EXCERPT FROM THE NOVEL
John Joyce leans over the railing, staring at the slosh and swirl of the flow below. He doesn't want to jump but he's drawn to the repressed fury of the sinuous river as it slices with menacing calm through the night city.
Clumps of weeds and water hyacinth tumble and rotate, tangle and untangle in the sea-bent surge. The foamy waters bear the residue of upstream refuse as the northern highlands flush south, carrying the runoff of muddy fields to this paved over junction below the Central Plains. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, the boundaries between land and water have begun to blur. Even now, under a calm night sky with nary a cloud or star in sight, the waters continue rise to in response to unseen upstream storms. As the water accumulates, puddles will swell into ponds, swollen canals will overflow their banks and low-lying roads will be navigable only by boat.
Drunk enough not to realize quite how drunk he was, John had plodded down congested streets from the monument all the way to the river in a desperate search for something. Fresh air? Open space? Oblivion? A return to nature?
A baleful tune wafts over the turbulent waters, lifted by a musty breeze. Gripping the weathered railing until his knuckles go white, he scans the far shore. The twinkling lights of a ramshackle riverside beer garden catch his eye. A sequined singer on a brightly lit stage can be seen regaling the empty tables under the canopy of coconut fronds with breezy aplomb. She is not without talent, nor easily discouraged, moving smoothly from one number to the next without waiting for applause--indeed there is none. Her voice travels clear across the water as she warbles on. If her heart was half as broken as the sad songs she sang seemed to suggest, perhaps performing for the river was audience enough.
Backed by the twang of an electric guitar and a drum box, the soaring soprano range of the songstress is amplified and validated by a powerful reverb microphone. There is something soulful about her tonal echoes, even if no one is listening, especially because no one is listening. The plaintive tale of lost upcountry love stirs something deep within John's being, speaking to something lost within. The upcountry tunes remind him of the first time he toured the countryside with Sombat, and the folly of youthful recklessness that went with it. Self-esteem eroded by failure, self-control weakened by drink, his desire to keep the past at bay is upended by the siren call of the night, bringing to mind the very thing he was trying not to think about.
He no longer could pretend that bygones were bygones, nor could he cavalierly chalk off past errors to the callowness of youth. Lost between the irretrievable receding of the past and the unknowable course of the future, he is stuck at an impasse in the here and now. If his present existence should come to an abrupt end, what of it? Would it matter?
The taxis and trucks speeding over the bridge won't see a thing, and if those unkempt drunks fishing from the crest of the bridge were to notice anything at all, it would be too little, too late: a bewildering splash in the dark.
Farang tok nam! Foreigner fall in water!
The sight of a tugboat plowing beneath the bridge mercifully diverts him from further dark musings. The tug's powerful engine sputters and wheezes as it churns the choppy water, emitting a trail of silvery exhaust. And, then, whoosh! a whale-sized barge emerges from underneath the bridge, shaped like Noah's Ark but carrying nothing but sand. It glides placidly behind the tugboat at a steady clip, linked by a semi-submerged length of cable. Another ark-like barge follows, and then another in train, lined up like ducks in the wake of the mother tug. There's a half-naked man napping comfortably on one of the gliding dunes, oblivious to the wash of waves lapping the edge of his low-riding hull. John reckons that if he jumped at the right instant he could land squarely on the moist, absorbent sand and be transported away into the night as the barge floated through Bangkok on its way to the sea.
The taut sinews of the illuminated suspension bridge glow like the strings of a high-tension harp strung across the dark waters. Another tug sounds its horn and yet another ensemble of barges follows in the wake of the first.
John glances at his bare wrist, forgetting he had left his watch at home. He straightens up and resumes his doleful march, as unsure of his destination as he was of the unknown hour. It was by no means early, the beer garden was all but empty, but judging from the steady flow of traffic it wasn't that late yet, either. Wet wheels lick the pavement as whining automotive motors whip by. A heavy truck hurtling by blows a shock wave of hot air. Blinded by the glare of oncoming headlights, he doesn’t realize he is being watched.
A short distance ahead, the footpath is blocked by a group of men enjoying the libations of a shared bottle. The sight of grimy, downtrodden men, whiskered and going gray, sitting on their haunches, hunkered down sipping booze on the soot-stained curb just inches from the flow of hot, heavy traffic was far from unusual in a city where man and motor lived in tight proximity.
But there's a young woman in their midst, sassy, bright and fresh, and that takes him by surprise. It's hard to tell who's teasing who but the banter is playful as the men hold their bottles aloft and press her to join them in drink. The fishermen seem to be testing their luck, trying to catch her attention with the same resigned spirit that has them improbably dangling homespun lines from railing, hoping beyond hope to hook a bite from below.
The pretty girl is holding her own, not shrinking away and not at all put out, either. She's engaged in playful repartee, giving them some lip. There's something musical in the lilt of her voice, something sensual in the way she carries herself. She flexes with sinuous energy, and there's a gentle sway to her hip as she rocks back and forth from one foot to the other. In the fitful illumination of passing headlights, she looks elfin and sprite-like, almost a vision. She has high, broad cheekbones and a button nose; her hair is bobbed and tinted with golden streaks. Her skimpy halter-top exposes bare shoulders and a generous expanse of belly, her short denim shorts reveal comely thighs.
Pooh-ying. Down to earth, fun-loving and lovable. In a way she was what he'd been looking for all these years, was she not?
So--what’s her story? A sassy passerby? What was she to the men she was with? A relative? A niece? A neighbor? A nobody?