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Chapter One:

Teeth of the Dog

Finster surveyed the long, volcanic stretch of beach and spotted the rinky-dink ferry boat. It chugged through the surf, spewing out diesel oil. When the sun hit the oil, casting arcs and squiggles of bright iridescent colors on the glassy swells, the drab, peeling ferry appeared to be floating atop another ferry, a bright fun ferry of the netherworld.

Finster snuffed out his Thai stick, slipped on his flip-flops, and trotted across the black sand toward the wharf. Though tourists rarely entered the country by ferry these days, the hawkers had come out anyway–Chinese boys selling Seiko watches with Tinkertoy inner works and a big, sullen family of Indian shopkeepers who had recently fled Fiji. They’d managed to smuggle out the best of their inventory–hand-carved Fijian salad bowls the size of manhole covers.

Finster arrived at the wharf just as the ferry slapped against the pilings and a throng of native passengers started funneling down the gangplank. The old men wore sarongs, but the young ones sported T-shirts that read Baywatch or It’s Not Beer, Mate, This Is Just a Fat Shirt. The Muslim women glided out next, swaddled in flapping lengths of Hawaiian shirt material, followed by a trio of loud, hefty Palauans, a Chinese businessman, and a white couple. Squinting into the eye-frying sun, Finster scrutinized the couple. The old man was very gray and very tall and very concave. The young woman wore a tank top and no bra and her red hair, tossed and stiffened by twelve hours on the sloshing deck, had hardened into a seascape, like one of those Japanese serigraphs where the waves, all foam and power, are forever on the verge of crashing. In a slinky dress, she’d be a knockout, Finster thought. Or maybe he’d lost his connoisseur’s eye after six years on this rock and any Occidental woman whose skin didn’t turn firecracker red under the relentless sun looked smashing to him.

Mopping the perspiration from his sparse blond mustache, Finster headed up the gangplank toward the ferry’s cargo hold, then stopped for a moment to watch the couple–more precisely the woman’s breasts–enter the gauntlet of enterprise set up entirely for their perusal. The boys yelled, “Best price, real deal,” and dangled their watches in front of the couple’s eyes. The Indians sat cross-legged and mute behind their colossal salad bowls. The woman didn’t look left or right. Finster noticed that she carried more than her fair share of the luggage, and he wondered what their little drama was. Father and daughter? Husband and wife? Businessman and mistress? When the couple finally emerged from the makeshift bazaar, they were greeted by the village’s only public transportation–a horse-drawn carriage and a trishaw. Despite the man emphatically telling the drivers no thanks, the drivers persevered. Finster secretly rooted for them. The boy with the carriage lashed his skeletal horse into rattled action, plodding along next to the couple, beckoning them to take a trot along the blazing beach. The old trishaw driver couldn’t muster enough breath to pedal and speak at the same time. He just stared beseechingly at the couple’s backs as he pumped laboriously in their wake. Finster knew the drivers had only thirty more yards to seal the deal before the couple reached the only possible destination–Motel Paradise, a queue of cinder-block bungalows with a thrumming generator and a hand-painted sign promising AIR CON.

“Mistah Finstah, what to do with the boxes, sah?”

Finster turned around just in time to see his shipment–half a dozen cardboard crates–flung out of the cargo hold and onto the puddled dock.

“Are you morons crazy?” he said, bending over to sniff for any breakage. Last month one of the boys had dropped a box on the pier and the smell had lingered for days. With all the other pungent odors around, you couldn’t exactly distinguish any particular one, but still, walking along the wharf at night, when the sun wasn’t out to cook up the rotting fish heads, Finster could swear he smelled his magic elixir and was filled with such profound longing, he almost believed the stuff worked.

Peeling back a cardboard flap, he could see the little vials shaken but unharmed in their cardboard cells.

“Stack them next to my warehouse. And be careful, for Christ’s sake, or me tingktingk you not getting paid.”

Then Finster slipped beneath the wharf, took another toke, and walked to the edge of the road to try to catch one last glimpse of the woman. The sun was flaring on the horizon, turning the corrugated tin village into glaring cubes on stilts of fire. Black clouds piled up overhead. Squinting into the frittering light, Finster could barely even see the motel, let alone any people around it. When he heard his boys laughing on the far end of the beach, he hurried toward his warehouse to make sure they weren’t filching a vial or two.

The boys squatted beside the boxes, their cheeks ballooned with betel nut, their teeth stained the color of maraschino cherries. They were recent arrivals from a mountain kampung and wore the island equivalent of nouveau riche haute couture–baseball caps advertising products they’d never heard of, let alone could afford, and knockoff brand sneakers worn with the backs crushed flat and the laces flapping. One boy sprawled on the sand, lewdly pumping his hips while pretending to caress a penis as long and stiff as a baseball bat. When the others saw Finster, they leapt up and stood at mock attention.

“Sah, the boxes unloaded, sah,” said the leader, a wild-haired boy of sixteen.

Finster took out his wallet. “Don’t blow it all in one night,” he said.

He paid them one American dollar apiece and a vial between them. The vials were worth more than money–the boys believed it gave them sexual power. Outside of their villages and the distant capital, the female pickings were slim. The Hindu and Muslim girls were all married off before puberty, the Chinese stuck to their own kind, and the natives who came down to the coast were snatched up by the missionaries. By thirteen, they wore hulking Mother Hubbards and carried around Bibles the size of cinder blocks.

After the boys left, Finster unlocked his warehouse, a tin Quonset hut at the hem of the jungle guarded by two squat, wrinkly-faced dogs. The dogs were sisters, most likely a mix of pye-dog and Chinese shar-pei, who seemed to resemble (particularly when Finster was high) W. H. Auden. He’d found them as pups, paid them in bones, and loved them to the point where he thought he was losing his mind. Dragging his boxes into the stifling hot hut, he stopped for a second to hold out his hands and let his girls kiss him like supplicants.

The warehouse had no electricity, so Finster worked by flashlight. He opened his boxes and started taking inventory. Between the heavy panting of the dogs and the insufferable heat, he felt as if he was working inside an engine.

The bulk of his stock was shipped from the Philippines. Finster had never met his counterpart in Manila, but he had a fair idea of the man’s predilections. Each vial came wrapped in a wad of newsprint torn from Manila’s raciest tabloids–blurred photos of bullet-riddled corpses, scantily clad “hostitutes,” a Filipina maid stabbed to death by her Singaporean employer. Mostly, the articles were in Tagalog, but a few were in English, and in this piecemeal fashion, Finster got his news of the outside world. Pirates attack a city in Borneo. Aquino threatens to cancel U.S. military base leases. Muslim insurgents start a holy war in Mindanao. Catholics are rioting on Flores because a Protestant refused to eat the body of Christ.

Tilting his head back against the tin wall, Finster dug out his roach and took another blast to blot out the news. Then he shut off the flashlight. The Quonset hut was a relic from World War II. Fifty-year-old bullet holes pocked the ceiling. When the moon was full, as it was tonight, light poured in like water through a colander. Unable to sit still for another second, Finster got up and herded his dogs outside. He liked them to prowl the beach at night to keep a blood-shot eye on things. With his Swiss army knife, he opened two cans of imported Alpo and emptied the horse meat into their bowls. While his girls ate noisily, a sound he found weirdly moving, he locked the warehouse and headed toward the motel. He just wanted to take a gander at what was going on, see if the woman was around.

The village, a pandemonium of tin shacks flanking ten dirt lanes, had already shut down. Even the chickens had disappeared. Finster walked along the beach, past the fishermen’s huts, to the only paved road. It was paved with crushed coral and he had to stop now and again to dig an iridescent pink shard out of his rubber flip-flops. The motel stood in a grove of palms. Finster knew the Indian hotelier would have put the white couple up in his deluxe suite, the only room with a glass window, running water, and a toaster-size cooler. He crept around back, careful not to make a sound–not that anyone would hear him over the thrumming insects and knocking palms.

An oil drum stood under the couple’s window. For a moment, Finster thought he saw it tilt. Inching closer, he did see it tilt. The missionary boy was perched on the barrel’s rim, taking surreptitious peeks through the glass. Finster knew he was spying on the woman. He loathed the boy, but since he was the only other American around, they’d formed one of those uneasy alliances based entirely on homesickness. The boy had been sent here six months ago by the Seventh-Day Adventists to convert any native who hadn’t already been commandeered by the Mormons. But no one listened to the kid, let alone attended his weekly preach-o-thons. The Hindus laughed behind his back. The Muslims thought him mad. As far as Finster could tell, the entire doctrine of his church consisted of standing on a mountaintop and waiting for the world to end. Only when Finster was high, which was pretty much always these days, did he feel a fleeting sympathy for the boy. He’d call him Mr. Millennium and he’d let the kid show him his church’s brochure–a coloring book Eden where lions lie down with lambs and every Melanesian looks like a young Harry Bellafonte or a smashing Lena Horne. With the right combination of pot, whiskey, and self-pity, Finster saw in those illustrations the world he thought he’d set sail for six years ago.

He picked up two coconuts and whacked them together. The loud clops, sounding like a bush pig stamping through the grove, sent the kid fleeing into the village. Finster hung back for a minute or two, then hoisted himself onto the barrel and took the kid’s place. Through the pitted glass, he could see two shapes sleeping in separate beds. But that implied nothing. No one could sleep side by side in this heat. The man and the woman were naked. Under the mosquito net, details of the woman’s body were blurry, but Finster could make out what he craved. She slept on her side, her legs folded, her cheek crushed against her shoulder. She didn’t shave under her arms and Finster saw a cloud of red hair framed by the ghost of a bikini strap. Only one breast was visible. Finster had once read an article in a women’s magazine that compared breast sizes and shapes to drinking glasses: the beer mug, the brandy snifter, the martini glass, and the ultimate size and shape–a wide-mouthed champagne glass. This was definitely a champagne glass.

Mashing his cheek to the window, Finster memorized the breast. Then, cupping the image in his addled mind, as carefully as a man might cup a handful of cherished water, he climbed off the barrel and walked to the beach. With a bamboo stick, he drew an outline of the woman in the sand, then lay down atop it. Without losing hold of the breast, he groped through his pocket for his roach and lit up. With every exhalation, he watched the smoke fly out of his mouth in the shape of his soul. When the roach finally dwindled to ash, the memory of the breast flitted away and a jolt of dire loneliness overtook him. He rolled onto his stomach and pressed his cheek against the warm sand. He could hear the land crabs’ claws clicking like castanets and something lugubrious moving through the jungle. Sleep clotted his eyes. Then, on the brink of hallucinatory dreams, they came to him–the lions and lambs of Eden. The lions padded around him, the lambs nudged him with their cold noses. In a frenzy of love, they licked his eyes, ears, cheek, neck. He expected their breath to smell awful, but it smelled weirdly familiar–a waft of canned horse meat and something like a fever.

Manila Landscape