3. Point Blank
This damn place.
That damn gate.
These damn people.
Mike lucked out. He missed all the action this morning.
With his movie shooting schedule he's rarely here. He came home
yesterday morning, the first time in weeks, tripping over the
monks gathering alms at the front gate at 6 in the morning. They
thought they were going to have to take him to a hospital. They
thought he just got mugged. With his white bell bottom pants all
scruffed up and stained, his blue silk shirt with a pattern of
white circles torn and misbuttoned, his hair looking like he'd
just received an electrical shot, his left eye strangely drooping,
the monks were sure Mike needed their help.
Mike raised his right hand and begged them off as he stumbled
backwards through the front gate. A young teenage monk grabbed
Mike's left elbow to steady him before he fell. Mike smiled and
after unceremoniously tapping him on the shoulder, remembered and
waayed him with folding hands. Mike reached in his pocket for his
wallet. He wanted to give the monks something for their trouble.
They shook their heads and their hands no and pointed Mike towards
Mike didn't break the code of silence, the Thai rite of passage.
He didn't tell the monks about his first sandwich job. His first
time with two girls at once. He didn't tell them anything or he
might be taking them to the hospital. Instead, Mike headed for the
kitchen. Somewhere he had acquired a taste for thurian. When Ta's
parents were poor they used to hide the thorny skinned, expensive
fruit behind the toilet because it smells like shit. A safe place.
Noone would see it. Noone would steal it. But they weren't poor now
and Mike picked out a ripe one the size of a football.
If he hadn't eaten the whole thing, he wouldn't have been in
Khun P.'s cold tub trying to cool his body down all morning. He
probably would have been lying on the couch downstairs in Ta's house,
reading a novel or going over his movie script. He would have had a
front row seat to me wiping the sleep out of my eyes as I opened
the sliding glass door as Ta struggled to hold back Khun P.
coming down the stairs with a .38 Smith and Wesson in his hand.
He would have seen Ta trying to grab the gun as she screamed for
me to run and get away from the house. He would have seen my look
of disbelief as I pivoted to ran.
But he wasn't there. He didn't see my pupils shrink to the
size of pinheads. He didn't know the feeling of looking out from
somewhere deep within, everything coming into sudden focus. Khun P.
was on the landing. There were ten steps to the floor. There was
another thirty feet to me. I closed the sliding door, an extra
few seconds to run. Would he really shoot or was he just trying
to scare me? How could I know? I didn't know what I had done. I
knew if he opened the sliding door, he'd first turn his back to me.
He'd put on his slippers. He'd expect to chase me down the fifty
foot porch to the driveway. No time for that. I turned around and
ran straight through the hanging vines, jumping over the exotic
ferns. Mud sucked and slowed the acceleration of my feet as I high-
stepped through the pond, wondering if I could make the 50 yards
to the front gate in time. My heart in response pounded low and
hard sending extra blood to my adrenaline charged legs. The piano
finger palms lining the driveway gave extra cover. Even if Khun P.
made it to the driveway before I reached the gate, the driveway
curved, still no clear shot.
A four foot high thin beam ran across the back of the nine foot
spear studded gate. My left foot vaulted to it as my hands reached
even higher to grip the eight inch protruding spears spaced ten
inches apart. I had barely slowed down when I body slammed my
right knee into the unmoving metal. My right leg went numb as I
scratched to get a right foot hold. I bent my knees putting all
my weight on my right and cleared over the top. With my knees and
elbows bent my open palms hit the asphalt hard. Like a spring I
No time to think.
No time to stop.
Just time to run.
One minute and Ta's brother Todd's girlfriend's house went by.
Still no sound of a car starting or a gate opening. Two minutes I
looked back over my shoulder, noone following me. Another minute
there were no more houses on the soi, just recently cleared land.
Ahead just swampy underbrush and a jungle of mangoe trees. Lots of
places to hide.
The underbrush fought back as I ran off the road dodging trees
like a college fullback on opening kickoff. The mud slowed me down
until I was facing a mangoe tree, tall with firm branches extending
out for a good view of the road. A cozy loft to get away from the
leaches, rats and spiders I knew were watching my every move.
My heart and mind raced. I had to think. I had to relax. I ***46
had never been outside the air conditioning during a rainy season
morning. They are hot and humid before the afternoon rains. My
clothes were soaked with sweat. My mouth was dry. The sweat stung
my eyes. Having run through the underbrush my whole body itched.
I noticed my right arm and leg were bleeding. Beads of blood were
racing past the beads of sweat. My palms were pitted with little
pebbles and glass. My right knee was numb. A sudden breeze sent a
chill through my wet clothes. Four and a half months in Thailand
without a glitch, why today?
This is not supposed to be happening to me. My draft number
rolled a 237. I had a college deferral. My mother almost knocked me
down at the front door coming home from school for Thanksgiving
because that year they only drafted up to 90. I was never
supposed to be in SouthEast Asia. I was never supposed to be
faced with a gun. And snakes. Do they have anaconda in Thailand?
They have them in Indonesia. I know Bangkok has snakes. The kid
in the corrogated slums across from the house offered me a big
black one for a pack of Marlboros. It was just six feet long but
trying to hold it was like trying to hold one of those exercise
bars that you grip straight and try to bend and hold it. That
snake was almost impossible to hold.
I keep looking around for snakes.
I guess no more every weekend trips to Hong Kong. No more
duct-taping $10,000 sealed stacks of $100 bills to my waist so
Khun P. can skirt currency controls. No more rushing to the airport
to catch the Fiday night 6pm flight and seeing Hong Kong lit up at
night. No more taxi rides to the Hong Kong side from the airport
to check into the best hotels where Khun P. knew all the best
No more rush to drop the bags in the room. Grab an overnight bag.
Grab a taxi. Race to the pier. Grab the 40 minute hydrofoil to the
island of Macau. Gamble all weekend. Rush back to Hong Kong with Ta
Sunday morning for a quick run to another pier and a ride on the Star
Ferry. Ten cents and ten minutes we are in Kowloon. Buying designer
bags for her new shop. Buying overpriced designer clothes for her. I
carry her bouty as I look in the windows. I see the electronic gear.
I see the cameras. 35mm? One day I'll know what that means. Then
the race to fly back. On the plane, I'd count my change, fifty bucks
I'd spend on bowling, never wasted a dime on black jack. And just
like every trip Khun M. would give me a thousand to spend. And every
trip, she refused to take any money back.
I'll miss watching her friend Khun Paa, Ta's adopted aunt, ***47
as she tried to outdo Khun M.'s fedish for collecting airline
silverware. A hobby that had already filled a number of suitcases
under Khun M.'s bed. Coming back through Bangkok airport customs
last time was the best. Khun Paa not only had the silverware in
her carry-on, she had the service tray, the salt and pepper shakers,
the wine glasses, the coffee cup and saucer, along with the main entree
of beef stroganoff, a salad, and a dessert of apple cobbler, as well.
All still wrapped up in foil and plastic, ready to eat.
Then that one weekend, Ta couldn't go to Hong Kong because she
had papers to correct. Khun P. was furious knowing she would need
my help and he would have to leave us alone together. We lied.
We went down to his summer retreat in Hua Hin, a fishing village
of rich Thai summer homes two hours south of Bangkok butting
the international golf course in Cha-am, a weekend haunt for
wind surfers. Hua Hin's main street from the railroad depot, a
stop between Bangkok and Malaysia, to its virgin beach looks
like mid America with its one modern hotel,local shops and
guest houses. Three miles south out of town is a stone staircase
cut out of a cliff leading up from the water's edge to a buddhist
temple overrun with monkeys.
These monkeys you would think living in a monastary would be
domesticated and friendly. Fail to bring them bananas and peanuts
and they will bombard you with feces. Glad Bangkok beggars didn't
pick up that bad habit. But the monkeys, I didn't see them until the
last day, knowing their reputation I brought lots of bananas.
You could see the monkey temble from Khun P.'s house five
miles to the north. His cottage sat on stilts, boasted six bedrooms
and rested 50 feet from the ocean and just a half mile from the king's
Summer palace. Its front yard presented a picknik table built just above
the sea wall. There thrived a full kitchen next door. And squatters.
Khun P. let these fisherman live on the land in exchange for
watching the house. Two bamboo huts, two families, two boats. And
after sleeping on the picknik table all night I was up before dawn
to help them mend their nets. One family was a mother and son. She
was old. Her husband had died from cancer. Kop was her only son. She
looked over 60 he looked about 40. She was hunched over. She was
tending a fire. She couldn't walk. Kop never married. His mom was all
he cared about.
She saw me. She had never seen a foreigner before. With her two
remaining front teeth and red lips from eating bezel nut she smiled
and waved me over. She pointed into her pot sitting on the sand
sitting on a wood flame. She clutched her hand like spooning something ***48
to her mouth. She wanted me to taste. I sat in the cold morning sand
next to her. She kept sticking out her tongue as I grabbed the big
pot spoon for a taste. She was licking her fingers rapidly and shaking
her head to tell me that it was hot. It wasn't just hot, hot. It was
spicy hot. Seeing the crunched up nose look on my face, she clapped
her hands and bounced on her buns. She was so happy. She had just
caught her first farang.
Everybody laughed as I got up still holding my nose. Then a kid
poked me with a stick, laughed and ran away. To him, I was the monster.
I chased him. I chased him into the other bamboo hut and his mother
kneeling inside screamed. In her silk patterned scarf and
Muslim garb she looked like a fashion conscious Catholic nun as she
knelt saying her morning prayer. I had stepped on her prayer mat. I
couldn't speak Thai and in shock, I folded my hands and blurted
out in English, "I'm sorry." I started to back out of the hut and the
kid poked me in the back. His mom fussed at him and motioned for me to
sit down. I know she was trying to explain to me what I did wrong but
I had no idea what she was saying. I just smiled and kept on waaying
her with folded hands until she grabbed them and motioned for me to stop.
She nodded and shooed me to go outside.
Kop and the Muslim woman's husband were helping each other to get
their boats in the water. I ran up to help. They were a team. Takes
two boats to work a net. The boats in the water, Kop rapped his chest.
"Kop" he said. I rapped my chest, "TJ" in response. I pointed to his
friend. Kop said something to him. He walked over tan like rubber, black
hair to his shoulders, maybe a couple of years younger than Kop but
they looked almost like twins, tall, skinny and both wearing only khaki
shorts. He touched my shoulder. He looked into my green eyes with his
big black ones. He took a long time to see that I was watching what he
said. He wanted to see if I could say his name. He leaned in close enough
to kiss smelling of Summer sweat and boat grease. "Daiii", he offered.
"Daiii", I said.
He jumped up laughing and pointed to his son who looked about 12
and seemed a miniature version of his father, "Farsssttt."
"Farsssttt," I tried.
He clapped and pointed again, this time to his daughter who couldn't
have been more than 10. Just wearing shorts she looked like a pot
bellied oversized doll with long black unkept hair down to her waist,
"Kaffeee," he said.
"Kaffeee," I tried.
Dai started pulling me one way. Kop started pulling me back the ***49
other way. Finally I got in Dai's boat. The sun wasn't up yet. Ta's
house wasn't awake yet. Dai finally got his wife and kids into the
boat and after giving the boat one more long push into the surf, Dai,
by this time up to his neck grabbed the side and like jumping off a
trampoline, with one push he landed feet first on the deck. The 3
horse power engine looked like an egg beater with a pressure cooker
for a hat as Dai leaned it back into the water and yanked the starter
cord. The engine coughed, spit, smoked and started gargling us out
into the gulf barely strong enough to lift the bow of our 18
foot oversized rowboat. Kop's engine echoed our asthmatic start
as the two boats puttered along like racing go-carts. Half an hour
later I could see the lights of Pattaya across the gulf, like
looking across the Long Island Sound from Ct. and seeing Long
Pattaya cowered in comparison to Hua Hin exposing a
shanty town of makeshift bars, aging whores and polluted
beaches that exhumed the stench of the sleazy shoreline nightlife.
Mike was still doing his movie and would be there but he wouldn't
film there. They would film a few miles south where the deserted
beaches looked as pristine as those in Hua Hin, except they wouldn't
have Hua Hin's rustic charm of seafood restaurant piers on a
waterfront backdrop of colorful fishing boats.
The sun yawned out of a yellow blanket of sunrise somewhere over
Pattaya as Kop steered his boat up alongside Dai's squeezing the
lapping waves to overflowing into the two boats. Except for two container
ships in the distance reflecting the sun's beams like a car's early
morning headlights,low in the water laden with their heavy loads
laboring their way to the port of Bangkok, we were all alone. Only
the frenzied squaking, darting and diving of seagulls following a scent
like hounds on a hunt and now eyeing bucket of fresh cut bait broke
the calm, until Kop called out, "TJ." He was pointing back the way
we came. I could make out the shoreline and the monkey temple but
I couldn't find Ta's house.
The boats became a flurry of activity. Farst baited the drop lines.
Kafe shovelled ice to cover the catch. Dai's Muslim wife had a fire
going in a clay stove heating a pot of rice porridge waiting for some
of the catch to finish breakfast in the back of the boat. Kop and Dai
were laying out a huge net in folds between the boats getting ready
to drift apart and let the weighted net slowly sink to the bottom
between them. I took off my shirt. It looked like a good day to work
on my tan.
Farst let out a yell. Two of his drop lines went taut at the same ***50
time. Dai threw me a rag. He only had one pair of gloves. Farst and I
pulled together like grunting rock climbers. His fish broke the water
before mine. He tied off the nylon line on a wooden knob while he
grabbed a gaft with his right hand and unsheaved the 6 inch serrated
diving knife strapped to his calf with his left. In one clean swoop
he had the 18 inch red snapper by the gills and before it hit the deck
his blade was deep between the fish's eyes, clear to the brain. It went
limp. Like a Las Vegas card shark he had the hook rebaited and in the
water from a gooey bait bucket of squid and mussels in seconds with
one hand while he locked down my line with the other. But my fish was
bigger. It was a grouper. It broke water once. It looked almost 4 feet
long. Farst grabbed the line. He looked up at me excited and worried.
He shook his hand the line wasn't strong enough. He called his father
who came running over with a long pole. Dai pointed at the pole and
pointed at me with covered eyes. He pointed at the shore. He touched
his lips. He pointed at me and shook his head no. I understood. What
he was about to do was illegal and I couldn't tell anyone. The grouper
broke the surface and with a loud bang it rolled over dead.
Dai, Farst, Kafe and Dai's wife all went to their knees with folded
hands bowing to me. Seems they thought I had brought them good luck.
But a second later Kop yelled out. His boat was drifting towards us
from 50 feet away. His five drop lines were pulling all at the same time.
Farst had just enough time to get a nod from his father before he was
in the water. Almost just after hitting the water, Farst got a hand
up onto Kop's boat. We were in a school. For 45 minutes we tied off,
gafted, stabbed and rebaited and then they were gone.
27 red snappers and a 100 pound grouper, me with nylon burnt hands and
drenching with sweat, it was time to pull up the net. Me and Dai, Farst
and Kop, Dai dug his foot into the side of the boat and grabbed the
one inch diameter net guides in both hands. He motioned for me to do
the same. Everytime we met a weight it was one meter and time to make
a fold into the boat. We pulled. They pulled. The nets would draw us
together until the boats met and each boat would have a supply of fish.
Dai's wife quickly grabbed up an assortment of the first of
the fish to drop in the boat. Her porridge had been waiting patiently
for a long time and she knew everyone would be hungry. Finally, the
boats touched. The overlapping net held them together. Kop looked at me
nodding his head, obviously tired, sweating, his hair tied back with a
leather lace. He gave me a thumbs up as he jumped into the boat and
headed straight for the porridge. It was steaming hot. Dai's wife gave
Kop a generous bowl sprinkled with an assortment of green and brown
herbs. He gulped it down like it was a cold beer. He smiled back at me ***51
with a porridge mustache, pointed back the way we came, touched his
wrist like he was touching a watch. Dai's wife scolded him. Guess if
all the tourists can get breakfast in bed, after all my work I should
at least be able to get breakfast at sea.