die there.”  The stranger sang in a clear and mellifluous baritone.  “Are you warm; are you real, Mona Lisa?  Or just a cold and lonely, lovely piece of art.”  The stranger looked out at the heavens while singing the last line of lyrics, and then turned towards Mona Lisa as he finished, closing his eyes softly as the word “art” faded away.

    “Oh my God!” squealed Mona Lisa with delight.  “You sing so beautiful!  Thank you for that!”  She leaned over, put her hand on the stranger’s wrist, and kissed him on the cheek.

    “Oh please.  Nothing that hasn’t been sung before a million times better.”

    “So where you go after this?”

    “Bernhardt has the transport.  I imagine back to the homestay considering he’s with his wife and the rest of us.  What about you?”

    “I don’t know,” she said shyly, looking down to her foot as she drew a wide circle with the tip of her big toe lightly across the surface of the patio cement.  “I live with my brother and sister nearby here.  I can come and go as I please,” she said.  Looking up suddenly, she braced herself.  “Maybe I can come with you?”  She looked into the stranger’s eyes with a mixture of desire, fear, and wonderment.

    The stranger was not really prepared for this girlish acting young woman to be so aggressive.  He was speechless for a moment.

    “You don’t want me to come?” she suddenly blurted, a look of disappointment and sadness overcoming her.

    “Oh, please, no…I mean….yes, sure, if you’d like,”

    “But do you like?”  She bore into his eyes, begging for approval.

    “OK, Mona Lisa.  Please, yes.  You’re very welcome to come.”

    “It’s Ok with Jenelyn, too,” she said coyly.

    “Do we need her approval?” laughed the stranger.

    “Well, she is my friend, and….”

    “And you already asked her?”  He interrupted; with eyebrows raised, smiling.

    “Well, I like to visit over there sometimes after bowling,” she said, nervously pulling at her red top, attempting to straighten its hem around her waist.

    By this point of the conversation, the stranger’s frame of mind had suddenly shifted domains.  No matter how amazed he was at the transient nature of his emotions, he was most enthralled by the sweet opportunity that temptation had delivered to his doorstep.

    “You stay alone at the homestay, right?”

    “Yes- if you don’t count the ducks, chickens, and dogs.”

    “Oh, I like dogs.”

    “Maybe we can take James’ big pups for a walk,” suggested the stranger.

    “To the beach?”

    “Yes.  I don’t think they get enough exercise.”

    “OK!  That sounds fun!  We can ask James.  I am friends with his dogs.  They know me.  I always visit them when I come over.”

    “Do you come over often?”
    “Well, just sometimes.  I am an old friend of Jenelyn’s. We are both from Cagayan.  I moved here tow years after she did.  My brother got a job here, so my sister and I came to live with him.”

    “I see.  And are you working?  Going to school?”

    “Hopefully working very soon.  You know Karson?  The tall one bowling inside?  He is opening a new store.  He asked if I would be interested to work there.  I am friends with his wife.”

    “Karson.  Yes.  I heard about his new rental shop.”

    “Oh yeah? You have?  It just opened today.”

    Right.  I guess you know what he’s renting, right?”

    “Videos, yeah.”

    Yeah.  Movies.  I hope his taste in movies suits you.”

    “I need the job,” she said matter-of-factly.

    “I understand.  Not my business anyway.”
    “Well, I need to go back inside now.  My friends will wonder what happened to me!  I’ll see you when the games are over with, OK?”  She hesitated, but couldn’t help but lean over and kiss the stranger on the cheek one more time.  “Sing a song for me later,’K?”

    “Sure.  Be happy to.”

    The stranger rarely drank alcohol, but decided a beer wasn’t such a bad idea.  He walked into the bowling alley and bought a beer inside at the concession.  A long, rather dramatic day had the apparent promise of turning into a night catering to the sensual.  He felt swept up in the throes of the moment. Suddenly the allure of the island had come alive.  The intoxication hit him all at once, and from out of nowhere.

    Everyone called it a night after the fifth game.  Bernhardt’s entourage followed him and Milka out to the mini-transport.  Once everyone was seated, James looked over at the stranger.

    “Well, mate, Mona Lisa heh’ tells me she’s comin’ oveh to walk the dogs!”  A shit-eating smile crossed his grizzled face, covered in a spotty week-old growth mainly salt with a small dash of pepper.

    “It was my suggestion,” replied the stranger.

    “Ya, well ya got me blessins, mate.  I’ll get the leashes fo’ you when we arrive home.”

    “Thanks for that James.  We’ll take care of them”

    “Ya.  Nuthin’ to worry ‘bout.  If they get loose, I’ll round ‘em up with Shawna.”  Jenelyn looked on with a detached coldness.

    James turned to her in after thought.  “Alright with you, isn’t it deah?”

    “Not my business.  They’re your dogs.”

    “Mona Lisa sat next to the stranger and remained silent.  The night had turned cool, and the women clutched at their sides, attempting to stay warm in the open-air flat bed.

    Bernhardt had drunk his fill of beer, but it hadn’t fazed the German’s ability to make a safe beeline back to Agoho and the homestay.  Jenelyn rushed off ahead of the rest.  James followed, and the stranger with Mona Lisa lingered a moment in the parking area before walking upstairs.

    “Is Jenelyn alright?” the stranger asked Mona Lisa.

    “I think so.  Why?

    “Oh, she doesn’t look well.”

    “She doesn’t?”

    “I don’t know.  Maybe I’m just imagining.  Let’s go get the leashes.”

    The stranger beckoned her to follow him up to his room.  He had left the night light on next to the bed.  It glowed warmly, throwing long shafts of soft, amber light which mixed in with shadows played pleasantly in contrast across the bed and the rest of the room.  The stranger pulled aside the mosquito netting from under the mattress and gathered it off to the side.

    “Please take a seat.  I imagine James will be along any moment.”  Mona Lisa smiled, and sat on the edge of the bed.

    James did soon appear carrying a set of four leashes.  “The pups are still quite young, so they’re a nervous and energetic bunch.  They’ll be draggin’ ya aroun’ if ya let up on ‘em.  I can guarantee no one will mess with ya- the people ‘round heh’ ah’ deathly afraid of me dogs.”

    “OK.  We’ll be back- let’s say- in an hour or so?”

    “Ya, no problem.  Jus’ tie ‘em back up good ‘an’ secuh’ when ya do.  They’re just snapped onto chains right now.  When they see the leashes they’ll get right excited.  It won’t matteh too much whose carryin’ the leashes.  The know Mona Lisa anyway.  If you take a right down at the beach and follow it a ways you’ll come across a small picnic area with trees and benches next to the beach.  Nice comfohtable place to rest, look at the ocean, and you kin tie the dogs up to the benches.  I’m tuckehed, mate. 
    Shut eye’s in ordah.  See you and Mona Lisa lateh.  Have a nice time.”

    The stranger and Mona Lisa leashed the four dogs, who excitedly lead the charge to the beach, panting and straining at their choke chains, impassionedly oblivious to any lack of oxygen their half-clamped throats were hard pressed to deliver to their heaving lungs. 

    The couple laughed while they tripped along on the sand as the four Doberman pups lunged ahead, crossing paths and entangling each other in playful abandon.  The half moon shone brightly on the horizon and the starlight filled the clear, cloudless heavens.  A slight breeze blew along the beach and all that could be heard was the docile sea lapping softly at the shore at high tide.

    Twenty minutes later they reached the picnic area and the stranger secured the pups to a couple of bamboo benches.

    “I told you they don’t get out often enough,” he laughed, plopping himself down on another bamboo bench next to Mona Lisa.

    “I don’t either.” Said Mona Lisa wistfully, staring up at the moon.  “I never come down to the beach at night.  I forget how beautiful it is here.  At night I usually just sit home and watch television.”

    “You and ninety percent of the rest of humanity,” responded the stranger.  “And it’s easy to take for granted the beauty that surrounds you once you lived in a place like this for a while.”

    “I’m too scared to come down to the beach alone at night, you know.”

    “You ought to come out and walk James’ dogs more often.  They’d be excellent security.”

    “I need a man with me though,” she said looking over at the stranger.  “A man like you.”

    The stranger cleared his throat involuntarily.  “A man and four dogs.  A winning combination,” he replied, his voice thickening.

    “All I need is the man.”  She leaned towards the stranger and placed her hand on his lap.  He reached out, put his arm around her and drew her over to him gently and slowly.

    The first kiss was moist, warm, and lingered on.  The couple kissed in the moonlight until the passion grew too fierce handle.
    “Let’s go back,” the stranger said softly.

    “I want to spend the night,” she said trembling.

    “That’s what I mean.”

    A half hour later the couple arrived with the dogs and quietly chained then up in their kennel.  Taking Mona Lisa’s hand, the stranger led her around the house in the darkness and upstairs to his room.  The stranger closed the door and turned off the night light.  He slowly approached Mona Lisa and embraced her.  Their passion soon picked up where it had left off at the beach, and they fell onto the bed in a dizzy fever, foundling each other and pulling at each other’s clothes.

    The stranger threw caution to the wind.  Though he had a condom he did not use it.  In fact, she begged him not to.  “I want to feel you inside me, honey- deep inside me,” she moaned in protest gently biting his ear.

    “What the fuck am I doing here?” he asked breathlessly, as she climbed on top to mount him.

    “You’re making love to me for the first time,” she answered, sliding down on top of him along his lengthy slowly, a low groan rising from her groins, up through her diaphragm, and resonating in the recesses of her dilated throat.
    The bed creaked loudly and through the open air gaps above the latched wall panels could be heard a good distance outside the room in any direction.  After making love, they laughed about the fact as they lie together naked, wrapped around each other. Skin glistening with sweat, they languished while cooling off beneath the ceiling fan.

    “I’m off to the bathroom,” the stranger said.

    “Don’t’ be long.  I need to also.”

    The stranger quietly walked into the house and headed in the dark for the bathroom, feeling his way along the kitchen countertop.  Suddenly he heard a bellowing from James’ and Jenelyn’s bedroom from behind its closed door.

    “You what?!  You did what?!  Say it again.  What the fuck did you just say?”

    “I fucked him James!  That’s right, James!  I fucked him!  You deaf bastard!  Try to listen carefully for a change!”

    “Oh Christ!  You bitch!  You bitch!!  You Pinay bitch are all the fuckin’ same!  All whores at heaht!  Wheh’ did ya fuck ‘im?  Right heh’ in ou’ bed while I was out?  Or wheh’?  Wheh’?!”

    “I’ll tell you where, you bastard!  Right where it would hurt you the most and make me come the best!  Huh?!  You deaf bastard- can you guess?  Can you guess?!  I gave you a clue you stupid ass!  Think about it!  Think about something for a change other than what your clueless little desires would rather you think about, you selfish fucker!  Think!”

    “Oh, Jenelyn, what’s come oveh’ you?  Tell me!  Please!  I don’t want to know about it now.  I jus’ don’t know any moh’.”

    “Oh, no!  I’m going to tell you, James.  And I’m going to say it loud and clear so you can hear it the first time I say it!  OK.  OK?!  Are you ready?  Get ready, James!”

    No, please!  Don’t!  Shut the fuck up!

    “In the ring, James!  The ring!  He did me good on the ropes, James, and on the mat, too!  I fucked Rafael in the ring, James!  I hung on to the top rope with my feet on the second and he fucked me from behind, James!  Do you hear me you deaf bastard?!  It was in Al’s ring!”

    “Oh, you fuckin’ whoh’!  Why do you tortuh’ me like this?  Why do ya rub my nose in yo’ shit?  What I done to desehv’ this in yur pehvehted way of thinkin’?  I’m lost heh’; completely lost.”

    “I know you too well, James.  You just want a meal and a fuck out of me.  That’s all you want from me.  And what do I get in return?  Nothing, you selfish bastard?  NOTHING!!”

    By this time Mona Lisa had gingerly stepped into the kitchen and accidentally bumped into the stranger.

    “Oh my God!” she whispered sharply.  “You scared me to death!” she said.  Suddenly Mona Lisa heard the vicious argument in progress, and froze up against the stranger’s back, gripping her hands onto his shoulder.

    “Yes, you’re lost, James!  That’s one thing you seem to understand.  And I have been, too- up until today, James.  I’ll give the devil he is due, James.  Yes, sure; you provided for me,” she said calming a little.  “I take it back- yes- you gave me something in return. 
    But it wasn’t love, James.  It wasn’t love.  I was just an exchange of services, James.  You thought the nineteen year old Pinay you met six years ago would remain nineteen and stay happy just to serve you.  And because I was a poor young Pinay you thought you could hold that over me.  You underestimated me, James.  Every single thing about me, James!

    “And why? Why?!  Because you hate women.  And because you hate them, you don’t know them.  And because you don’t know them, you underestimate them because you think they’re stupid.  Don’t you see that?  Listen to me, James.  Your time is up.  It’s over!  You’ve played with women your entire life.  Give it up, James.  For Christ’s sake- you’re sixty-two fucking years old!  Do yourself and the women of the world a favor and give it up you stupid, pathetic man!”

    The stranger and Mona Lisa stood riveted, able to hear every word.  Let’s return to the room,” the stranger said in a hush.  “I think it’s best we do.”

    The couple moved quickly and slipped out of the kitchen in their bare feet.  Entering their room, they sat on the edge of the bed in silence for a while, listening for further signs of the frightful crisis.

    “Maybe things have hit a lull for the moment,” said the stranger calmly.

    “Oh, God, this is horrible!  What should we do?”

    “Let’s wait a bit and see.  And think.  One option is to get out of here.  I’m especially thinking of you.  If the arguing reaches another peak, we should go.”

    “You were right.  There was a problem with Jenelyn.  How did you know?”

    “You might say I put her up to it.”

    “What does that mean?
    “I had a long talk with her in the morning.  Or should I say she with me.”


    “She told me how unhappy she was with James.  It was unexpected, Mona Lisa.”

    “What did you say?”

    “Not much, really.  I tried not to give her too much advice.”

    “But she doesn’t know you.”

    “Exactly.” She found it safest to talk with a perfect stranger.”

    “My God!  I’ve known her all my life.  I had no idea!”

    “I have a sick feeling.  The war has just begun.”

    Mona Lisa ruminated quietly.  The stranger strained to listen for other sounds in the house.

    “Don’t be alarmed, but to be on the safe side, tell, Mona Lisa, are there any guns kept in this house?”
    “I don’t know.  Do you really think?”

    “Do you know somewhere we could spend the night?”

    “Yes, but it would be….I mean….I…”

    “It would be an imposition.  Sure.”

    “Yes, it would.”

    “There’s another hotel nearby.  I know it’s late, but that’s probably the best option available.”

    “I’m frightened, honeyko.  I ….I want to go now.”  Mona Lisa began to weep quietly, smothering her face with her hands.

    “Put on your clothes.  I’ll pack up.  Don’t worry- we’ll be out of here in a couple of minutes.”

    The stranger switched on the night light and with deft efficiency gathered his clothes and sundry items lying about the room and packed his baggage.  Fortunately, the stranger had retrieved his money and camera before going bowling.  Everything was in order.
    Once dressed, Mona Lisa sat rigidly on the bed, not moving a muscle, preparing herself for what might come next.

    They slipped out the door and walked down the stairs as quietly as they could with the aid of a flashlight.  An eerie silence surrounded the homestay as the couple stood at the foot of the stairs.  It was disturbing as no lights burned upstairs. 

    “Let’s go by way of the beach,” said the stranger.

    “Alright.”  Mona Lisa turned around suddenly, startled by the sound of the dogs whimpering in their kennel.

    They made their way past the mango tree and down the narrow sandy path to the beach.  Trudging in the sand under the weight of the his baggage, the stranger trailed Mona Lisa as she led the way to a collection of thatched-roof bungalows they had seen on their walk just a few hours before.

    They had to rouse the manager out of bed, but he was good natured about their unannounced, late night arrival.  Within minutes, they were secure inside the confines of a rustic bungalow overlooking the beach.  Huddling together in bed, the stranger tried to console Mona Lisa who was still shaken by the ferocity of Jenelyn’s and James’ argument.

    They fell into a troubled sleep, and awoke to the sound of crowing cocks.  Mona Lisa got up without saying a word and got dressed.

    “You’re leaving?” asked the stranger.

    “Yes, I am.  I have to.”

    “I understand.”  The stranger sat up and wiped the sleep from his eyes.

    Mona Lisa stepped out the door and without saying another word was gone.  The stranger slipped on a pair of shorts and walked outside onto the small shaded porch and sat on a plastic chair, looking out at the sea.  The sun was rising and he could see activity on White Island, the collection of sand bars he had first seen from James’ second floor dinging area.  Some tourist shuttles were anchored off the bars, but there was another larger vessel present.  It seemed out of place.

    Slipping back into his bungalow, the stranger rummaged through his day pack and took out his camera.  Walking down to the water’s edge, he trained the telephoto lens on White Island.  The glare made it difficult to see clearly, but he took some photos of the large vessel which he could identify as some kind of marine patrol boat.  Men in uniforms were stooped over the side, hoisting something up from the sea.

    The stranger turned and ran back to his bungalow.  He hurriedly put on a pair of shoes, a shirt, and strapped on his money belt.  Stowing away his camera, he slung its carrying case strap over his shoulder.  Walking out to the coastal highway, he headed for the side road that wound its way through the barangay’s community center.  Remembering the route, he passed through and turned onto the dirt road lined with trees that led up onto the mountainside he visited the previous day with James.

    Pressing on, he soon saw a group of parked vehicles up ahead and a crowd gathered out on the road.  There were uniformed men mixed in with the locals who milled about in their sarongs.  As the stranger drew closer he could make out an ambulance.  Soon he realized the ominous activity was happening in front of Al’s compound.

    The uniformed men formed a barricade, blocking the onlookers from entrance onto the compound grounds.  Just as the stranger arrived, he saw two stretchers being carried by medical personnel across one of the two entrance bridges.  Each stretcher bore a body covered with a white sheet.  Without thinking twice, the stranger took out his camera and began to take photographs.  The stretchers were quickly slid into the rear of the ambulance and the doors banged shut.

    The stranger how hung back in the crowd, and watched as the ambulance backed up, wheeled around, and drove off.  Looking back towards the compound, he could see four policemen surrounding and talking to a man much taller than they.  It was Al, looking shaken and pale.

    Turning away, the stranger started back to his bungalow.  He wasn’t sure if Al had seen him or not.  Within minutes, he was back at the seaside resort.  He hurried to grab his things and check out.  Paying the manager, he lugged his baggage out to the highway and flagged down a jitney headed for Mambajao.  From there, he transferred to a van chartered for the port at Benoni.  Purchasing a ticket at the port kiosk, he boarded the ferry finding a seat on the lower deck.  After a fifteen minute wait, the ferry lurched away from the dock and churned its way into the open sea, headed for Northern Mindanao.

    The stranger sat rigid in his seat while staring out a porthole at the sea.  It was glassy and smooth, shining silver in the early morning light.  Once he had a grip on himself, he took out his digital camera and reviewed the photos he had taken that morning.  In his haste, he hadn’t really noticed the details as sighted through the viewfinder when taking the telephoto shots of the men on the patrol boat hoisting something out of the sea.

    Zooming in closer, he blew up the photos to take a closer look as displayed on the LCD panel.  It was now brutally clear.  In the men’s hands was a body of a young woman.

    The stranger shut down his camera and packed it away.  He stared blankly at the seat in front of him and felt a part of him shrivel and die.  The smell of the ferry’s diesel exhaust was sickly and sweet, and enveloped him.

    Good intentions pave the road to hell, he thought.  I put her up to this, didn’t I?  Me, the perfect stranger.

    The ferry reached cruising speed and the engine’s chatter became constant.  Camiguin Island slipped further behind in the ferry’s wake.  The stranger soon realized he needed to organize his thoughts about where he’d be traveling to next.  It was time to get out of the country.  But where exactly?

    A place where he would no longer be a perfect stranger, he thought.