Soon after we rented our house in Lingsat, my roommates Val, Jill and I met Freddie. The house was on the national highway, near San Fernando, in La Union, Philippines. Freddie lived with his mother and auntie in a tiny ramshackle house behind ours. He had knocked on our door early one morning to ask for work. He was a fixture in our lives thereafter.
We met his mother, Glorietta, and his auntie, Cara, who both seemed old and frail, thin as reeds bending in a wind, yet persevering, struggling to survive. Freddie was very thin as well, too I thought. Glorietta had two tattered and faded dresses; the extent of her wardrobe. She always wore her gray hair in a bun at the nape of her neck. Her English was quite limited, or so it seemed; she never tried to talk to us much, I never saw her smile. We paid her weekly to push a broom around our house and clean our shower and toilet. I sometimes gave her a few extra pesos, as well as bags of rice and other food, but she never warmed to us, just took the gifts before returning to her home.
Auntie Cara was a shadowy figure who rarely ventured outside. We speculated that she had a chronic disease of some sort, but also wondered whether living near the white women was one reason she stayed inside. We were not noisy but did have occasional impromptu parties when volunteers or Filipino friends showed up. At any rate, we did not become close to Freddie’s mother or auntie, although Freddie himself was always friendly and seemed to like having American women living close by. He was endlessly curious about us.
We often saw Freddie when we did our laundry at the pump in our back yard. Di tickled him with her outlandish expressions and gestures. He always had his hand over his mouth when he was in her presence, allowing him to laugh freely. If I didn’t doubt his heterosexuality, I would have assumed he had a crush on her. Then again, hadn’t some of my gay friends had crushes on me and vice versa? Attraction was a funny thing, unpredictable.
Shortly after Jill went back to the States, Di and I found a cheap flight to Hong Kong, where we stayed in an inexpensive, dark and creepy hotel for a week, taking full advantage of hot showers in a shared bathroom. At a night market, we bought fancy nylon panties in lurid jewel-tones: red, purple and turquoise, accented with lace. We couldn’t find panties that fit us in the Philippines – they were all too small. These were impractical in the heat, but we rationalized that we could wear them in Baguio, where it was cool. It felt like we were carrying contraband home in our suitcases.
Back in Lingsat, we were very careful when we washed our new purchases, not using too much of the harsh local detergent. Hanging on the clothesline, they waved like beckoning flags advertising “loose women.” One day when we returned from a day in town, the panties were missing, just plain gone. Our delicious little treats had been stolen from us, leaving us shredded cotton panties with holes the size of dimes. We were furious.
It pains me to write this, but we jumped to the conclusion that the thief was Freddie. Perhaps we imagined him handling the panties, even wearing them, although they would have been much too big on him. We had left the house under his care several times and he had never stolen anything, but our anger fueled us into confronting him.
Standing in our small back yard, we called his name. His face appeared in the window, then he stepped out of their rickety door, hanging from its frame, into our yard. He was coughing; a deep, deep cough that signaled something very wrong, but it didn’t stop me.
“Freddie,” I said, the flush of outrage infusing my face. “Freddie, what happened to our laundry?”
He cocked his head in his characteristic fashion, huge puzzled eyes in a skin-and-bones face. Even while confronting him, I hated myself. He was so poor. Why not let him have the damn panties!
“What laundry, ma’am?” He continued to call me ma’am, making me feel old, or worse, like some kind of colonial mistress. He collapsed into another coughing fit.
“We left laundry on our line and then went to town. Now it’s gone.”
His hands began to shake and his eyes began to fill. “I do not steal from you!” he shouted. He turned and ran from us back to his shack.
Ashamed, I turned toward our kitchen door while Di stayed outside, dazed.
“Boy, did we ever blow that,” she said when she came back in.
Di and I discussed how badly we’d behaved but decided to let things cool off before going to apologize. We tried to cheer each other up while we waited, making jokes about how much the panties meant to us. But the mood was edgy and accusatory, Di claiming she’d never wanted to buy the “sleazy” panties to begin with; they were “tacky” and she only bought them because they were cheap and because I egged her on. I called her a liar, joking, but I was a little steamed, just the same.
A tap at the door broke our tense discourse about the stolen panties. It was stronger than Freddie’s usual tap, but I thought it was him. I was so relieved to have a chance to apologize. When I opened the door, his eyes were streaming with tears; he thrust an envelope at me, turned and walked back to his house.
“Freddie!” I called, but he didn’t turn around.
Di and I sat at the picnic table and lit cigarettes. I was tearing up but not yet crying, just feeling like the worst Peace Corps volunteer in the world.
“Can you read it, Di? I’m just not up to it.”
She opened the crude envelope and pulled out an equally crude piece of paper, marked with a pencil.
“You ladies always been my friend but now you say I steal.” Oh, God, I felt so terrible.
Di took a deep breath and continued reading. “I never steal from you. How can you think that?” The tears began to trickle down my face. I rubbed them away and took a big drag on my smoke.
“I know who steal from you. Is lady on other side. She klepto. She the one.”
“Is that it?”
“We have to go apologize.”
We walked to the crooked door and knocked. Glorietta opened the door and stared at us.
“Is Freddie here?” I asked. She walked into the darkened house-they had no electricity-calling softly for Freddie. Freddie walked toward the door.
Before he reached it, I said, “Freddie, we’re so sorry. We were just so upset to find our laundry stolen, but we didn’t mean to accuse you. Please, accept our apologies.”
Freddie began to cry again and the three of us stood there crying.
When we all calmed down, I asked, “Can we be friends again?”
Freddie sighed a long, loud sigh which ended in another bout of coughing. “Yes,” he finally said. Do you want me to talk to neighbor?”
“No. Never mind that.”
“Okay, I go rest now.” He walked slowly down the dark hallway, coughing so harshly that it seemed his frail body might burst into pieces. The hips that had once swayed across our shared yard were now so bony they barely moved as he walked. I wondered why it had taken me such a long time to understand that Freddie was quite ill. The realization of Freddie’s serious illness increased my shame so acutely it made me think about going home.
Freddie’s cough worsened the longer we stayed in Lingsat. He looked more emaciated, and rarely visited us when we did our laundry. I wondered what was wrong with him. He was still friendly and talkative when we saw him, but seemed to tire easily, often retreating to his home to rest.
One morning, Freddie’s mother approached me as I washed clothing at our pump. Since we shared the pump, I thought she might want to interrupt my work for some water, but she just stood still, no containers in her hands.
“Kamustika, Glorietta?” I greeted her, came out of my squat, stood to face her.
She stared at the ground, said nothing. I didn’t know what to do.
“Freddie,” she finally whispered, bringing a finger to her mouth to warn me to keep my voice low. “Freddie very sick. Has lung disease. He dying.”
I stared at her, with sadness. My God, how I’d grown to love that man! He was so special, so sweet. I couldn’t continue meeting her eyes, and shifted my eyes to the ground unable to speak.
“Need money,” she hissed. “Need money to send to Baguio.”
I realized in that moment that I’d never liked Glorietta, and I thought the feeling was mutual. She seemed to see me only as a source of money. Perhaps she hated Americans; perhaps some member of her family had been harmed by Americans. A daughter, perhaps a niece, raped or mistreated by US servicemen here, or coaxed into prostitution. Perhaps she’d lost relatives in the Battle of Manila, where most of Manila, certainly the most beautiful, historic districts, was destroyed by American bombs, driving out the Japanese who had occupied the country during World War II. There were so many reasons why she might resent me.
“What’s wrong with Freddie? Does he have TB?”
“Wen, wen,” she answered yes in Ilocano, with a sigh.
“Poor Freddie,” I whispered. “Poor Freddie.”
“You have money. You pay medicine. Freddie must go Baguio.”
“Freddie go to mountain for air.” I knew the days of treating TB in this way were long gone. It was no longer thought to be a constitutional problem that could be cured in rural mountainous areas with clean air. This infectious disease passed among family members living in close, crowded conditions and thrived most of all in families living in poverty. What would happen to Freddie now?
“I’ll visit Freddie later,” I told her. There was a bitter expression around her mouth as if my words tasted bad. She walked away, leaving me to finish my laundry.
Di refused to go with me to speak with Freddie. I knew she was afraid of catching TB. We fought briefly about it. Our new roommate Pam and I made our way to Freddie’s house.
We walked softly through the long skinny house, and when we reached Freddie’s sleeping area, he was shivering under several blankets, even though it was hot as hell, especially in their house with so few windows and no cross ventilation. We sat on the edge of his spare mattress. I knew he was embarrassed that we were seeing him like this.
“Freddie, you have TB?” I asked.
“Yes,” he whispered as if there was shame in admitting it.
“Years,” he said, again in a whisper. His shivering increased, and the seemingly involuntary movements grew larger, more like the involuntary movements I associated with seizures. I hoped it was just anxiety, perhaps mixed with shame about our visit.
“Have you been treated?”
“We don’t have money for medicine. They want me to go to Baguio for air.”
“Freddie, they don’t treat TB like that anymore. It’s the medicine you need.”
Tears streamed down his withered face. “We don’t have money.”
I learned that the family had consulted a faith healer who recommended the Baguio air treatment. Baguio was crawling with faith healers, even some “psychic surgeons,” as well as terminally ill people, desperate to live. This was the era when terminally ill cancer patients traveled to Mexico for the apricot kernel cancer cure. Alternative healing had begun to thrive.
Freddie’s mother had pinned her hopes on this cure and wanted me to pay for his lodgings there. I offered instead to pay for a month’s course of medication. Pam also agreed to pay for a month. It wasn’t cheap and put a large dent in our monthly stipends.
We didn’t see much of Freddie for the next two months. I wanted to hover and make sure he took the pills correctly, but Glorietta’s dislike of me, and mine of her, erected a barrier between the two households.
One morning I was out in our backyard, again doing laundry. Glorietta opened the rickety gate between our abodes and approached me. I could see the sadness in her eyes from yards away. I stopped what I was doing, waited for her. She was wearing one of her sad faded dresses; this one had once been red and was now a scorched pink, the hem raggedy and torn.
She hung her head when she reached me. “Freddie dying in hospital.” The bluntness of her message made me gasp. How stupid I’d been not to prepare for this! I just went along and assumed he’d live if he took the medication. I’d never lost anyone close to me before; I was totally unprepared.
I reached for Glorietta’s hand. “I’m so sorry. Can I visit him?”
She nodded, turned, and walked quickly back home.
I left the laundry soaking, went inside for a cup of Nescafé, waiting for Di and Pam to wake up. I took the coffee in the living room, away from their rooms. Sitting on the worn sofa, I drank the bad coffee, lit a cigarette and wiped away the tears as fast as they fell.
Di finally emerged; her blond hair tousled from sleep. Her nightgown was almost as raggedy as Glorietta’s dresses. Almost, but not quite. She yawned, stretched, and heated up water for the coffee.
She peered at me, squinting, not wearing her contact lenses or glasses and asked, “Exercise?” Di and I had been doing Royal Canadian Air Force exercises almost religiously since realizing that our diet of rice, ice cream and beer had made us puffy.
“Not this morning.”
“Why, what’s up?”
“Freddie’s mom told me that he’s in the hospital, dying. I’m going to go see him.”
“Oh, my God, Amanda.”
“Do you want to come?”
“I’m too scared about the TB.”
I glared at her, but almost immediately backed off. She was who she was. Pam, on the other hand, was more than willing to go.
The jeepney to San Fernando was full. We had to squeeze our way to the front of the vehicle, practically sitting on the laps of others. The driver smiled maniacally, showing off his bright white teeth. On the tape player, K. C. and the Sunshine Band sang “I’m Your Boogie Man” at top volume, the deep bass disco beat coming up through the wooden seat.
At the hospital, we asked for Freddie’s room. There was a lot of discussion among the nurses in Ilocano and I only caught half of it, but it was enough to know that they thought he was dangerously infectious. I explained that he was our neighbor and we’d been exposed for close to a year. They shrugged their shoulders and led us to his room.
Freddie looked like a skeleton atop a hospital bed, covered in a blanket. A nurse sat by his bed, waiting for his death. When Freddie saw us, he blushed furiously and turned away. After a moment, he looked back at us, a small smile on his face.
“Hi, Freddie,” I whispered.
“Hello ma’am. Thank you for coming.”
We stood near his bed and did our best to smile down at him. I reached for his hand, despite a glare from the nurse. Freddie wept softly.
A great cough rose up in him, pushed his torso forward over his legs. The nurse grabbed a towel and Freddie spit blood into it.
“You must go now,” said the nurse. “He very ill.”
“Goodbye, Freddie,” I managed. “I’ll miss you.” Pam murmured her own farewell.
Tears filled my eyes as I stared down at Freddie’s wasted face.
“Thank you,” he mouthed. Thanking us though we had failed to save him.
We rushed from the room, left the hospital and walked to a bench just outside its doors. Seated there, I was more aware than ever of the condition of the people around me, the too-thin arms and legs of children and adults, the bare feet that kicked up the dust of the dry season, the ragged clothes, and the open sores on their limbs. It was a tableau of poverty and perseverance in stark contrast to my first-world self: well-clothed and fed, healthy, with someone only too willing to pay for my TB treatment, should I become afflicted.
Pam and I held each other for the longest time, knowing that Freddie’s spirit had likely left his body. I could feel him around us, heard a giggle or two, imagined his hand covering his mouth as his laughter burst out. His ghost would linger. He might join us by the water pump or follow as we walked past his house to the beach.
Amanda Noble has a Ph.D. in sociology and has published numerous academic articles, book chapters and reports. Upon retirement, she turned her attention to creative non-fiction, especially personal essay and memoir. Her work has appeared in Eastern Iowa Review, MacGuffin, and Windmill, among other literary magazines. Amanda is completing a memoir about the two years she spent in the Philippines during the tumultuous 1970s. She lives in northern California, with her cat, Lucy.