An excerpt from Wonks (from the Chinese won-gau, yellow dog, mongrel cur):


William Reese Hamilton

Chapter One

What I'm going to tell you started a little over three years ago when I was twelve and there was a war going on. Not some big historic truth. Just kid truth. By the time they get to working this out like real history, I'll probably be flapping angel wings along with every other poor sap who was really there. Then some real historian can come along, sift through the records, get the names, dates and places straight, and start wrestling with the truth the way he sees it. Even though he never really saw anything at all.

I was living with my folks in Manila, when the Imperial Forces of Japan came flying in, bombing and strafing and generally laying siege. And after the Yanks pulled out to Corregidor and Bataan and old General MacArthur declared Manila an "open city," the Japs moved right in, scooped up all us "non-Asians" and put us in this Camp. Internment Camp Number One at the University of Santo Tomás. They told us to bring food and clothing for three days. That's a real belly laugh the way things turned out.

All sorts were getting swept up and trucked into our Camp. Not just rich folks and working people, but harbor scum too, jammed together with no rhyme or reason. And just when you figured they must've dug up everybody, living or dead, who ever passed through the Philippines, a fresh batch piled off the rear end of some old Ford truck the Japs'd requisitioned. Mom called it "wholesale dislocation." Lots of people sure did look to be broken up — pulling long faces, sitting around under the acacia trees, looking over little piles of portable property, eating snack food out of tins they'd brought, sleeping in their clothes and lining up long hours to wash off at a spigot.

We were all pretty down. You would be too if you'd just got pulled out of your house, lost all your worldly stuff and didn't have the slightest clue what was going to happen. When that Jap soldier rolled over our garden wall and landed with a thump and a clank in the middle of our bed of bright red canna lilies, it was enough to give me and Mom the walking willies. Especially since Dad wasn't there. That soldier just stood there in the shadows of the mango tree, staring hard from under his helmet, rifle and bayonet at the ready. I had about a million wild and scary pictures running through my head. Most had the "Nanking" label tied to them. If you never heard of the "Rape of Nanking," better check the newsreels. "Nanking" stimulated the imagination. Like that part about throwing kids in the air and catching them on bayonets. Nobody knew what a crazy Jap might do.

But once I got past that nasty fearful part and settled into the long view, it was worth the price of admission to see a few of our Manila bigwig snobs get pulled down a peg and have the starch sweated out of them. Some of those colonial types couldn't see why they had to associate with folks outside their own private country club set. After all, they were the ruling class out here. I guess they figured they deserved nothing less than "personal house arrest" with all their servants in tow. Now here they were having to spend time packed in with the rest of us hoi poloi. It did give them a kind of hangdog look. Just last week they knew who they were. Now, in a wink, they were just part of the scraggly crowd.

I know my old man would've seen the funny side. I wished he'd been there. He looked with jaundiced eye on rich guys' airs, said a man's as good as he gives, no more, no less. He was high on deeds, low on palaver, and no point arguing. But we'd been cut off from Dad since mid-December. Not a single word since then. He was closing down company mines in North Luzon last we heard and never made it back down to Manila. The Jap invasion split the island right in two. Mom kept telling me not to fret, but I could see she was worried silly herself.

About the third day of Camp, I was hanging out by the front fence, watching a crowd of Filipinos come up Boulevard España, hauling food and clothing and bedding to friends like us, in the clink. They had to stand outside and shout for the folks they'd brought stuff for. More and more kept coming, until after a while there was a mob out there, crowding up against the wrought-iron fence, yelling out like it was a bazaar, handing stuff over the fence and crying and all, cause they were so happy to see us alive but so sad to see us locked up. That got the guards all hot and nervous at once. Hot, cause they didn't like seeing these birds they called their "Asian brothers" acting so loyal and friendly toward Americans and the like. Nervous, cause they thought they might just have a riot on their hands.

At first it was more funny than serious. See, your Jap official's real high on order. One-two-three, by the numbers. Everybody was supposed to stand out there single-file in a long line and bring packages through the front gate one-by-one to get them inspected by some Jap sitting at a folding table. Well, you know that wasn't going to play. Filipinos aren't much on queuing up for hours in the sun just to please a Jap. A Filipino's plenty easy going. He'll make friends with a total stranger in about half-a-second and invite him home to stay for the next couple of years. But he does like doing things his own way, bristles over being bossed by the enemy. So folks out there in the street just kept flowing around in little groups, washing back and forth like the tide.

That raised Jap hackles. First they tried getting everybody off the fence and across the street, barking orders nobody but them could understand. Then when the crowd didn't move fast enough, they started pushing. That seemed to work at first, but all at once it sprung a leak. The crowd gushed right around them and back up to the fence, laughing and talking like it was holidays. It was hard to take those sentries too serious, the way they clumped around in those big boots and messy-looking uniforms.

But now they started prodding folks in the ribs with bayonets and whacking them pretty good across the head and shoulders with bamboo clubs. I was sure it was going to turn bad real quick, with folks screaming and running and bleeding and dying maybe.

That's when I caught sight of Gregorio and Timotea, the Filipinos who worked at our house out in Pasay. Just a glimpse of old Gregorio first, hauling a mattress over his head and getting swept about like he was riding a crest after a shipwreck. Then there popped up Timotea, skinny as a wet sparrow being swallowed up and dragged back by unseen forces. She was working hard at hanging onto this wicker basket and flapping her way back to Gregorio. Boy, they'd carried that mattress all the way from Pasay. That was miles!

When I saw that mattress, my eyes got about as big as mangos, and I was blind to the rest. It wasn't just any mattress, it was my mattress. Maybe I was being selfish, but I'd spent hard nights on the concrete floor, crowded in next to my dad's pal Southy Jack on one thin little mat. I saw Gregorio as my salvation from tight sweaty nights. So I started yelling and waving and jumping up and down, screaming my fool head off. But with all the commotion out there, the chance of my getting noticed was slim to none.

"Gregorio!" I shouted and then, "Timotea!" And I kept it up till I could barely croak. But it was like one of those dreams where you're up on a soapbox announcing the end of the world at the top of your lungs and everybody flat ignores you. Then just when I quit, some old Filipino by the fence took up "Timotea" like a chant, long and thin, in this far off voice. "Ti - mo - te - a," he was wailing, "Ti - mo - te - a!" I've got no idea why he latched onto it, maybe it was his old lady's name or something. But then all around him other Filipinos picked it up too, until everybody was crying it out. It got to be a howling like at a funeral. "Ti - mo - te - a!" rolled back and forth along the boulevard until I think it spooked the Japs. You could tell by the way they kind of scrunched down. The funny thing is I could still make out Timotea and she was wailing it too.

That ruckus brought Mom over. First thing I knew she'd squeezed right up beside me on the fence, breathing hard and looking anxious.

"What's happening out here, Johnny?"

"Gregorio's got my mattress," I said, pointing. When Mom saw him, she gave a big wave.

"Kaybígang!" she cried out in this high American lady's voice, and it hushed everything down out there like magic. "Friends!" she yelled. "Amigos!" Everybody looked right at us. "Bring it here, Gregorio," she said. "Come on, Timotea." All at once that crowd just broke like the Red Sea, so Gregorio and Timotea got carried in a kind of current towards us. And before I knew what was happening, they were right against the fence. Gregorio looked Mom right in the eye and threw the mattress up and over the iron spikes, so I could jump up and grab it. Timotea was right there too, but the wicker basket was gone with only a handle left in her hand. Her eyes were wide and scared.

"I have clothes for you, mum, and papaya too," she said. "But they all be gone." She looked like her heart was broke. I felt special about Timotea. We were bonded down in Calamba. When the Jap attack was just breaking in early December, Dad told Gregorio to drive us down there in the Dodge to stay at this big sugarcane plantation till things blew over. He figured maybe that would be safer than the city. All kinds of people were going down to keep out of the war. But pretty soon the Japs hit there too, swooping low and strafing, and we were all running like hell for cover. I was with Timotea, sprinting in the shadows, the roar of engines right over us. But when we got to the first air-raid shelter, they were all Spanish inside and wouldn't let us in cause Timotea was mestiza and not pureblood like them. Boy, I hollered bloody murder and spit in their faces, but they just slammed the door on us. So we had to run on. But Timotea loved me for that and said, "You my hero, Johnny." I tell you, she was swell.

Mom was speaking low in Spanish to the two of them through the fence in quick bursts I couldn't pick out. Then, "Véte ya!" she said sharp and fast to Gregorio. "Get out quick!" Out of the corner of my eye, I caught sight of a sentry in the street coming up the fence with that long bayonet on his rifle.

"God bless, Señora Oldfield," Gregorio said.

"Go away," she whispered cold as a snake. "Now! Quick as you can!" And they were gone. Just melted into the crowd. And before the Japs knew what was up, she'd grabbed me and the mattress just as quick and we were gone too. Up along the fence and behind the darkening trees, moving at a quick walk but not breaking stride, down and across the Plaza and in through that big door to the Main Building, and then straight up those wide stairs two flights and back to my room, where the men slept.

She sent me in to set my mattress down next to Southy Jack's. So I did. But when I came back out she was standing stock-still, looking out into the big patio. She was in a dark mood. Boy, my heart was thumping like a tom-tom, but I wasn't about to say boo. If she was shaking or crying, I'd reached out and touched her. But she was cold as a block of ice. I bet she was thinking about my old man. I bet she was mad cause we were left all alone with those Japs. I stood there a minute, but I saw her mood wasn't going away, so I made myself small and slunk off. When my mom was in an icy spell it was best to keep your mouth shut.

When I got back out front again, everything was calmer. The crowd on España had started to thin out. It was toward dusk and even the Filipinos who still had stuff in their arms were turning around to head home. I must've still been keyed up over that near riot, cause all at once I could feel myself starting to relax. Sometimes you don't know how close things are until they're over. But gosh, it was something how quick Mom pulled the fuse and changed it all around. I don't know just how. She could do things, that's all. I know it was sure to get bad before she showed.

I was mulling this over when a funny thing happened. A black Buick came rolling up the street, blowing its horn through the crowd right up to the front gate, turned in past the sentries and pulled up just inside. The back door swung open and somebody got shoved out. I heard laughing inside. Nobody else got out. Just this one guy. He was standing there in a white suit, kind of shaky, like he'd been dropped off the moon and had no clue where exactly he was supposed to be. He leaned up against the Buick for support. That is until it drove off and left him there on his lonesome. Then one of the guards grabbed his arm and pointed him up the line of acacias towards the Main Building.

It's funny how some guys can be tall and good looking as statues and you don't even give them a second glance. Then there are guys you can't take your eyes off. His suit was all wrinkled and dirty, slept in, maybe rolled down the street in, his hair mussed and sweated down, his face stubbly and gaunt. He was squinting like even that half-light hurt his eyes and the trip up the line of trees was looking awful long. Still, I could tell this guy wasn't your everyday, run-of-the-mill harbor rat. There was something about him, even when he was weaving up the road, that made me want to follow. Something jaunty, like he knew who he was.

He was working hard just then on whistling a verse out of "The Twelve Days of Christmas," the one that goes on about what this lady's getting from her "true love." Only after a couple of bars, his lips got so dry everything petered out into a squeak, and he took up mumbling and humming through the rest. Someone yelled out from the shadows that Christmas was over for this year, thank God! I could hear them all chortling back there in the dark. So he turned real slow and gave them a long stare.

"Don't be such a Scrooge," he said.

"Drunk!" came a voice from the shadows.

"Where's your sense of the mystical? I'm merely celebrating Epiphany. Isn't it on your calendar?"

This real haughty sounding woman chimed in with a loud whisper, "Disgrace!" And for just a moment he looked puzzled.

"Virgin Mary?" he asked.

"First it was the whores and the gamblers," she was carrying on. "Now we have to put up with this."

"Madam, fear not. I'll never molest you. I swear."

"See here!" this angry guy's voice spoke out.

"I much prefer the company of whores and gamblers to anything long dead."

That's just what he said. It's as near a direct quote as anything here. And he left those birds with their mouths open, I bet. That's the way I pictured them — gaping in the dark.

That was the very first I ever saw of old Harry Barnes. That's how he showed up. Right out of the blue. No bags. Not even a toothbrush. Nothing but the smile on his face, as they say. And definitely no shine on his shoes. But I learned pretty quick that quite a few of our inmates knew of him from one place or another.

William Reese Hamilton

. . . was raised in North China and the Philippines, where he and his family were interned by the Japanese for over three years. His stories have appeared in The Paris Review, The North American Review, Puerto del Sol, Ink Pot and elsewhere. He is currently living in a small fishing village on the Venezuelan coast.