“Well, then, maybe you can help me,” he said shyly. “May I ask what is your vision of the apocalypse?” He swallowed hopefully, and I stared at him.
Just ahead of us, I saw a semi-naked seventy-year-old Belgian with his arm around a pubescent Filipino girl. Nearby, a bunch of drunken Englishmen were singing what they called the Irish national anthem, God Save the Queen, one of their favorite jokes. We walked past so-called, self-labeled coños, pink-skinned Spanish mestizos talking about their jet-skis.
“Take your pick,” I said, waving my hand. “Here’s your latter-day set of apocalypse now.”
I regretted the statement when I spoke it. I did not want him to remember me. And the frenzy of these games, after all, used to exhilarate me. I loved the purity of soccer—passion deliberately tuned and precisely, patiently enacted. But I was impatient, looking for Jed. I thought I saw his bag, an outsized sportsman’s Adidas; I thought I saw it on his shoulders, like a bulwark by the stands, behind Uncle Gianni.
“Thanks for sharing,” the Mormon said, mumbling. I watched the kid scamper away, his lanky, woolen legs fending off brambles and loose earth, up onto the curved, sliding grass, the main fields of the tournament.
“Joaqui!” someone squealed as I noted Jed talking to a blondish boy near the stands. His name was pronounced like that, “Wacky.”
A girl in shorts ran up and hugged Jed.
I recognized her. She had been a cotillion girl and cheerleader at our high school.
“Wacky! Where have you been, maldito!”
“Ramona,” Jed said. “Mong. How are you?”
And they kissed each other on the cheek, a bit exuberantly on Jed’s part, I thought.
“Bad, bad boy. Do you know I had my debut and you did not go? And you were in Manila pala ha. You did not answer the invitation.”
“You did? You turned old so early.”
She bumped her hip against his.
“You, ha. I had to settle for Pochie na lang for the first dance because you were not around. Maldito. Where are you hiding? Is it true you’re going out with—”
“Wacky,” I mimicked. “How’ve you been?”
Jed turned, still smiling as I approached.
The girl stared at me.
“Who’s she?” Mong asked, even though she knew.
“Victor, say hi. Remember Mong?”
“But that’s not your name. Aren’t you Soltera Soliman?”
“Nuh-uh,” I said. “I’m a Danish scoliotic with a ruined brain. Pleased to meet you again, Mong. Ramona.”
She didn’t hold out her hand.
She turned to Jed.
“Well, see us again sometime, ha? We all miss you, Wacky. You haven’t been to a single Christmas party—ninguna. How bad you are. I’ve just flown back from New York, but everyone talks about you, you’re so snabero daw. Where are you hiding, ha? You didn’t even ask me—I have so much cuento about New York.”
“See you, Mong,” Jed said.
“Are you playing, Wack?” the vaguely foreign-looking boy called Pochie asked, looking at the bag in Jed’s hands. The boy had been doing stretches on the ground, one hand rolling on his hairless tummy and the other seeming to oil his calf, though both gestures were aimless, likely like his brain.
Jed shook his head. “I’ll watch you,” he said, as he tried to walk away. “Good luck. Ciao!”
“Ciao,” said the boy.
“Ciao, Wacky! Remember, Tuesday at Carmela’s, Wacky! Pochie’s going, too, aren’t you, Poch? Wacky! We called your mom. She knows. Sorpresa! Carmela’s having a baby shower! Can you believe? Before she even got to college! You should come—the shower’s going to be bigger than her debut!”
“Ciao, Mong,” Jed said, waving goodbye, but she was already bugging the boy Pochie about something.
“Where were you?” Jed asked.
“Yes, Wacky? What, Wacky?”
“Oh shut up. C’mon. Let’s go.”
On the edge of the sports barracks was one of my dad’s warehouses. A low-roofed set of adjoining buildings and the compound’s oldest tenement. To reach it, on normal days you had to go through the barred, tall gate by the road, usually guarded by a pair called Carlos and Al. They had been in our employ forever, like many of my parents’ faithful. On the day of the tournament, they kept these gates open. Carlos and Al took sentry, a rather distracted one, I knew, at the covered path during the games, in the utilitarian area where the new toilets had been installed. Beyond that outpost, jutting more boldly onto the main grounds, there was an afterthought bar, which seemed the demarcation line between revelers and domestic staff, except for a few white-dressed nannies near the playing fields, obediently following tottering kids.
Rifles in hand, toothpicking and making serious bets, Carlos and Al were judging the nationalities of Team Malta, composed of a crew of Europeans, all non-Maltese—”O, Dutchman,” Al would say knowledgeably. “Look at bald head.” They commented on the fitness of their favored coños, who usually won, because they could claim players from a wider selection than any of the Belgians or Brits or even Japanese could. Al and Carlos were happily absorbed in this way, like a pair of boys engaged in ant bouts, heads to the ground inspecting their contenders, watching the thrashing, minute legs of their chosen beasts, their bets depending on optimistic intuition as the black and red ants raced to gobble each other up; they did not take their eyes away from the skirmish until the pushed, tangled bodies revealed the winner: in an ant bout, it was easy to tell which side won. The winners gobbled up the vanquished.
I knew Al and Carlos would be absorbed in this way, watching the soccer tournament without pause: there’d be no need to worry about them.
“Hello, Mang Al, Mang Carl.”
“Ma’am Sol,” Al said. “This year, Philippines will win.” Al had a childish face, because of the way his eyes seemed always smiling in a round plain. I used to think he was a sorry excuse for a guard, until once I saw him lift his gun to shoot at a sound on the grounds, a long time ago, when the soccer field was still brambles and weed. He shot a rat with one bullet, just like that. Muhammad Al, he was dubbed, flies like a butterfly, kills like a bee.
“Well, what did you bet?” I said.
“Nothing,” Carlos retorted, spitting. “Al is putting the money on Spain again.”
Every year, both Al and Carlos secretly hoped that the Philippine players would win the tournament, but, like true nationalists, they never bet on them.
“Belgium. This year, they have the two small Italians. Very good with the feet.”
I nodded. “Sounds good. Have you seen my dad?”
“He is out of the town, ma’am. Sir Gianni—he is over there.”
“That’s what I thought,” I said. “Well, go ahead with your business. We’re just watching the game.”
I led Jed to the windowless building up ahead leaning toward the street. It had large steel doors in the back, near the gates, away from the playing fields; but I walked up to the small side door, near the mess of weeds and dirty ground. A rooster, Al’s pet, made a ruffled sound. Its cage was set against the property’s natural boundary, a thicket of bamboo. Beyond the bird was the concrete wall surrounding the compound, hard to scale and difficult to compass. The rooster squawked at me. I opened the door on the rooster side. It crowed a warning as we went in, but it was an indifferent bird and made a useless, lackadaisical appeal. Anyway, no one was listening.
Jed followed me in. I had been inside a few times when I ran the soccer clinic. The equipment had been stored here, nets, balls, goal frames. When Uncle Gianni first set up his tournaments, it used to be my job to make sure the equipment was ready for use. But I had never gone into the innards of the buildings or walked about the crates that loomed as each door opened. Down by the first door, I settled my bags, oversized, with strongly seamed nylon compartments, chosen for the event. We went through a long hallway studded with wood, slats of shipment crates, wooden shavings, the pale, smooth paper of crate stuffing. It smelled of dry packing, the crimped smell of bunched pulp, ticklish to the nose. I sneezed. Jed turned on lights for the next suite of rooms, veering to the right. The rooms interconnected and snaked; large, neat boxes were lined against the wall.