6. Fagen meets Clarita|
Outside, the sun high overhead, the two men strolled through the crowd until
they came to a little gathering of people around a wooden platform covered
by a huge umbrella at the top of a long pole. A Filipino man moved among
the onlookers playing an accordion and singing a lively tune.
In a moment two young women climbed the stairs, stepped onto the platform
and began dancing to the music. Identically dressed in white blouses
and pleated red dresses, each had an arrangement of hibiscus flowers in her
hair, wrists and ankles. The man grinned and played his song, but
all attention was on the dancers as they paraded around the platform in opposite
directions, weaving in and out with the music. Then the man played a
different melody, and the young ladies took positions at the edge of the floor
facing each other. They slowly folded their arms over their heads until
the flowers at their wrists joined those in their hair and on the downbeat
began the intricate steps of a stately folk dance. Their beauty and
grace mesmerized the onlookers as the two girls wound in and out, back and
forth. Fagen saw joy on the faces in the crowd. Clearly, the
dance had meaning and was symbolic of something important in their culture. The
dancers so expressive, so graceful in their movements, he was sure their performance
that day was exceptional.
The spell was broken suddenly when a ruckus broke out a few yards away. Fagen
didn't see what started it, but when he looked saw a cavalry officer and a
sergeant standing over a young Filipino lying in the street beside an overturned
wheelchair. The man had stumps for legs, and did his best to protect
himself from flying leather while the officer savagely kicked him. The
officer, a lieutenant, circled around the man screaming at the top of his lungs, "You
stole my purse! Give it back you thieving gook bastard!"
Immediately a crowd formed. The old women and children, who just a
moment before had been enjoying a peaceful Sunday afternoon, now disappeared. Only
men remained in the street and some of their wives, knotted in an angry circle
ten deep around the Americans, and by the murderous looks on their faces, it
was clear to Fagen the situation could turn ugly fast. The two American
soldiers saw it too. The lieutenant halted his attack on the helpless
cripple and looked around at the growing mob of outraged Filipinos. Furious,
red-faced and sweating, his voice shrill with indignation, he shrieked at the
grumbling crowd. "He stole my purse! He stole my purse!"
The sergeant bent down and pulled a small leather bag from inside the cripple's
shirt and held it up to the angry mob as proof of the lieutenant's charge,
but that made no difference to the Filipinos, who shouted threats and curses
while their circle closed ominously.
Fagen didn't know what to do. He and Ellis were unarmed. It
was Sunday, the last thing they'd expected to encounter was two Americans in
the middle of a Filipino street riot.
They stood just twenty yards away, close enough for Fagen to predict it wouldn't
be long before blood was spilled. Neither the lieutenant nor the sergeant
had noticed the Negro soldiers standing outside the circle of Filipinos. Fagen
worried that if he intruded into the situation then, he might stir the mob
into more than just threats, but if he did nothing, he might witness the massacre
of two American soldiers. Ellis waited for his cousin to decide.
Just then Fagen heard a voice at his shoulder. "The man squirming in
the dust is Manuel Garcia, the pickpocket. Four years ago the Spanish
caught him taking food from a warehouse. They put him in stocks and
left him there until his legs rotted away. Since then, he picks the
pocket of every soldier he gets close to. He thinks it's his right."
Fagen turned and beheld the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen standing at
his side, shielding her eyes from the sun. Tall, light brown skin, dark
eyes and long, dark hair held loosely in back by a small mother of pearl comb,
she looked very different from all the other Filipino women Fagen had seen. She
held herself very erect, to meet the world face on, and she exuded great confidence. Through
all the confusion around them, the girl sensed his indecision, smiled, and
Fagen's heart began to melt. "They say if a pickpocket is noticed, his
career is at an end," she said with a little wink. "Manuel Garcia must
be getting lazy." Again that smile. That smile! How could
any woman be so beautiful?
Just then the lieutenant spotted them. He and the sergeant stood back-to-back
facing the mob, their pistols drawn, inching toward their horses tied ten yards
"You! You two, over here!" the officer barked. "This
God damned town is full of thieves and murderers. Get over here now!"
David Fagen and Ellis Fairbanks moved into the crowd. The girl caught
Fagen's sleeve and stopped him for a moment. "Be careful," she smiled, "but
don't worry. This is a game we play when Manuel Garcia gets caught."
Ellis took the lead, and they pushed through the angry mob. Not knowing
what else to do, they faced the crowd, their arms outstretched in a preposterous,
futile attempt to push back the angry Filipinos. The sergeant pulled
his hat tighter. "Jesus, Mary and Joseph laddies, where the hell are
"We're on day pass, Sergeant."
Then the lieutenant said, "God damned coons are useless in a uniform."
No choice but to give way by inches as the crowd moved forward, Ellis held
his big arms wide, fingers extended, straining against the slow crush. Fagen
remembered what the girl had said about this being a game. He hoped
she was right and hoped those two white soldiers behind him didn't panic and
Soon the lieutenant and the sergeant saw their chance to make a break and
took it. Without a word and without looking back, they jumped on their
horses, raced up the street and out of town. At the last moment, for
a distraction, the sergeant flung the lieutenant's purse over his shoulder
into the crowd, but no one bothered with it. Surrounded by a hundred
silent Filipinos, Fagen looked around and observed their faces as they dispersed. He
saw no hatred in their eyes, the Filipinos didn't even seem angry any longer. They
just walked away as though the two black men were invisible or didn't exist.
It took a moment for Fagen to realize what had happened. They'd come
to the aid of fellow Americans, and cowards, the men had turned tail and run. Suddenly
a terrible emptiness swept over him, his head began to spin, and he grew weak
as a child. He felt like he'd been gutted, his insides scraped out and
the skin sewn up over the hole. Fagen sat down on the boardwalk and
watched Ellis lift Manuel Garcia back into his wheelchair. The little
Filipino had a few bruises and a small cut over his right eye, but was otherwise
unhurt. Ellis picked up the lieutenant's purse and gave it to him. The
cripple snatched it out of his hand as though Ellis were the pickpocket, and
then wheeled himself furiously around the corner and out of sight.
"Are you all right?"
Fagen turned, and she was sitting on the boardwalk beside him. When
he saw her his heart skipped a few beats, and in his weakened condition he
thought he might faint. "The Americans say all life is precious, but
I think they mean mostly their own."
Fagen stammered something in response. Later, when he tried, he couldn't
remember what. A full minute passed before he moved from dumbstruck
to tongue-tied. The girl sat beside him waiting, smiling all the while. Soon
Fagen felt his strength return, and the empty, forsaken feeling fade away.
"I would like to hear the conversation between them when they finally stop
to change horses," the girl said.
"Change horses?" Fagen wasn't sure what she meant.
She laughed and pushed a lock of hair over her ear. "They left in such
a hurry the lieutenant rode away on the sergeant's horse."
Clearly, the girl found the whole episode amusing. Fagen wouldn't have
thought it possible, but each time he looked at her she was more beautiful. When
she smiled, her mouth turned up at the corners revealing a perfect set of small,
white teeth. She had a high, wide brow, prominent cheekbones and a long
thin neck. Fagen saw a small jagged scar just in front of her left ear. She
leaned toward him and put her cool, dry palm on his arm.
"My name is Clarita Socorro."
"David Fagen. My friend there is Ellis Fairbanks."
"Are you feeling better, David Fagen? What will you and your friend
"I think we should be getting back to garrison."
A frown crossed her pretty lips. "So soon?"
"We'd better report back. Something tells me we haven't heard the last
"Can you come back next Sunday? I will be here."
"I will if I can."
"Good. I will introduce you to my grandmother."