(Armor won 1st Prize in the Short Story for English category of the Carlos Palanca Memorial Literary Awards in 2013.)
The week Ronnie was planning to die, one of his neighbors paid him a visit. Ronnie had just come back from the seamstress, bringing home a newly mended sheath dress he would wear for the pageant, when Oliver showed up.
“The Death Squad,” Oliver said. “They’re after you.”
Ronnie considered what reactions were possible. He would back away from the Mylar-covered table where Oliver was nursing his coffee. He would warn him that he didn’t appreciate this kind of joke, not after bodies had been found in empty, grassy lots around Mintal. Instead, Ronnie soaked up his neighbor’s silence, leaned on the refrigerator and lit a cigarette.
Where was the Death Squad when he regularly handed out shabu to the crew of wiry boys who had hung out at his beauty salon? They were hired guns, the Death Squad, who used to go after drug pushers, but lately they’d been taking down street gang members, crystal meth users, petty thieves.
Oliver was talking to him about a list they had at the community hall, a list of targets. Someone had tipped him off about Ronnie’s name being in it. Oliver was telling him now so he could leave town before they found him.
“I don’t even push,” said Ronnie.
“You bought from Tiago before he was shot,” Oliver said.
Ronnie had forgotten how nosy the neighbors could be. He thought of his stash in the pillowcase. Tiago, his go-to guy for crystal meth, was one of those who’d been killed. They said a man on a motorcycle stopped in front of Tiago who was chatting with regulars outside his karaoke pub. The man shot him through the lungs four times. He hadn’t really known anyone who got killed by these gunmen until that time. A day before the shooting, Ronnie had seen Tiago in the same spot and they’d waved at each other.
“I only got them for the pageant,” Ronnie said. “To prepare. You know, lose some weight?”
“You’re joking, right?” said Oliver, eyeing him as though he were a stranger. In college, Oliver never fit in with Ronnie’s clique: sharp-tongued bayots who thrived on banter. There was always something open and raw about Oliver, as if he didn’t have time to assume a pose, to make pretend.
“Don’t you have any confidence in me?” Ronnie said. “Maybe this year is my year.”
After seeing Oliver out of the house, Ronnie resolved to stick to the plan. Before the Death Squad entered the picture, he had already made his decision. If the Death Squad were truly after him, they would have to race him down to that stage.
The pageant, known to many as Miss Gay, was a competition among cross-dressing gay men, a backwoods copy of international beauty contests for women. Like the Miss Universe pageant, Miss Gay involved a sequence of elimination rounds: national costume, swimsuit, evening gown, and the Q&A. The pageant was held every year in Mintal on the eve of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, the town’s patron saint.
As he was leaving his house to offer beauty treatments in the neighborhood, Ronnie found a young man squatting outside the gate.
“Hi, gwapa!” The boy got up, revealing a set of small yellow teeth. “We’re looking so pretty today.”
Ronnie knew him as Biboy, one of Tiago’s former drug runners. Biboy wore a lime-green basketball jersey and camouflage shorts, ringlets of dirt around his neck. With his hard, nimble body and long wingspan, he resembled a field bird with a handsome face.
“Not buying today. I still have a few more left,” Ronnie said.
“Who said I was selling?” said Biboy, pressing his body closer to Ronnie. “They took down Bossing Tiago. Haven’t you heard?”
“You should be careful then,” Ronnie told the boy and moved on.
THREE WEEKS AGO, Ronnie’s assistant emptied the cash register and split, taking boxes of expensive hair coloring products on the way out. The betrayal came on the heels of a huge blow. Ronnie’s straight male lover, whom he’d supported through college, had left to marry a girl he’d gotten pregnant.
Ronnie had to close down the salon and move to a boarding house in a compound used mainly as an automobile workshop. To pay rent, he started going door-to-door, offering makeup, hair styling, even manicures and pedicures. Occasionally he would choreograph dance numbers for local government employees who needed “intermission numbers” for their parties.
One afternoon, as he woke up to the sound of melting steel, Ronnie decided he’d had enough. He walked to the highway, the sky knifing his eyes. He was going to fling himself before a truck hauling timber from Lorega when he noticed a banner fluttering at the entrance of the gymnasium, its carefully painted words heralding a coronation.
The whole town would watch him compete again, hundreds of his neighbors—who’d already written him off as a cautionary tale—would see him at his glamorous best, see him in a long gown, on that stage, spotlights beamed on him. Ronnie knew that he still had one thing left to do before killing himself.
AFTER SERVING HIS CLIENTS, Ronnie skipped lunch to sign up for the pageant at the community hall. The deadline for registration had produced chaos: people argued over who would get to be Miss Venezuela, Miss Puerto Rico, and Miss Colombia, powerhouses in international pageants. The organizers, who didn’t anticipate the complication, resolved the matter by making contestants draw lots, to which most of the bayots grudgingly agreed. Flaunting a call center-accented English, the most mestiza of the bunch grumbled when he didn’t pick Miss USA. One bayot, who clamored nakedly for attention, literally sang with joy when he plucked out Miss Philippines from the glass filled with nations’ names.
Ronnie had joined pageants in college. It was a thrill some bayots chased, from tarpaulin-bordered basketball courts at small-town fiestas to huge convention halls in cities. Together with friends, he entered every contest in Davao and in towns as far as Lanao. He was slimmer then, naturally smooth, his drowsy eyes framed by a small hard-boned face.
Since he’d come in late, he found himself at the end of the queue. He took a strip of paper from the glass, read what he got, and quickly thumbed it into his shorts pocket. He had fished out Great Britain, a nation still winless in the Miss Universe contest, but he could live with it. Maybe it’s time, Ronnie was thinking, they bow down to The Queen.
“What you have there?” a bayot asked him. He had long, ironed hair touching his bare shoulders.
“Secret,” Ronnie said. “You’ll have to see for yourself.”
“Chos!” sneered another one, frail and much younger, with unusually pale skin that was almost gray. “When was the last time you joined? The 1960s?”
Ronnie was going to say something lighthearted when he noticed the way the youngsters were looking at him. The one with flattened hair asked him, “So how does it feel to be a thank-you-girl?”
The phrase summoned the humiliating image of a contestant packing up his things after losing. You did not simply lose: you didn’t stand a chance.
Ronnie bristled. “You carry yourselves not with poise but with vulgarity. Neither of you deserve any kind of crown!”
When they didn’t respond, he took it as the perfect moment to leave with a final barb: “You are still on your way, but I am already coming back.”
THE FOLLOWING DAY he still couldn’t figure out his national costume. Desperate for ideas, he scoured old magazines, looking for icons, but he couldn’t find anything that inspired. Then, after lunching on a cup of rice and one salted fish, he saw something on TV.
He was mindlessly flipping channels—his landlord was thoughtful to share cable TV—when a vision seized him: a model marching from the stage wing in a flowing couture dress, her body glimmering so brightly, she looked as though she were swaddled in flames. The most remarkable part of the ensemble was her right arm. Cased in a gold armored sleeve, the arm looked like it belonged to a knight. The warrior queen stepped out of the tube and crossed into Ronnie’s living room, blinding him with light.
He took out a pencil and a pad of yellow paper, moved closer to the TV set, and began sketching. There it was, the gown that would send him back to the Miss Gay pageant one last time. King Arthur, after all, was British.
Afraid inspiration would wane, Ronnie rushed to the hardware store. He picked up aluminum sheets, wires, metal shears, tiny screws and nuts, and a can of gold aerosol paint.
At the tricycle cab terminal, he saw Biboy again. The way the boy beamed at him, it was as if he’d been waiting for Ronnie to appear.
“After you, gwaps.” Biboy hopped in and sat beside Ronnie.
When they reached the compound, the boy got off and followed him to the gate.
“Let me carry that,” he offered, grasping at the cellophane bags in Ronnie’s hands.
The boy was wearing the same green basketball jersey and shorts.
“I don’t have time. Shoo, before my landlord sees you.”
The boy skipped in front of him, blocking his way. He was so tall that the top of his head almost cleared the iron spikes bent over the hollow block wall. The grooves of his ribs showed through the jersey’s large armholes.
“Promise you I’ll be good,” said Biboy. “Sige na, gwaps. If you want we can arrange something. I’m a very talented singer.” Then he smirked, so Ronnie would know exactly what kind of “singing” he had in mind.
“Really, I have a lot to finish.” He brushed the boy aside and opened the smaller entrance.
“Maybe I can clean your house,” the boy prodded. “Pick up your groceries. I only need a place to stay. Please, gwaps?”
Ronnie was about to shut the gate when it occurred to him. He could really use some help after all.
“Quick. Before I change my mind.”
Taking the bags from Ronnie’s hands, the boy followed him to the house.
After peeping into the only bedroom, Biboy reclined on the rattan sofa and shook his flip-flops off, propping his feet comfortably on a beanbag. “Small, but cozy…” he said. He found the sketches Ronnie had made for the armored sleeve.
“What’s this? Excalibur!” Biboy chuckled.
“Suit of armor,” said Ronnie. “Don’t tell anyone. That’s my national costume for the Miss Gay pageant.”
“What? This? You have a fever, gwaps?”
“Just the arm,” Ronnie said. “I’ll wear it with a long gown covered in sequins.”
“The bayot with the golden arm! Tripping!”
“Maybe you want to sleep at the market tonight.”
“Uh, yes, boss,” said Biboy. “As long as you’re happy, I’m happy.”
Ronnie spread the materials he’d bought out on the floor. He considered making three detachable parts to form the whole sleeve, following his initial sketches. Perhaps he would get some mesh cloth, or something rubbery. Or he could stitch the arm plates with wire, make an inner sleeve that would look like chain mail.
“You know, gwaps, I can help you with that,” said Biboy.
“That’s what you’re here for.”
Biboy tossed the sketches. “I got a high mark in industrial arts. For my project, I made an iron garden set. Compared to that, your arm plate is peanuts.”
“Okay, Mister Industrial Design,” said Ronnie. “There’s chicken siopao and orange juice in the fridge.”
John Bengan teaches creative writing in the University of the Philippines Mindanao, where he also serves as Chair of the Humanities Department. He is the newly elected president of the Davao Writers Guild for 2017-2019.