(An excerpt from "Birds of Paradise" )
A European tour group nervously skitters by, rushing in the torrid heat to board the air-conditioned bus parked in front of the tourist emporium. Bun tugs John's arm, pulling him to the side to make room for the unthinking horde of stumbling foreigners who have every appearance of being members of John's own tribe, however distant.
“Watch out!” she exclaims, making way for the heavy-footed tourists blinded by the unblinking heat.
"Fa-rang..” he mutters. The word leaves his lips before he really has time to think about it. It both pleases and pains him to take the Thai view, reducing his “own kind” to type.
"Look!" she nudges, pausing next to an artfully painted pushcart containing four glass tanks. Iced cut fruit is on display, sorted by color: yellow, orange, rose and green. She eschews the messy pineapple and melon, instead opting a bag of green-skinned guava chunks and a bag of rose apples.
“Farang for farang,” she teases, stabbing a sharp stick into the green bag, extracting a chunk of guava.
“Why do they call guava farang anyway?” he answers, getting the joke but not the linguistics. “I could never figure that out.”
Bun dips the guava into a plastic bag containing spiced salt and holds it up in front of his mouth. “Eat farang,” she teases. The scent of freshly squeezed orange juice, jasmine garlands, urine and diesel exhaust mingle in olfactory point and counterpoint as he let the fruit slide into his mouth and slowly breaks it into smaller chunks with his front teeth.
“And what’s that?” he asks, looking at the reddish-green fruit. “Isn’t that, what do they call it, rose apple?
“Chompu for Chompoo.”
“What do you mean?”
“My name is same-same. I am Chompoo.” She snares a piece of cut fruit and holds it up to his mouth.
John feels a surge of energy coming on; even if she doesn’t know the nuance of her word choice he does, and it stirs him. He’s getting that familiar feeling, the feeling he had on the bridge.
For an intimate instant, he had become oblivious to the impatient rush hour throng that is slipping and sliding past them as they enjoy a rare moment of intimacy. They are locked in a visual embrace while the commuter foot flow parts into two streams to rush past them. Again he is seized with the Neanderthal desire to pounce on her and take her back to his cave. It’s a primal urge he has felt before—like after the prom in a steamed-up car parked at the beach, or that time strolling with a date across the campus suspension bridge to admire the fall foliage, or like when he first entered that space-age love hotel with his first Japanese girl—but the urge to merge has never hit him on a teeming, screaming street corner before.
“Do you like me?” she asks teasingly.
“Rose Apple of my eye,” he replies in kind, reaching for her hand.
“What do you do?” she asks, flustered. She pulls free.
“I feel like I know you.”
“You know me? I am just a poor girl.”
Impatient, but largely polite, people whisk by with smooth abandon as they carry on their banter, almost at a whisper pitch. They stand united in opposition to the flow, isolated with immobility, like an island in the stream.
“Oh, Bun, Bun, Bun. I only want the best for you. It’s not your fault the world is the way it is.”
“I can trust you?”
“I want to say yes. But you know what, you don’t know me, and I don’t know you. Not yet, anyway.”
“You are honest man.”
“I like what I see.”
“You think I am shanty girl? Cheap girl?”
“No, just a regular person, a nice person.”
“You won’t hurt me?”
“No, of course not. I respect women.” Yeah, right. Never meant to hurt any of the other girls either, he thinks, conjuring up the image of the trembling leaf of a girl he had blithely loved and left in the dust on that bend in the country road.
“You say funny things.”
“After talking to you on the bridge, I think about you many times,” she says. “I hate you and I like you.”
“I’ve been thinking about you too.”
“Really?” she bends her head to the side and smiles, weighing the thought.
“It’s hard to explain, but you just make me want to believe, you just being you.”
“I don’t know. Little things, big things, everything.”
The whistling drone of a bamboo organ fills the air around their feet. A skinny old man squatting on the curb is playing the khaen, blowing air from deep in his lungs through his lips, breathing life into the bamboo instrument. The airy repetitive tune is wistful and haunting, evoking the doleful beauty of hard times.
The bewildering immediacy he feels in her presence gives every echo, every innuendo added significance. When she touches his arm and whispers something about “Come see where I live,” his heart misses a beat.
This is your life, John Joyce, son of Miss Mary Joyce and an unmentionable married man from a far way land. You grew up in Huntington Beach, Orange County. This is happening to you. Do It!
He plunges forward, following her as she deftly merges with the erratic flow of foot traffic on the left. He tails her closely, pent-up with rising expectations, as she glides along a narrow stretch of open pavement sided with the mats and makeshift stalls of sidewalk merchants selling tourist trinkets, cheap toys, refrigerator magnets, fake watches, used books, pirated software, and cassette music tapes. They keep in formation, single file, to better thread through gaps in the crowd and traverse narrow passages more efficiently.
Look at the way she gently sways, even in flip-flops. It makes him want to place his hands on her hips and drive her home. Perhaps the lewd fantasy is not entirely far-fetched, but a premonition, he’s actually on his way home to her room. Her room. Her. He is doubly pleased to see that while she is definitely not selling herself, she is not necessarily unavailable, either, at least not in any obvious way, and that gives him hope, though he can’t be sure about her intentions when he’s not even sure of his own. She’s apparently holding down an honest job in that open-air Internet cafe, though what she does there amidst the lowlife, native and foreign, is still something of a mystery. She has the penmanship of a calligraphist and keeps company with social activists—that’s a positive sign—she can’t be completely down and out if she has time for other people’s problems. So he’s beginning to get the distinctly excellent and elevated feeling of knowing he just might have, just possibly, stumbled upon his kind of girl. A new kind of ‘his kind of’ girl. An artist and an activist. He knows it’s real because his feet have already left the stained sidewalk and he’s walking on air. It’s parched and torrid out there and yet the low blazing sun is as soothing as peaches and cream.
Connecting with her, being in contingent proximity to her has somehow allowed him to move unruffled past the inevitable “Hey you!” and “Mitsu-ter you buy!” shouts of the gutter merchants on the left and sullen stares of garbage pickers on the right. He feels he has almost gone native, as he nimbly darts the little obstacles that keep popping up along this sadly situated floating market. Even the footbridge is a cluttered mess, a beggar or mendicant on every other step, a homeless woman here, a limbless man there, each submitting their chafed plastic cups to the quirky compassion of jaded strangers. And yet all this he take in stride, so thrilled he is with a spirited young soul-mate who shows no shyness about walking with a farang in public.
After clearing the bridge and the clutter of stalls at the foot of the bridge, they are hit by a sudden abundance of open space upon reaching the open concrete plaza of a the gargantuan shopping center that dominates the view in these parts They step inside, tasting the cool perfume-scented air of a Japanese department store but he starts to complain about how much he hates big shopping centers, so they quickly pop back out into the muggy heat, exiting into the parking lot. They cut across a parking lot and she points out a ramshackle low-rise settlement of tin-roofed shacks glowing in the golden rays of the setting sun. Towering over the humble community are two giant billboards; one is an ad for shampoo featuring a flawless fair-skinned beauty with jet-black Cleopatra style hair, staring out into space; the other, an ad for a Japanese luxury sedan, on the other side of a canal, rises above a car-clogged intersection. Off to the left of that, a giant bowling pin shines like a shrine under spotlights.
They cut through the rear parking lot of the mall, unnoticed by the legions of pale-skinned Japanese senior citizens faithfully lining up to catch their sturdy double-decker Japanese bus back to the Japanese hotel after an afternoon of converting yen to baht to make yen for the upscale Japanese department store.
After treading through a weeded patch, littered with garbage and dog shit, they skirt an abandoned construction site in the shadow of an abandoned office tower. They detour through a partially excavated lot rimmed with heaps of rusted metal and uprooted, desiccated trees. To the left rises a mountain of garbage, where younger kids scamper up and down merrily, as if in a playground. Closer by older kids kick a soccer ball in a clearing, and due to an errant kick, ball comes rolling right by them. John gives it a solid kick, foot-bawn as his buddies called it, was the only sport that really mattered in his Thai high school, and gets a volley of thanks before the kids resume play. Bun leads the way along a sandy path to the top of an artificial hill of packed earth, sand, gravel on the edge of a recessed construction site. The view from the top offers a comprehensive view of the place she calls home.
Sprawled out before them lies an elongated “L” shaped settlement of flimsy huts with rusty tin rooftops situated on the bank of an east-west canal with murky waters and overgrown banks, and delimited by a huge tree-lined walled compound that lurks to the west. To the south there lies a walled temple compound, and hooking around that on the far left, a lean-to lined walkway leading south. A drainage ditch, its muddy waters picking up the last light of the sun meanders through the hemmed in community until it disappears in the undergrowth. Overall the view is green and pleasing to the eye at first glance, given the profusion of trees, wild weeds and hardy plant growth in this niche world without cars. The refuse heaps, oily waterways, barking dogs and curlicues of smoke from cooking fires suggest it is a slum, a shantytown, but it is also has the aspect of a village. John takes in the vista in thoughtful silence, trying not to dwell on the filth in the foreground. He can’t think of anything to say for the longest time until the afterglow of sunset draws his attention to the kaleidoscope hues of a psychedelic sky. To the north, a massive stand of whitewashed condominiums looms with menacing beauty, like twinkling tombstones against the violet of the coming night. To the south and west, the golden spires, pointed prangs and soaring rooftops cut black silhouettes against the ruddy horizon, while the proud, angular tangerine roof of the Peacock Hotel rises in the distance over the olive treetops of its neatly groomed botanical refuge.
“You have a nice view here,” he proffers at last.
“Well, except for the garbage.”
“Can we meet again sometime?” she asks, unsure if he is making fun of her or not.
"Sure, how about Friday night, after I get done teaching?”
"Can you find this place?”
“Sure, nice view, I’ll be here.”
“I take you to a bus.”
She leads him along a rubble-strewn path through a weed-covered lot, where a number of bulldozers sit idle, until they get to the edge of a shallow creek. From there cross a fetid drain ditch laced with oily black liquid on a single wobbly plank, then traipse along a winding unkempt path until they are back at place where the main road meets the canal.
John unbolts the stiff, termite-scarred shutters of the bedroom window and leans out for some hot tropical air. Tendrils of rain dangle from distant clouds, irrigating temple spires and thirsty trees. As the storm blows over and the rain is reduced to a faint trickle and drizzle, a low breeze begins to rise over the rooftops, stirring limp flags and neglected shirts on laundry lines, heralding the arrival of evening. Rush hour is underway, a drama of impatient motion and patient immobility, as commuters endure endless contractions of stop-and-go traffic to get out of the city. The city sucks in cars at sunrise and spits them out again at sunset, like whale feeding on plankton, always eating, always expelling, always hungry. A commuter train wrapped in eye-catching ads slithers along an elevated concrete conduit like a tree viper, swallowing and disgorging prey on high perches. John’s eye follows the train as it threads in and out of view, passing weathered shop-houses, vertiginous billboards and stainless-steel towers. It courses by swiftly and surely, defying the automotive swell that is already beginning to jam the streets below.
The place he calls home is a picturesque rental with an angular Thai roof and a small yard, just the sort of place he and Sombat could not begin to afford were it not out of alignment and sinking faster on one side than on the other. The uneven floors took some getting used to but made a fitting match with the leaky roof as fluids as rain leakage and other spills were uniquely attracted to the slightly lower kitchen side of the floor, leaving the high side suitably dry for a sofa, a low coffee table, piles of books, newspapers and a beat-up guitar. The upstairs of the tiny two-bedroom house suffered the same slant, so it was cluttered with clothes on the good side, empty on the bad, the linoleum-floored bedrooms offering little more than a place to sleep.
The cobwebbed wooden rafters have never fully shaken their stuffy attic odor and the tint of the cheap plywood paneling did nothing to uplift the soul. The cave-like darkness offered ocular relief from the bleached-out midday sun, but when color came back to the landscape in the late afternoon, the interior was just plain depressing. Now that John is a resident of the big, bright future that he once sacrificed so much for, the emptiness of his existence fills him with dread. No family, no wife, no kids. His mother is dead, his diploma isn’t exactly opening doors and the love of his life is married to a man who wants to kill him. Sometimes it seemed that if it were not for Sombat he wouldn’t have a friend in the world; life was passing him by, faster and faster by the day.
Long before John found himself lost in Thailand, he had been a fairly typical American, smug in his view of the world and content with his country’s privileged place in it. The decline of his Americanism was gradual, and it wasn’t fair to blame it all on the temptations of the tropics. His fancy education had opened his eyes to social inequities, surely at odds job training. It was more like job untraining, making him antagonistic to the world of work before he even graduated. The ease with which he adopted the lofty anti-commerce stance of tenured faculty mentors at his college combined with his Catholic conviction that the meek would inherit the earth, effectively crippled his chances of getting the sort of secure, high-paying, money-grubbing job that some of his classmates went for, offering them a kind of security he lacked. Graduation was supposed to mean entry into an adult world of bigger and better things, like finding a career, settling down and starting a family, but to a restless young buck with Thailand on the mind, the mere idea of remaining in America seemed a sociological sentence; he wasn’t sure what he wanted to be, or even where he wanted to be, but he was sure of one thing: he didn’t want his life to be a variation on the collapsed expectations and smothered hopes of his mother.
LA was his crib, his cradle; and the older he got the more it made his skin crawl. Anywhere far away was promising, the farther the better, but the main point was that he simply had to get away. He got the scholarship as an exchange student in high school. For college, he applied to schools on the opposite coast. And when it came to taking a year off from college, he went back to Thailand, his newfound home away from home. While some of his friends had hitched to Mexico to visit rebels in Chiapas or studied French in France or backpacked in India, “Thai” John had a leg up on them when it came to the Third World thing. He spent his second sojourn in Bangkok hanging out with Sombat and a bunch of like-minded marijuana-toking, girl-tickling, guitar-stroking Thai students.
That sophomoric year off fucked up his life in ways he was only beginning to fully appreciate. It gave him a heady taste of extreme freedom and the emptiness that went along with it. Bent on making the most of nothing, he patched together a relaxed, largely unstructured existence, teaching just enough English on the side to defray costs. Teaching English conversation in Thailand was tailor made for a man with no plan, it was the kind of thing a native speaker with no qualifications for anything in particular could easily do, but he took it up at his own peril, not realizing it would soon become his default career and in time his only financial lifeline.
Joy was very much in the picture back in those slacker days—looking back on it now it was nothing less than their golden age—but in contrast to his cultivated attempt to be as free as he could be, she was frequently “not free,” due to unyielding family obligations, charitable activities, strategic introductions to business circles, high-end shopping expeditions, getting her hair done, or whatever else it was she had to do to make herself so beautiful and rare.
He had accepted all this in good cheer, because the romance was budding with the slow predictability of seasonal change; it seemed like it was only a matter of time before she’d plop into his hand like a perfectly ripe piece of juicy fruit, though what eventually happened was more akin to getting hit on the head with a coconut. When he was with Joy, he was as commendable as an altar boy on his best behavior, trying to master polite Thai, learning the social customs and history in a way that would one day impress her prickly parents. He never nursed the hope of impressing her imperious mother, a snob if there ever was one, but at least her good-natured father deigned to converse with him and made him feel like he might some day, in some strained kind of way, sort of become a member of the family.
But John was footloose and free and he would not permit his intensive tutorial in Thai high society etiquette to consume all his time or energy. Back then he was not just young at heart, as he ached to be now, but actually young in body and reckless in mind. At age nineteen he had been bent on shedding the callow skin of his youth, hoping to trade downy whiskers for a beard, still young and unjaded enough to want to look older and be jaded. He was a glutton for experience, looking to accumulate experience like others ran after money or status; and he wasn’t particularly choosy; any dumb old experience that involved the word “girl” was worth looking into. His early forays into the dark, dank beer-soaked pleasure palaces of Isan had been less-than-inspirational, but he managed to con himself into believing that he was on the verge of something big.
John was used to fielding female attention, not paying for it, just like he was used to getting scholarships instead of paying for that. Back in his junior year of high school he had been vice-president of the student council, a smooth talker whose stirring speech “The American Way” helped him snag a scholarship to spend a year in Thailand as a grassroots ambassador. “The American way of life is the best way of life for Americans, but it may not apply to other countries as they have different cultures, customs, etc.”
Once he got over the initial discomfort of being the only white boy on the block in Bangkok, he had learned to savor the extra attention dispensed to “the one who is different.” Being the resident farang at a missionary-run school on the banks of the great muddy river had a certain amount of cachet with both with his schoolmates and with girls from the sister school across the street. He won an unofficial poll as the person “who looked the most international,” according to Sombat, and one student with thick glasses and a weird sense of humor even remarked that John, with his long, flowing locks, looked like Jesus. Stern principal and head priest Brother Romano acknowledged that “holy” look by inviting the lanky young American to pose in his underwear every day for a week as the model for a work of art commissioned to represent athletic excellence. A statue was being made in his likeness! He was the big man on a little campus of eccentric missionary teachers and naughty Thai boys; his rare command of Ing-lit made him more than a student, and something of a linguistic role model.
Deaf and dumb in Thai upon arrival as most farang, exchange students or otherwise, are wont to be, he found that his aural-oral handicap actually helped him make friends. He was surrounded by a flood of eager volunteers who wanted to translate for him, if only as a means to practice Ing-lit or get his help with their Ing-lit homework. Some of the boys, Sombat included, lost interest in the language thing once having been taught how to say fuck, pussy, ass and dick. Picking up on diminishing interest in English, John insisted on learning some Thai. Sombat was a gifted, twisted teacher in his own way, getting John to say, at the most inappropriate time possible, suggestive words with twin meanings like chak wao, which supposedly meant “fly the kite” but really meant “jerk-off,” and tok pet which sounded like “going fishing” but was really “rub the nub.”
The degree to which the boys continued to influence one other was something about which neither was fully cognizant of. They were different in ways that attracted and repulsed in almost equal measure. The road to mutual acceptance had been long, twisted and littered with the debris of endless argument. Each of them liked to think he understood the other better than the other understood himself, and yet each was as quick to bristle at the idea that they had any real character traits in common.
During high school, Sombat and his roguish gang had been all but abandoned by John when a girl named Joy entered the picture. After the American was “discovered” by her English Club, there was a hardly a day in the week he wasn’t hanging out at the elite girls’ school across the street, for coconut and tapioca desserts after school, or sometimes just smile exchange. The wide-eyed girls exhibited no interest in exchanging the names for body parts but tended to favor unsustainably dreamy formulations, such as chan rak thoe is Thai for “I love you” while khit tueng means “missing you.” John adapted as necessary, with the result that he lovingly tutored and was lovingly tutored by young Thai ladies of means, something Sombat acidly described as a “fuck me, fuck you” situation.
John didn’t see it that way, but he did get to employ some of that angelic Thai vocabulary when he returned to America at the end of the year. He corresponded extensively with one of the girls; Joy was the name, and many intimate words changed hands, mostly in English of course. Her tender evocations of “missing you” and “kissing you” drew him back to the tropics a second time and even a third. After finishing his sophomore year at college, he responded to the call the Orient, and the tug of her perfumed missives, by getting on a jet at LAX. The next day he was at Don Muang airport, on a shoestring budget so tight he couldn’t afford a taxi.
Sombat met him at the airport and they went to Thonburi by bus. In those days pocket change was hard to come by but time was easy to find and they spent it generously, hanging out, tooling around on borrowed wheels, scheming, getting stoned and playing the guitar. When it came to girls, John had a knack for opening the deal and Sombat had a knack for closing it, so in theory they made a formidable team, but it rarely worked out that way.
For one, John wanted to see Joy more than anything, but he was hardly welcome at her house. Indeed, where would he have stayed were it not for the generosity of the Thongjit family? Sombat was pleased to be reunited with his partner in crime and Super-mom seemed resigned to providing maternal guidance to John upon his return. It was an open secret that she had initially volunteered to take a model foreign boy into her house under the auspices of an international exchange program, mainly in the hopes that the exchange student would be a good influence on her wayward son. She had no such illusions the second time around, but by then the increasingly wayward John was practically like a member of the family.
“Sit up straight!”
“Bow your head when you pass a Buddha.”
“Don’t use your foot to point.”
“Don’t smoke marijuana.”
“Tuck in your shirt.”
The two boys put on a laudable show at home, but once they stepped out the guarded gate of the Thongjit compound into the big chaotic world, they flaunted taboos and courted trouble. Super-mom ran the house with a sharp tongue and a clenched purse. The more her real son rebelled, the more pressure it put on the adopted son to be play the role of good guy. She taught John to be less of a Yank, if not exactly more Thai, advising him on how to comport himself, how to talk, how to eat, how to relax, who to show respect to and who not to consort with. If he felt penned in at first, he could at least commiserate with his bro who had been under the regime since infancy. Not unlike Catholic school, the advantage of having so many rules piled on was the forbidden thrill in breaking them.
The screen door snaps shut with a bang.
Sombat’s back, interrupting John’s attempt to nap on the couch. He watches his roommate kick off his sandals and wobble into the living room with a dumb smile on his face.
“Hey dude,” John greets.
“Hey prude,” the Thai answers, the odor of alcohol and nicotine on his breath, the trace of perfumed soap on his skin.
Some things never change. He and Sombat were older now, but were either of them any wiser, or were they still frozen in a kind of unresolved adolescence? A dozen years after their tour of sordid sex joints in Southern Isan and getting jilted by Joy, he finds himself a professor of English at a respected tertiary institution, but his outlook on the boy-girl thing hasn’t changed much. The whole sex thing, was, like, totally fucked. Intellectually he wanted to defend the “No Power” movement and a woman’s right to say no but he still found it hard to know when no meant no especially with Joy making available noises again.
He watches Sombat open the fridge and rummage for beer.
“No, and you shouldn’t either. You drink too much.”
“I got school tomorrow, and haven’t even done my lesson plan yet.”
After getting short with Sombat, telling him twice to turn down the hip-hop music and cut back on the booze, John climbs upstairs to his room, picks up his pen and notebook and jots down some ideas for a pronunciation drill for the morning class.
“Is free love really free?”
“Is free love really love?”
“Is reality really real?”
It was full of Ls and Rs and who knows, it might even help jumpstart a discussion. It was never easy to get the self-conscious, status-conscious students to talk in front of their peers, unless they were either so excited or so infuriated that they forgot they were in class. If he got them wound up on a good topic, then maybe he could sit back, watch them unwind. And maybe learn something.
For the advanced class, he would pull out two songs from his trusty pirate cassette collection. He had been wondering a lot about God lately, given some of the godforsaken turns his life had taken, and wanted to talk about the topic in a way that was not preachy. He thought “Losing My Religion” would be a good song to start with. It was a personal favorite the year he lost it, and here he was, over a decade later, still losing it. On the other hand, he had not abandoned faith entirely and he wanted to balance the discussion with talk about that too. So he would play “What if God Was One of Us?” and try to get his students thinking about the under-recognized dignity of “the strangers on a bus.”
Evening falls hard in the shantytown as sudden violent downdraft of cool air moves in, rattling flimsy homes, and whipping up a dusty breeze. John rubs his eyes, feeling a bit beside himself. Just being able to see the roof of the Peacock paradoxically makes him feel very far away from the Bangkok he thought he loved and thought he knew, for even as the stench of the garbage heap fades, he is hit with a rising sense of dread. This is one of the lawless enclaves where drugs are dealt and contract murders carried out. This is that slum he heard about, but never ventured into, where the shooting happened the other night. He is about to step deep inside the maw of a danger zone, teeming with intrigue, delinquency and villainy.
Even the kids unnerve him. Kids who had scavenging for treasure and playing merrily at the dump just few minutes before now come barreling homeward, as if fleeing the demons of the night. They come running hard and fast, close-shaven heads boring past him, and Bun, boring their way ahead of anyone foolish enough to block their way on the narrow footpath. Unleashed dogs bark ferociously, puppies yelp, and chickens squawk as the man with the farang-smell walks by. How any animal could detect his body odor or that of anyone else over the stench of the fetid canal and mounds of refuse and trickling open sewers was a mystery, but everything animate seems to be hyper aware of John’s arrival, though it might just have been his perfervid imagination running wild.
He stares distractedly at the sight of flies on the butchered carcass of a pig, while a short distance away, the coagulating blood of a freshly slaughtered chicken glistens under the battery-rigged fluorescent tube of the impromptu meat stand. Maybe he should excuse himself now. But not all of the feathered fowl are for eggs and eating; Bun points out the tall, erect red-combed roosters jumping up and down restlessly inside rattan cages. “Fighting cock,” she explains. He has always hated the idea of setting up two animals to kill each other. Why, in California you could get thrown in jail for tossing a dog out of a car on the freeway, not that California wasn’t brutal in its own sort of bureaucratic way. But here the blood sports were ingrained in the culture, kick boxing, cock-fighting, water buffalo bashing, reflecting an unsentimental acceptance of nature’s raw brutality.
Tangerine clouds float impossibly high above this little flimsy, fenced-in world of sagging wooden shacks and corrugated-tin-roofed shops. And to think it’s not only under the same sky as the opulent octagonal pool at the Peacock, but only a stone’s throw away! Petty vendors line both sides of a passageway wide enough for single-file foot traffic and the occasional small motorcycle. There are stalls offering a selection of curries, from bright red to bright green, pushcarts selling a crunchy assortment of fried insects, barbequed pork skewered on sticks and dried beef jerky hanging from low rafters. There are dust-encrusted piles of sour green mangoes, tangy tamarinds and other fruit that John doesn’t recognize, while a fish tank rigged to a cart with the back pane of glass punched out keeps freshly pounded papaya salad free of dust and flies. There is an iced-drink stand, lined with bottles every color of the rainbow, and a Thai-sweet stall selling coconut concoctions and sugary desserts. As he watches the slum dwellers move by, some register surprise at the sight of him, others smile or even offer a few words in greeting, but most are too busy with their own lives to even bother casting a glance his way, like that sinewy bare-chested man on the side of the alley, whipping the daylights out of a scrawny dog with a metal rod.
Mosquitoes are hovering around on the hunt for blood, but nobody seems to notice. Scrawny dogs scurry out of the way with a whimper but dare not bark, mindful of what happens if they incur the wrath of stone-throwing humans. John pauses at the sight of a long string of connected rubber bands blocking his path, and then lifts his foot to cross when—
Boom! A big firecracker goes off a few feet away, causing John to shudder with panic, and almost black out, braced for the worst. Are they under attack? Has he been caught in some ghastly crossfire? While nothing hurts and he doesn’t appear to have been hit, the fear that he might have been, or almost was, is enough to make his pink face go white.
A devilish bout of high-pitched screams and delinquent laughter hits his ringing ears.
It’s nothing, just some kids, Bun reassures him, taking him by the arm, but he can’t help but feel he at risk and unwanted.
The bang of that grenade-sized cracker was an instant attitude adjuster, reminding him, the paranoid outsider, that there could be all sorts of evil hiding in the shadows. It’s quiet again except for the sound of cockcrow, the devilish pranksters have long since scattered by now, but his head is still pounding. The residual heat of the day, the toll of having too much to take in in too short a time, the erratic darting motion of the kids, the naked infants crawling on dirt floors, the toilet stench wafting in from the canal, the uncompromising stares of strange men, the hard-to-understand dialect bouncing off his ears and the hungry sniffing and probing of his heels by a damp black bitch with swollen teats has pushed him to the limit.
He is edgy, brittle, almost panicky, as if he half expects a hostile comment or outright physical onslaught to come hurtling at him any second. Though no such thing comes to pass, the lingering fear gets under his skin. He wonders if they might go back to the huge mega mall, the very monstrosity he viewed with condescending disdain on the way over --so solid, geometrical, rational and familiar in its contours—to find a cocoon to hide in. An air-conditioned coffee shop or a dimly lit restaurant would be just about right.
Instead she urges him to soldier on. She even places her hand gently on his shoulder at spots where the path is dark or slippery underfoot. At last they get to a pushcart drink stand run by a friend of hers, and not a minute too soon. John’s legs are still shaking; the only thing he wants more than a drink is to sit down.
“Ooliang song” Bun orders two iced coffees without consulting him, exchanging an eye smile with the vendor she knows as a neighbor. The matronly vendor dusts off two plastic stools, inviting the two of them to sit. Her pushcart is parked under the low canopy of an old mango tree. It’s no Peacock Hotel, but it’s dark enough and lush enough in this corner of this god-forsaken slum to entertain the illusion of being in a private, backyard garden, albeit a crowded one, as a number of people are milling around, doing nothing in particular. Discarded rubber tires filled with soil function as planters for homegrown mint, cilantro and chili peppers. Banana trees flush out the narrow spaces between shacks built of scrap lumber and rusted sheet iron, giving the side alley a lush, rural look.
Served in clear plastic bags tied tight around the straw, the drinks travel from hand to hand without spilling a drop. They bounce pleasantly when dangled from a finger, using the loop of an expertly twisted rubber band. John fumbles with the straw and rubber band seal on his beverage bag before taking a tentative sip. It’s so icy, sweet and refreshing he downs his ooliang in two or three long draughts, and orders a refill, in Thai, to demonstrate to the vendor, and all the nosy bystanders, that this was no fresh-off-the-jet tourist they were looking at.
A pregnant lady with a toddler in tow stops in for a drink and John and Bun quickly give up their seats. Feeling the onrush of sugar and caffeine, John is emboldened to explore within the confines of the mango tree marketplace.
A man selling grilled squid and salted boiled eggs puts down his double load, resting the carrying pole over two evenly weighted baskets to rest his shoulders. Across the path, a shrunken woman with buzz-cut gray hair sells shampoo, rice and sundry dry goods from a shop the size of a carnival ticket stand. On a kid-sized wooden stool set under the drooping branches of the old mango tree, a shoe repairman works his trade, hammering a broken heel while a customer waits on a stool, unshod foot dangling in the air.
The shoe repairman, out of the habit of his trade, scrutinizes John’s footwear from toe to heel before taking in his face. Know the shoe to know the man, might be his motto. He can see that John is at once relatively well off but insistently casual, a bit of a foot-dragger who is unconcerned with keeping his shoes clean. He is neither rich nor poor, but finds consumer comfort in wearing a made-in-Asia version of a name brand American product. Once the lady slips her high-heeled shoe back on and pays, the shoe expert offers the seat to John who immediately offers it to Bun who insists she’d rather stand. The cobbler bends over to examine John’s oversized athletic shoes, rubbing his thick, skilled, work-scarred fingers over the plastic molding with curiosity and contempt.
“No stitching, only glue,” he opines, shaking his head. “Your shoes will crack and fall apart in the dry season.” A pleasant conversation about the weather ensues. John does his best to field questions in Thai, touching on topics ranging from the weather in farang-land to a query about how much street-side cobblers get paid. Failing to adequately explain that there is no precise place that could be called farang-land, John then moves to the topic of shoeshine stands inside big city train stations, stretching his Thai vocabulary to the breaking point. Bun squeezes in next to John on another low stool, following the conversation closely but not interrupting other than to help with a loose word or two.
The beverage vendor comes over to hand John his second drink, which he offers to the cobbler, who politely declines. Realizing there might be an element of pride at play, John then orders a round for the house, a dozen drinks in all, aimed at showing his goodwill to the cobbler and the numerous hangers-on who listen in intently, but politely, as they chat. They are strangers to him, but not to Bun, so it’s his way of saying hello to friends he hasn’t been introduced to. The cafe-on-wheels vendor whips up another batch of drinks like a mad chemist conjuring up a diabolical concoction, mixing in a flurry of graceful motion the contents of unlabelled tin cans containing evaporated milk, sugar crystals and coarsely ground coffee with boiling hot water from the kettle, topped off with ice from a plastic bucket.
John and Bun get up at last, toss the dripping bags of melted ice into an oil drum and re-enter the steady stream of slum dwellers filing home from the day’s work. There are laborers returning from construction sites, parking lot attendants and doormen peeling off their fancy jackets and dress shirts even as they walk, heading home for dinner. Domestic servants and fast-food waitresses scurrying home after long bus rides cook for their kids, while on a plank bench a short distance away, a few tattooed ne’er-do-wells get an early start to the evening’s drinking.
John follows Bun a few steps behind, winning a sweet backwards glance from her from time to time. “My house,” she says at one juncture along the way, pointing down a dirt alleyway to the right. John slows to get a better look at the shack among shacks; trying to commit the location to memory. It’s just past the makeshift clinic and not too far from an open air dry goods shop, but he can’t get any tighter coordinates on it than that. His guide keeps pressing forward, though she halts periodically to greet neighbors, some of whom she introduces to John, others not.
“Now we are walking south,” she announces, “we go to Sayam.”
“Yes. See? there is temple on left side, there is hotel on right.”
What a pleasant companion, he thought. “If only she were better bred and wore better clothes. He can’t help but note that her watch is made of cheap plastic and her sandals are imitation leather. Her cotton floods are torn at the knee and the bright red T-shirt that looked so hot when he first approached her from behind in the Internet cafe is, upon closer examination, one of those giveaway shirts with a corporate logo on it.
What she lacks in wardrobe is not matched in lack of wit or even poise, however. There is something ironic and mocking in the way she talks to him, but she is flushed with dignity. She refuses to play supplicant and won’t spoon-feed his vanity. Her sassy take on life radiates through her threadbare clothes in a way that is both illuminating and becoming. There is something hard, but honest, something glowing earnest about her. As they draw closer to the intersection with the shops at Siam, now edging along the imposing brick and mortar wall of the temple, he can’t help but notice the way her lightly feathered hair picks up the light of the giant blue and white neon signboard just ahead, creating an aura that is just short of divine. But the hour is late and he promised to meet Sombat for dinner, so he takes leave once they reach the perimeter wall, and hails a taxi, promising to call.