By Father Shay Cullen
This is fiction, but it is based on a tragic reality. We are proud to present this short story by Father SHAY CULLEN, the founder of the Preda drug rehabilitation centre in Olongapo, the Philippine city adjacent to the US Subic Bay naval base.
The bright neon lights meant nothing to Chito. They conveyed no message of peace or hope that his life would be the better off for the coming and the going of the fiesta celebration. He had little enough to celebrate as he hobbled barefooted, weighed down by the two cans of water slung from a slender pole that was raising a raw welt on his skinny shoulder. The ground sank beneath his feet with every step. It was a man-made pile of plastic bags and trash, most of it from the nearby bars and clubs that were decked out with the fiesta lights — as if trying to convey good cheer where there was none.
Chito swayed as he walked on the uncertain ground, trying to avoid broken glass or bits of metal although it was unlikely that he would cut himself: every scrap that fell from the dump trucks was quickly snatched up by the pickers, as impoverished as himself.
Chito, a pushcart boy, was the son of a trash collector who had died of TB two years earlier, leaving three children and an emaciated wife, Lydia, her body wrinkled and worn like a crumpled page. She was sickly, her body wasting with disease after having spent the best years of her life working in a club. Now she didn't have the strength to launder enough clothes to feed herself and the children. Anna, the youngest, was just 10 years old and helped her mother with the washing. Mely was six and got little or no attention; she did not even go to school. Chito was really taking care of the family since his father died.
His mind was now concentrating on reaching the cardboard shack that was their home. With every step the bamboo pole painfully stabbed his shoulder. His face wore that worried frown of older people whose waking hours are filled by thoughts of how to get food.
Although it was a fiesta, it meant little to Chito. Its rural history was long lost in an urban setting where commercial interests had absorbed the joy of a good harvest. People had lost touch with their past; they lived only for the present and worried about the future.
Chito had worries too. Mely had sores all over her feet, and they were growing worse. Two of his friends, Resty and Jose, street boys, were in jail and had sent word for him to get their gang of street children to make up a collection and buy them out for the fiesta. Two hundred pesos would do it.
Chito knew how hard jail was. He spent months there once. He was frequently there for a few days at a time, for vagrancy especially when the big ships were in, but he was never charged with any crime. He was made to clean out the faeces and urine in the toilet hole and sleep on the concrete floor, listening to the scuffling and guffaws of men and women doing their thing in the dark.
The young women, some still children, were jailed with the men to keep them satisfied and non-violent — comforters, so to speak. If he was to eat he had to massage the criminal inmates until he was exhausted. He had to do things to keep them happy. One was dissatisfied and threw boiling water on him. He still had the scars.
Arriving at the shack, Chito heard Mely crying. His frown grew deeper. There was nothing he could do, there was no money, every visit to the city hospital cost money, lots of money. He was scolded once by a doctor at the hospital. His friend Jose was sniffing glue from a plastic bag and became unconscious. They blamed Chito, accusing him of being a drug addict too when he asked help from the general hospital. But Chito didn't take drugs. He had a family to take care of and he was almost 12 years old. Drugs were really kids stuff, he had to feed a family.
He put down the water cans on the earthen floor and propped the yoke in a corner of the tiny shack. Mely's running sores were bigger now, and the flies were settling down to feast. He impatiently waved them away and put some water in a plastic basin. He washed a dirty cloth and wrapped it around her sores. Mely stopped crying. They hungered. Their mother and Anna had not come home for three days. She was washing clothes in a compound where the Americans from the nearby base rented apartments.
He thought of Trevor, his American friend. He first met Trevor when he was 11. He went there with his mother to help with the laundry. Trevor took a shine to Chito and gave him a candy bar, then 10 pesos and later clothes, food and more money.
It was a taste of paradise to be given money and gifts every day, and soon he was worshipping his blue-eyed god of plenty. That is what made it easier to overcome his embarrassment and shyness when Trevor invited him into the apartment for snacks and showed him the wonders of a shower room and the magic of television. Soon he was encouraged to try the shower and afterwards sit on Trevor's lap watching the TV, and sometimes he fell asleep.
One day he woke up in bed with his "friend" beside him and it wasn't long before he was shown what games made Trevor happy. Something like they made him do in the jail. An angry scowl or a harsh word from Trevor was sufficient to warn Chito that their games were secrets; he quickly learned that it was the only way to keep the food and money flowing. His parents depended on these
gifts that Chito brought home. They never asked what he did for Trevor to make him so generous.
When the food ran out, his father would get angry and spend the last few pesos on cheap gin. "Go beg something from your friend", he would say, and a reluctant Chito would be sent on his way with a smack on the ear and a warning "don't come home without it".
But then his father had died and Chito stood beside the cheap wooden box. He didn't cry, he just stood there.
Trevor had shown him a way to enter the house discreetly through a small ground window reached from the back alley. "If you want some money just come over", Trevor told him. It was irresistible for a hungry boy with a sickly and strict father. But after a few months Trevor got tired of Chito when he found other small friends who made him more happy. Chito was reconsigned to the garbage heap. But he still went to the apartment to collect the dirty clothes that Trevor gave his mother to launder. Sometimes she went to the apartment to do the washing because the water near their shack was running low.
That was a year ago, he remembered, and he came to want that food and money so much that his desire and need swamped his rising shame and revulsion. He imagined himself once again at the apartment door of 25B. He looked at himself for the first time in months and felt his arm as if discovering it. Then he pulled a battered cardboard box from the corner of the shack and took out a piece of broken mirror rescued from the trash. He stared uncertainly at himself in the glass, and was quickly filled with apprehension as if suddenly coming face to face unexpectedly with a gaunt stranger.
There was nobody in the compound but he could hear snatches of a song from the apartment next door. "Come close my friend, we'll meet again ..." was all he heard. Other than that, all was silent. He went around to the backyard where the water faucet was, but his mother was not there. There were a few clothes hung there and he recognised a shirt. He knew then that Trevor was still there. He squeezed through the narrow window and stood silently in the small kitchen. There was no sound other than the faint words of a song coming from the other apartment and the distant splutter and whine of tricycles on the road outside. They faded away and he heard nothing. He was nervous and frightened.
"What if he is angry at me for coming here", he thought, but this passed as he stepped slowly into the living room and looked around at the polished furniture and gleaming television and the bank of glowing stereo equipment shuttered behind two small glass doors.
"All of this just for one person", he said to himself,
sitting down gingerly on the soft leather couch where he had often sat with Trevor watching a video. He concluded that Trevor was not at home but felt pulled up the stairs to visit once again that bedroom where he had woken in fright only to be reassured by his big "friend" that everything was all right.
The memory of that first day caused droplets of sweat to emerge on his nose but he kept walking up the stairs slowly, as if counting the steps, wiping his face which was now streaked with the unwashed dirt of the past week. Chito stood at the door and heard a soft crying, the child next door, a distant memory, perhaps. He pushed the door open silently. He saw Trevor in the bed and beside him Anna, his little sister. His mother was on the floor, sleeping.