where the writers are
Thai lies-sweetened

                                                              *
Synopsis:
It was the mid 70's. The Vietnam war was winding down. Still,
no self-respecting Thai woman would be caught spending time
with a foreign man lest she risk getting branded a GI
plaything. So, after graduation, when Ta invited Tom and Mike,
college classmates from America, over for an extended visit, it
might have raised a few eyebrows except that the invitation had
been extended by her mother over the minor objections of her
father. She wanted to open up their home to a summer of
discovery. After all what harm could it do? It was common
knowledge that Ta, as a Bangkok mayor's daughter, was engaged
to Joey, it's governor's son. Once they finally got married it
would be the event of the year -- two rich political families
joined together as one.

Only there were secrets. Ta had no intention of going through
with the engagement and Tom was much more than just a friend.
But because he had made a promise to her to keep that fact to
himself until she felt comfortable enough to tell her family,
it would for years become a leash around his neck, pulling him
back and forth between her world and his. As long as he kept
his word everyone else was in control and over his life he had
none. If he tried to hold out and wait for her to face her
demons there was no guarantee that either of them would still
be the same person that fell in love almost a decade ago.
                                                              *
Not until two goverments got involved did Ta's father finally
find out. But now that he knew. How he would react to setting
Ta free to start a new life and how Tom would respond to what
both of them decided might not matter if the fortune teller's
prediction of a fatal accident kept them apart forever.
 

               *************************                      *
THAI LIES
                                                              *
To Mike, my friend, my bro, we'll miss you.
                                                              *
You can't always get what you want, but if you try sometime,
you might find, you get what you need.
                                       -Rolling Stones
                                                              *
1. Chasing The Sun
                                                              *
"We've now reached our cruising altitude of..."
                                                              *
Thailand, the land of smiles, the Venice of the east, Siam,
a country oddly shaped like the head of an elephant, people
riding the clumsy giants down the street guiding their curious
snouts to fondle tourists, an apologetic ward, barefoot,
offering his apologies, a crop of baby monkey bananas, "5 cents
you can feed her, sir," he'd say. A primitive people living in
thatched huts on the side of mountains, a few bananas trees, a
palm or two as a playground for their kids, harvesters of
lychee nuts, tangerines, ginger roots, and bamboo shoots,
wearing colorful clothes and gold bangles on their ankles. Why
didn't I buy a cheap camera before I left on this 18 hour
flight? Guess maybe sightseeing wasn't the first thing on my
mind.
     Still thinking of my dad who we left sitting at the JFK
International departure bar, I guess you could say he bought
Mike and me our first legal drink - a 9am Johnny Walker on the
rocks. We were freshly minted New England College, Henniker,
New Hamshire graduates, class of 1974 - a school noted only for
having its own ski mountain and an alumni of the children of
Who's Who in America. Not me and Mike. But we were alike. I was
backwoods Connecticut Irish. He was streetwise New Jersey
Italian. First we were friends. Then we were fraternity
brothers. Then we were roommates. Then I met the Thai girl of
my dreams. Then he dated her sister. But now we were no longer
just do-everything-together brothers. Now we were
brothers-in-arms on a do-or-die covert mission. If he hadn't
agreed to come along on this flight with me I'd have no
legitimate reason for easily seeing my girlfriend again. Her
culturally strict parents would have seen to that. But under
the guise of travelling together to visit new lands and old
friends her parents had let their guard down offering us the
hospitality of their home for an extended holiday. I can
remember the apprehension in my dad's eyes as we grabbed our
carry-ons to run to the gate after hearing the final call. He
didn't want me to go. He was worried that Ta's parents would
find out that Ta and I weren't just friends. I can remember
the fierceness in the eyes of Ta's younger brothers, safely
tucked away at prep school in New Hampshire, warning me if I
did since they knew we were not just that.                                ***1
                                                              *
"Sir, for breakfast we have a choice between..."
                                                              *
     But Dad seems to forget. This was partly his doing. If he
hadn't woken me up from an engrossing dream that cold late
November morning with plans of his own for my future none of
this would have ended up happening.
     It was a dream I still remember about the girl in the
second row third seat of my senior American history class. We
were alone after midnight on the beach. Her golden hair barely
carressed her strawberry nipples. Her pants were like butter
sliding down her hips. Her eyes rolled, her body arched as I
carressed deeper. She was getting wet. She grasped for
something to hold on to. Her first time. She reached for my
zipper not wanting to be alone. Her hot tongue was in my ear
begging, searching, biting. "Now," she muttered.
     "Tommy, wake up. It's 6 am, we have to be in New Hampshire
to look at your new school by noon," Damn it dad...
     The caretaker of my dreams - 44, 5'10", slim, standing
there in his blue and white flannel pajama bottoms, cheap vinyl
brown insulated slippers and tee shirt - this time he'd woken
me up ten minutes too early. With his brown rimmed glasses
still crooked on his face I could tell he'd just rolled out of
bed himself. His usually carefully combed hair awry, he hadn't
slept well. Continuing to rub his stomach he reminded me of his
problems with garlic. He couldn't eat spicy food like the rest
of us. Mom always had to cook for him special. Would he be okay
for the long ride today?
     "Now Tommy," and with the finality of those words my
manhood faded away.
     Now I had to endure what any normal 17 year old would
consider unwarranted parental abuse. A four hour ride each way
alone with my dad in the car where he could bring up any
subject and I couldn't squirm away to avoid the conversation
was something my young psyche was developmentally unprepared to
comfortably cope with. Lucky for me, a couple of years earlier
he had bought 15 cottages across from the biggest state park in
Connecticut. He said something about if I wanted to go to
college I had to make them work. And I worked till 10pm last
night closing them up. The last fisherman of the season gone, I
had to work late getting the exposed pipes from the last rented   ***2
cottage drained and filled with oil so they wouldn't crack
during the upcoming winter. That alone should be a legitimate
enough excuse to sleep my way to New Hamshire so I'd be wide
awake for my impending interview.
     Like fast forwarding a video to the relaxing melodies of
old show tunes, I yawned in and out of consciousness seeing
blurs of orange in Connecticut and a yellow monster truck in
Massachusetts before breaking into an elaborate stretch as we
turned off at the green exit sign for Brattleboro, Vermont.
Still rubbing my eyes, I knew what was on my dad's mind as he
pulled into the intersection parking lot. 
     "Hungry?" he asked smiling as he slipped the gear of his
new maroon, beige Landau top Buick Riviera into park before 
releasing the seat belt, opening the door, and preparing to get
out. New to him. It was 2 years old. He bought it at auction.
He was good with machines. First as manager of the toy
department at Gayfers in Mobile, Alabama, he was good with kid
machines. Then moving up to New York to take a job with
Caterpillar Tractor he was good with big machines. Moving to
Connecticut starting out as a home builder he was good with
everybody elses machines. Buying those cottages, but looking in
the garage of old Wilbur and his sister Charlotte Dowd before
going into escrow, where he found that 1964 Dodge Polara with
6,000 miles on it for an additional $800, he was good at
finding my machine.
     "What is this place?" I asked still rubbing kernels of
sleep from my eyes as I reached back in the car looking for my
down jacket. It was bad enough that we were on the edge of
nowhere with the temperature suddenly dropping down to freezing
and leaves swarming around like newly hatched butterflies but
to not have any fast food restaurants in sight that was just
asking for a near fatal case of botulism.
     We were on the border between Vermont and New Hampshire,
standing in a parking lot full of cars, facing a restaurant
sign that read "Brattleboro Diner." An old, white-bearded, pear
shaped codger was sitting on the porch in a rocking chair
smoking an old seafarer's pipe, in front of a pickle barrel
with reading glasses balancing off the edge of his nose while
squinting to make sense of the New Hampshire Gazzette headline
he was holding only three inches away from it. Seeing him, I
wasn't sure whether I had really woken up or was about to have
a Norman Rockwell nightmare. He was even wearing a green        ***3
flannel shirt, shoulder strap jeans and LL Bean brushed leather
beige hiking boots. The only thing missing was a jug of
"triple X" and The Farmers Almanac. At first I started to smirk
thinking fondly of the show "The Beverly Hillbilies" but then I
started to look around suspiciously once I remembered the movie
"Deliverance." One way or the other one thing was for certain.
These country folk were definitely going to take some time
getting used to. At least that's what I thought until my
stomach started to growl. Being suddenly aroused by my nose with
the scent of home cooking it convinced me that I might as well
start to get to know them over the daily special.
     That fat old lady in the sunflower apron with the blotched
cheeks and bunned up grey hair could infatuate a room full of
picky eaters with the smell of freshly baked bread permeating
from her kitchen. But dad with his sensitive stomach was happy
with just toast, tea and a couple of three minute eggs. Me, I
could eat a raw frog drowned in garlic spiked chile sauce and
still not have a problem. It's probably why he kind of winced
and looked away as I emptied half a bottle of maple syrup onto
that stack of blueberry pancakes sandwiched between pads of
butter with a well crafted system of dykes built with bacon and
sausage so none of the butter could escape. But since I was
hungry, I didn't torture him for long. Dad and I even started
to talk though it was mostly joking about how was our waitress 
able to get around with such huge buns. I never knew before
that he had such a sense of humor. Usually I'd see him after a
long day at work when he was in a much different mood and
didn't want to be bothered until he'd at least had his dinner. 
I knew he joked with mom since she was always slapping him on
the arm sending him away satisfied and laughing. But I was
never privy to what they had been talking about during those
stolen moments. Getting to see this other side of him I started
to understand this trip. He wanted time to get to know me and
time for me to get to know him. He'd spent so much time trying
to provide for us that he left the getting to know part mostly
to mom. Except now that I was the same age as he was when they
first met and the oldest of his four kids about to be the first
one to leave home to find his own way he wanted to get a jump
on building my trust before I left for school the following
September. He wanted me to know he would always be there to
listen and not judge if I had a problem. And I shouldn't be
afraid to tell him anything. Quite taken aback by his sudden   ***4
role reversal, I talked and laughed with him the rest of the
way hardly noticing when we had reached the outer bounds of the
school campus.                                                                
     But Henniker is like that. Being a college town of 19th
century classroom converted houses blending into the colonial
background it's an affluent academic community hiding in plain
sight. With one main blinking yellow light intersection
surrounded by a Pop's Market known for its deli subs, a drug
store that was rarely open, an Esso station owned by the town
judge, and a Jack's greasy spoon specialising in fried shrimp
and Caeser salads if you didn't stop for gas or crossing
students or blinked changing an audio cassette you would most
likely have missed it and ended up scratching your head
somewhere on the outskirts of the Concord city limits before
reconsulting your map and recalibrating your GPS system. 
     Dad having calibrated the trip odometer since Brattleboro
pulled into the Jack's parking lot as if on cue. He can't be
serious we just ate an hour ago, I thought to myself. But he
motioned instead across the street. The New England College
administration building, its sculptured lawn and well trimmed
shrubs, it's extensive outer porch, its wide berth, it must
have been the town's meeting hall long ago. Inside, what once
could have been a basketball court with an overlooking stage
for summer plays was now a maze of offices. At the reception
desk a lady wearing glasses who was obviously too big for her
chair was fielding a procession of nonstop phone calls. Barely
looking up and without saying a word or losing her stride, she
rubbed her forehead before directing us with pointed pencil
bearing fingers to go right. Walking down the hall to a dead
end with the only available exit a door open on the left we
stepped down onto a bare cement floor into the office of the
registar.                                   
     "Your dad sent in your SAT's. Would you like to start in
the Fall?" my interviewer who was quite petite looking over the
rim of her glasses asked in a squeaky voice.
     "Yes, he would," my dad said smiling in my direction.
     "Wait. Don't I have to go through an interview or
something?" I nervously asked smiling back at her.
     "SAT score over 1200. You're not requesting financial aid.
Unless you have any specific questions I don't see any reason
why we would need to put you through that," she said first
looking at me and then at dad.                                ***5
     All that anticipation and now nothing, I almost felt
cheated - at least for a minute - before finally letting out a
sigh of relief. Dad seeing that I was starting to relax and
didn't have any more pressing questions motioned for me to go
take a look around while he took care of the various checkbook
charges and finished filling out the rest of the associated
paperwork. I didn't have anywhere to go. I just stepped
outside, out of sight, into this young girl running down the
hall with a stack of documents. Causing her to lose her balance
in that confetti of paper strewn all around us, I really
shouldn't have started laughing because that just encouraged
her to look at me like I had intentionally tripped her. Even
after I bent down trying to apologise as I picked her up before
scrambling to help her gather her work, she wasn't going to be
satisfied until she had a chance to ball me out. Not having
expected such a high-strung response I just cocked my head,
crossed my arms, rolled my eyes, and smiled until she was out
of breath and started to smirk obviously amused that she wasn't
getting the expected confrontational reaction of papers being
flung back in her face with a resounding, "Pick 'em up yourself
bitch."   
     "Are you coming to school here next year with the new
freshman class?" she asked stroking her long sandy-blonde hair
as she wet her lips.
     "Think so," I said looking into her big green eyes and
wondering if she was a student or a local girl before she shyly
turned away to survey the rest of the mess still littering the
hallway floor.
     But even after leaning down to pick up the rest of papers
herself while clearly showing off her butt, she made sure
to look back up at me one last time with an alluring smile
before sirenly saying, "Hope so."
     It was just at that moment when my dad walked up with a
stack of finished paperwork and a new brochure under his arm
that she shied away before I even had a chance to ask her name.
"Well, it looks like you have already found something else to
look forward to besides what you'll find in this reading
material. Come on. Lets get to the car. There's something else
I want to show you before we head back. Something I think
you'll find even more attractive that you never expected."
     Driving past what were previously hidden modern dorms and a
sculptured brick library, he downshifted before attempting to     ***6
scale the winding foothill country road not slowing down until
he reached the base of the mountain. There she was staring down
at us - Pat's Peak - one of the best ski hills in southern New
Hamshire. "You can ski here for free and there are new skis and
boots in the trunk if you want to get a head start learning
this winter."
     I was dumbfounded - not only then but most of the way home.
It wasn't just because I had never skied before and was now
getting the opportunity to learn how to do it with my very own
equipment. It was everything. Dad picked that school all on his
own. He had a dream for me. Kids always think they are smarter
than their parents until they see they're not. I was just happy
he was pointing me in the right direction not even thinking to
question his fatherly wisdom.
                                                              *
"Sir, we are experiencing some turbulence, would you ..."
                                                              *
     After two years on that mountain - when I wasn't spending
all my free time either jogging up it during the off season
hardening muscles to prepare for it or skiing down it during
the peak season breaking skis trying to master it, school and
and coeds in equal proportions got my undivided attention.
There was just this one girl. She was like a myth. A Thai
princess driving through town in her red Pantera she was
supposedly engaged to a Thai governor's son who was a senior
and captain of the soccer team. But I never saw her. I never
saw him. But a mid engine 351 Cleveland, 5.8 L, V8 engine that
produced 330 hp under a Detamasso body with a slot 5 speed, top
speed of 190mph costing $10K, I saw the car. And as long as
that was still around I knew that there was still a chance that
one day I'd catch up to her - like an elusive butterfly finally
netted on a mountain cliff - no matter what impossible odds my
friends gave me of that ever happening.
     But never say never. Junior year, calculus 3 midterm, I
walked into class. Up from the steps, their constant creaking
had announced my arrival. It must have been someone's living
room before the school bought the house still noone had even
bothered to change the peeling yellow and blue wallpaper. The
blackboard was on top of a finely crafted stone fireplace. The
floor was scratched but I could still smell the pine expertly
laid in solid one piece long strips exhuming a hint of maple
lacquer. I worked summers as a carpenter. I could appreciate  ***7
the calouses and the sweat that went into crafting that room.
Looking up I saw some friends, old friends from freshman and
sophmore year. Busily getting reaquainted, I almost forgot why
I was there until someone very distinctly cleared his throat
right behind my left ear. 
     Mr Baker, a red haired, wing mustached Scot, who dressed
like he was just coming off a ski slope wearing an oversized
ski sweater hoping to hide his fedish for beer was standing
there the moment I turned around. Our professor, in his toasty
English muffin apres ski mutton boots who used to like to write
on the board, "Class is cancelled. Snow is too good. Meet me in
the Peak bar for a beer.", took a curious look at me before
smiling and asking what I wanted.
     "Calc 3 midterm?" I asked fumbling for what proof I had in
my pocket that I was in the right place.
     "Yes, but TJ what are you doing here? Are you here to
visit friends or..." he asked not recalling having seen me
since last semester.
     "I'm on your student roster," I quickly replied having
suddenly realised that I'd left my class slip in my other pants
that were by now going through the rinse cycle at the local
laundromat.
     "This is a 3 hour test covering two months of work and
you've never been to class. How can you possibly think you are
prepared to sit for this exam," he said raising his voice so
the rest of the class could hear what a preposterous idea I was
proposing.
     "I know. I've been skiing. Snow was too good. We missed
you up there," I said.
     Looking like he'd just caught a fly and was about to rip
off its wings rather than discuss my qualifications any further
he challenged me to take a seat. It was up to me now to prove
him wrong. And then there she was. The myth. The only vacant
seat was next to her. With those long decaled fingernails, that
sparkling eye shadow, and holding a pencil with a stupid
looking thing-a-ma-jig on the end, she stood up in her three
inch Gucci heals putting us eye to eye and inches apart as I
slipped into the seat by her side - her alluring Chanel perfume
already threatening to seduce my soul and destroy my
concentration.
     "Damn, I broke my pencil on the way over," I muttered under
my breath.
     "Here you can borrow my sharpener," her long fake eyelashes   ***8
fanning her eye length bangs into a dance as she spoke.
     "Thanks," I said flashing her a wide-eyed smile. But with
those big black eyes staring back at me accented by noble high
cheek bones, long  jet-black hair and skin the color of coconut
oil on a virgin Polonesian body I knew my eyes must have
lingered when she bit her lip turning away blushing - making me
feel like the naive mutt who had dared to try sniffing the
landlord's prized French poodle.
     "Want a cigy?" she asked her every finger adorned in a
different color precious stone ring that somehow seemed to
all compliment her silk blouse and reflect her eye shadow. "You
really going to take this test?"
     God she's precious,"Yes and yes."
     "Mr. TJ, if I may interrupt. Are you ready? You have 3
hours. Any questions come see me," Mr Baker said as he laid out
the exam papers before strolling out the door.
     Seeing that it was starting to snow and getting bored with
waiting I bundled up my scarf, checked my boot laces, and put
on my down jacket while acknowledging some of my old friends
again before standing up and preparing to leave.                                              
     "Kha." Ta said noticing I was looking down at her test
paper.         
     "It's 37 not 35, number 2," I whispered.
     "So you must know the answer to the last question, number
16," she said not expecting an answer.
     "Sure but I like the answer to number 7 better, infinity,
forever," I wet my lips and she blushed. "So how come your name
means 'fat'?"
     "How you know Thai? How you know my name?", she asked.
     "Same reason I know the answer to number 16," I said. "If
you understand one you understand the other. They are the same.
They just approach the same point from different directions.
Thanks for the cigy."
     Mr. Baker, leaning against his Suzuki, smoking his pipe,
smiled as I walked out. I saluted. He nodded. "Mr TJ if you
come to class the rest of the semester you can still pass."
     I kept walking and into the air said, "If you'd make the
test a bit harder next time it wouldn't take me just 15 minutes
to finish it."
     His footsteps were like crunching Krisp Krispies in the
three day old snow as he pounced on me like a wolf snaring a
lame rabbit. "No way you could finish that in 15 minutes."     ***9
     "Not unless you knew the examples were from the same
proof," I countered.
     "TJ, ever gone sking in the White Mountains?" he asked.
     "Not yet, but I'm sure that after you check out my
paper..."
     And before I could leave he did just that. Marching me
back into and to the head of the class, he sat down at his desk
anxious to see how I had so quickly seen through and deciphered
his maze of problems. Absorbed in his uh-huhs and nods, he
didn't seem to notice that idly standing by his side I was
miles away enjoying the scenery. But even after noticing that
she was the object of my attention, Ta didn't shy away. Instead
we got caught up in a volleying rally exchanging flirtatious
moments making eye-contact candy that melted into a finale of
blushing dead-give-away smiles. Maybe there was something here.
One thing was for sure I wasn't going to be missing any more
classes.
     "Well TJ will I be seeing you again for the final? I
promise to make it a little more challenging for you next
time," Mr. Baker said handing me back my paper after he had
recorded my score in his student book.
     "Don't put yourself out on my account. I was thinking
about starting to come to class on a regular basis," I said
looking off in Ta's direction.
     "I can see it wouldn't be because its almost Spring and
the snow is melting," he said figuring out why I was having a
sudden chance of heart.
     "Hardly," I said as I tripped over his trash can on the
way out not paying attention to where I was going.
                                                               *  (10 at line 13)
"Sir cognac, cheese, tea..."
                                                               *
      Coveting my seat next to her in class like it was the
last available one left on the Concorde's inaugural flight, I
soon got acquainted with Ta and reacquainted with her best
friend and confidant Debby - a 19 year old Boston,
Massachusetts wasp with the quiet reserved dispostion of a
motherly guardian but in her jeans, flannel shirts, hiking
boots, pigtails, and granny glasses the looks and build of an
Oregon trail blazer - who had previously come to my rescue as
my Math Analysis class savior not wanting it to be the first
and only course I ever got less than a 'B' in. I'd heard all    ***10
the stories about how Ta was untouchable. But just like the
answer to the 16th question had no bounds and approached
infinity so did my determination when it came to finding a way
to ask her out. The symbol for infinity as two circles hooked
together gave me the answer. I knew my hook was her friend
Debby.
     It was a few days before Spring break while my fraternity
house was a hustle of activity -  brothers cleaning behind
every knuck and cranny, unloading kegs of beer, spreading out
sawdust, and arranging flagged slalom poles for the annual surf
party -  when I approached her with my idea. Could she do what
I didn't know how to do? Could she do for me what no other guy
ever dared try before? Could she...would she ask Ta if she
wanted to go to the party with me? At least this way I
rationalized there wouldn't be any uncomfortable and
potentially embarrassing moments due to culturally or
relationally stepping out of bounds - just one girlfriend to
another innocently chatting about a benign hypothetical gauging
whether it was prudent to ask the real question. 
     And that she did.
     "TJ, telephone," Bill said slamming the phone against the
wall disapprovingly since it wasn't his girlfriend calling to
say that she would be up for the weekend.
     "TJ? She'll be up to meet you around 10pm." Debbie said in
a matter-of-fact deadpan voice.
     "Who?" I asked still breathing heavy from just having run
up the outside hill from the gym not quite sure who I was
talking to yet.
     "You wanted to go out with Ta. She said yes. You must be
kidding if you don't know what I'm talking about." she said in
a slightly more emotional tone.
     "Oh, hi Debbie. I didn't recognize your voice. She really
said yes? Did she sound excited? You want to come?" I asked
wiping a towel across my sweat-stinging eyes.
     "TJ I'm not the the frat party type and I don't like beer.
And no she didn't jump around like I can hear you doing. She
just blushed, smiled, sighed, and nodded as if she was
wondering what had taken you so long to finally ask her out,"
she said just before her dime time ran out.
     Hanging up the phone, I felt like I had just been
disconnected from an adrenaline IV rather than been worn out
from two hours of wrestling practice. Still in my sweats and
wanting to erase any telltale signs of what I was looking       ***11
forward to, I figured a good run would wear me out and help me
relax. The last thing I needed was a bunch of brothers figuring
out what was going on. They'd be following me around all night
just to see if it was really true. But three miles away up a
forty-five degree incline thirty-seven minutes later having run
through the tall pines and felt the soft pine needles under my
Pumas between the two peaks I was no worse for wear than I had
been back at the house. Resigned to my hyper state I settled on
the ground, closed my eyes, and breathed in the pine-scented
mountain air. At least from here on the top of Pat's Peak I had
an unobstructed contemplative view of the distant White
Mountains.                                                               
     Leaning back to watch the sun go down, I drifted into a
meditative reflection of how shocked the other brothers would
be when they first saw me walk in with Ta. They wouldn't be
able to figure it out. I wasn't rich. I didn't wear topsiders,
cordoroy slacks, or buttoned down collars. Sure I was varsity
wrestling in a mostly jock house - a ski chalet on the side of
a mountain - but I'd never won. I'd never gotten my name in The
Concord Monitor. Guess it would be a bit confusing for them to
understand - the difference between brain and brawn.
     If only I'd kept my mouth shut after I got back to the
house. But the soothing hot water of the shower lulled me into
letting down my guard. I should have known I couldn't trust my
best friend Mike with a secret. It was just because of his
constant pestering about why I was washing my hair that I
confided in him. That was a mistake. By the time I'd dried off
and returned to my room the whole house had been informed about
what was going on.
     It didn't take long before the king size crisscross bunk
beds in my room filled up like the bleachers at a Mets pennant
game with guys betting if she would really show up. They even
had odds up to the minutes just before and after 10pm. But
what's an impromptu Friday night gathering without a bit of
liquid refreshment? Next came the blender, the 100 proof vodka,
the ice, and the pink lemonade concentrate. And the whole time
I'm trying to think of questions to ask her:                                                
     ...What is Thailand like?
     ...Do they really ride elephants?
     ...What does your father do?
     ...Do you have brothers and sisters?
     But after an hour of what we'd been drinking all the        ***12
formality of small talk seemed to have evaporated as I got
purposely tripped answering the door falling on top of her out
in the hall. If that wasn't an ice breaker all the shouting
coming from the room with Rip winning all the money guessing
five minutes to ten surely was. We just sat there watching
everybody file out with JoJo and his life-changing blender
bringing up the rear. Somehow glued to the spot we just stayed
there on the floor the rest of the party laughing and joking
about who knows what.                                                 
     Waking up to a folksy Jackson Brown ballad and noticing
the red alligator band Chapard watch with revolving rubies and
diamonds between the pillows on the window sill, I knew one way
or another I'd be seeing her again.
     "Last call breakfast." I heard through the door.
     "Kitchen closes in 15 minutes," I heard echoing farther
down the hall a few minutes later.
     Time for a greasy slammer with melted cheese, fried
onions, and bacon on an toasted English muffin. The thought of
which seemed to be the only thing pulling me out of bed. But
still  holding the watch and twirling the gems as I glanced
over the balcony I suddenly lost my appetite. Looking down on
the aftermath of the previous night's decadence I could tell it
must have been quite a blowout. But just this once it was one
I was glad that I had missed. The sawdust soaked with the
stench of stale beer accompanied by half empty beer cups
seconding as ashtrays fumigating the fireplace mantel were a
prescription for a nauseated stomach. Even the candlelight
chandelier wasn't spared, sporting a new pair of sneakers and a
bikini top. While some diehard brothers were still sitting at
the bar trying to suck the last of the kegs dry, others were
discovering the wonders of pregame hockey puck flight through
the beer-crusted sawdust not wanting to think about the
drudgery of the Saturday morning cleanup necessary as a prelude
to the alumni cocktail party that was scheduled to begin at
four pm. If anyone assigned me to cleaning up the girls'
downstairs bathroom....
     "TJ, that Thai chick with the red sports car is back,"
Wally said just coming back in from dropping his girlfriend off
back in Concord.
     She didn't give me time to wonder if she had left her
watch in my room on purpose. As soon as I walked out the door    
she threw me the keys and asked, "You wanna go for a drive?"         ***13               
                                                               *
"Welcome to Frankfurt, Germany. Thank you for flying
Lufthansa..."
                                                               *  
     "Mike, I'll race you to duty free. We have an hour before
our connecting flight. Ta's mom likes those triangular long
tubes of Swiss chocolate. I have to buy Ta some Chanel perfume.
Want to go 50-50 on a bottle of Hennessy cognac for her father?
Might as well start kissing ass as soon as we land," I said as
we both stopped for a moment to check the big board and
determine the gate for our next flight.             
     "TJ, you're the only one that needs to kiss ass. I'm
saving all my money for..." And like a practiced duet we both
chimed in a loud voice at the same time, "PATPONG."
     Patpong - four small streets no more than 100 yards long
each connecting the main avenues of business in central Bangkok
 - came alive only at night - all bars, all girls, and the most
imaginative source of ways to use a ping pong ball.
     Mike was right. Considering the emotional naphalm we were
about to face he deserved as much R&R as he could get.
                                                               *
"Last call, Lufthansa flight 601 to Bangkok..."
                                                               *
     Browsing through the complimentary in-flight survival kit
 - like so many party favors -  besides the toothbrush,
toothpaste, socks, slippers, eye patch, and pen, I came across
an airline keychain that reminded me of Ta's and my first
morning after drive.                                                             
     Descending into the cockpit of my dreams,  I was sucked
into the custom Recaro racing seat as it pinched my butt and
squeezed my shoulders into place. Surveying the panel of gauges
while I buckled the shoulder harness I noticed the Blaupunkt
cassette stereo.
     "You like Focus?" Ta asked slipping in a cassette as I
just shrugged my shoulders. As far as I was concerned she could
listen to the 'Sound of Music' and I wouldn't have minded at
that very moment.
     Grabbing the beefy leather grip of the chromed steering
wheel I found the ignition and took one more look at Ta before
closing my eyes, pushing in the clutch, and turning the key. A
low pitched hum softly vibrated my body. Driving slowly out the
driveway I had no idea as yet of its unleashed power. We were a   ***14
taxiing Blue Angel. The only things missing were matching
official decaled helmets with accompanying oxygen masks.
     Once I'd turned the key, double clutched through the
gears, and held her hand again, it wasn't just the car but my
life that was going into overdrive. No longer was college just
worrying about cramming for the next test, looking for the next
party, or waxing my skis for the next six inches of virgin
powder. I'd just opened a door everyone else including me
thought was locked. But I was too naive to know whether or not
I was about to fall down a rabbit hole. I didn't care. Every
day I was with her it just seemed like my life got happier and
more meaningful.
     "I know New Hampshire has some of the best highways in New
England but didn't we just do the 20 mile trip from Henniker to
Concord in about seven minutes?" I said looking over at Ta
quite puzzled as she lit us both a cigarette.
     "What did you expect at 155mph?" she asked as she squinted
from the smoke and handed me mine.
     "155mph? I was doing 55," I protested.
     "The speedometer needle was covering the one, you just saw
the 55 dumby," she said in a way that indicated she was quite
satisfied to have freaked me out.                                        
     "This car is definitely not like my 1964 Dodge Polara," I
said rolling down the window.
     "Want to see my house?" she asked shaking my hand up and
down excitedly.
     "Only if I can stay in first gear," I said leaning back so
she could touch my chest and give me a kiss.
     I always thought of Concord, New Hamphire as a nice,
quiet, rustic New England town until we pulled into "Little
Bangkok" - a quad of townhouses with a fleet of Porsche 911s',
two Maseratis, a Datson 240z, a Lambourgini, 3 BMWs, and a
conspicuously out of place green Volkswagon Beetle.
     "This is where we live. My brothers are still in prep
school and they live in that house. My sister lives in this one
over here. She goes to school just down the road from us at
Colby College. The rest belong to cousins and friends," Ta
explained.
     "And the maid drives the VW?" I asked.
     "No, that's Koi's, my sister. She likes to wait for the
shopping center parking lot to ice up so she can go do 360's
listening to the Almond Brothers."                               ***15   
     I instantly liked Koi even though I had never met her. It
was her sense of adventure and her idea of fun. It's what I and
an old high school buddy used to do with his VW bug except for
us it was 360s around the parking lot behind the local Clinton
movie theatre. "So, what else did you want to show me?"
     "I didn't want to show you anything in particular. But I
did want to have a chance to cook for you," she said as she
directed me to a parking spot in front of her house.
                                                               *                                                                           
"Our flight time to Bangkok is 10 hours, please refrain
from..."
                                                               *
     A two story condo with two bedrooms, it looked like any
American home until I got to that back room of a Hong Kong 
Chinese style production orientated kitchen, a chef's paradise.
It had every conceivable shape of frying pan, wok, bamboo
steamer, strainer, spatula, and an assortment of crafted swiss
knives that would have been the envy of any surgical operating
room. It was a wizard's den with spices of every kind: silver
dollar size Chinese mushrooms, ginseng and ginger root, red
and green chilies of every size, basil, turmeric, garlic,
ginger, peppercorns, cinnamon, cloves, cumin, curry...Sauces
were cabinets a piece: soy, black bean, curry, fish, oyster,
and shallot. Then I opened the frig and thought I was back in
high school biology dissection: chicken gizzards, collagulated
duck blood, cow hearts & tongues, squid, shrimp, scallops,
octopus...Heineken.
     I never had a Heineken before. For three years of college
and three summers of construction I had been raised on the teat
of pop top canned beer on the altar of Budweiser. I must have
looked constipated trying to unscrew the cap of that first
emerald bottle until Ta with her Macao Casino bottle opener     
rescued me. Shaking her head she just pointed for me to go sit
in front of the tv saying, "That you can twist on and off."
     Luckily the movie hadn't started yet because five minutes
later...
     "Oh shit, we have to go to Chinatown in Boston. I'll
drive. I forgot something," she said hurrying to put on her
fleece coat as she grabbed her oversized Louis Vitton bag and
fumbled from one foot to the other bouncing into her Bally
leather boots.
     "Boston is an hour and a half away," I protested as I       ***16
followed her out the door.           
     "35 minutes," she said shaking her keys as she almost
knocked the beer out of my hands when she turned around,       
"Forgot something."                                                  
     With the door still wide open and me standing there
sucking down the last of that first gourmet beer, before she
could get off the phone, the front yard was a mob of tailored
bellbottoms and custom-made tight-fitting shirts, hand bags,
gold chains, ruby rings, shagged hair and Testoni slippers -
guys with food orders and cash in hand like they were trying
to get in a last bet at the OTB. In a more urban and
cosmopolitan setting I might have felt uncomfortable in my torn
Levis, Puma sneakers, and flannel shirt but in rural New
Hampshire it was them with an overcoat of unusually friendly
and polite manners that seemed out of place. Did other cultures
really dress and act like that? With cars like theirs I should
have guessed they'd be different.
     Still thinking about this new tribe we'd just left who in
their unusual attire could have passed for a new age rock and
roll band, I was taken aback when as we exited off the highway
into Boston Ta asked me if anything was wrong. I just shook my
head and said I was only reflecting. She was new. Her friends
were new. My life was new. It was a lot to take in on a second
date. And when the hell are we going to eat?
                                                               *
"Sir, what would you like to drink? We have..."
                                                               *
     Boston China Town with its bustling side streets and maze
of polluted-puddle alleys where you had to negotiate past days-
old-piling-up, days-late-picking-up union garbage bins and
avoid packs of marauding rats doing relee races while taking in
the competing smells of Cantonese delicacies and decaying trash
was a touch of home for Ta when it came to ordering takeout.
     Entering under a familiar sign with competing showcase
culinary windows on either side - one a floor to ceiling
aquarium of strange seafood fare, the other a wall of roast
ducks, boiled chickens, and pork rind strips all tended to by
chopping chefs - Ta motioned for me to take a seat as she
handed over her keys in exchange for a pot of brimming hot
herbal tea.
     "Your car will be washed, gassed up, and waiting for you
right outside by the time your order is ready. I trust you        ***17
parked it in your regular spot?" the graying gentleman dressed
in traditional costume bowed and said.
     For Ta it was a familiar welcome since she came to eat
here more often than the typical New Yorker visited his corner
deli. After a nod she welcomed our waiter ordering partly in
English but mostly in Chinese without even a glance at their
multipage photographic menu.
     "You want to eat; very tasty. We can add to your order,"
the earnest waiter with his pen and pad asked when he saw me
eyeing a spiny black sea anemone stalking an unexpecting fish
on the floor of the tank. I looked at Ta and mouthed "Eat?"
She smirked. She was enjoying my childhood initiation to
foreign cuisine.
     If there is anything worse than missing lunch and having
to eye a meatball grinder with peppers and melted provolone
cheese sitting in the back seat just out of reach all the way
home while in an afternoon LA rush hour quagmire it has to be
having $250 worth of hot aromatic Chinese food sitting on your
lap in a two seater waiting to get out of Boston traffic onto
interstate 95 when even then its only a delivery for someone
else.
     We reached the onramp just in time as out the back window
the mid-engine was starting to spew smoke. "I have to cool it
down. The only way to do that is to drive fast," Ta said as
she pulled into traffic and I watched as the speedometer
rounded 130 to 150 to 155 to 160 - like those bootleggers
running moonshine out of the South Carolina hills down dirt
mountain roads in old souped-up Chevys we were poetry in
motion. Nothing got cold. She just beeped the horn like
afternoon Dairy Queen as we pulled back into the quad. And like
ants at a summer picnic, the Thai kids came running out and
picked the car bare. Except for one bag. Ta's bag. She never
told me what was in it. Guess that's the way it is with secret
spices.                                             
     "Now I can cook," Ta said closing the condo door before
hurrying with her secret ingredients into the kitchen.            
     I was almost asleep when something cleared my nose and
made it start to tickle. Not satisfied with just doing that it
next coaxed me into a fit of sneezing before seeing my eyes
open it decided just for fun to tear them up, "What is going on
around here...?"
     "Hungry?" was all she said as she shoveled me a heaping     ***18
plate of rice with a fork and spoon minus a knife. The TV guide
on the coffee table gave way to another bottle of Heineken and
....Tom yam - a spicy sour soup of squid, scallops and shrimp
 - garlic fried spare ribs, crab fried rice, som tam - a salad
of shredded mango and tomato chips - steamed fish in bean
sauce, sauteed Chinese mushrooms with asparagus and abalone in
oyster sauce, and curried shrimp.
     "Who is going to eat all this?" I asked expecting to hear
a knock on the door any minute.
     "Oh don't worry. Just try a little bit of everything. The
rest I'll put away in the kitchen for when my cousins get
hungry. I cook like this for them all the time," she said
scooping me a bowl of tom yam soup.
     "Can I ask you something?, I asked grabbing another shrimp
head to suck out the fatty nectar.
     "Only if I can tell you something first. Spicy hot means
eat more rice, not drink more beer," amusingly watching me as
she swirled her chop sticks around the tom yam hot pot, adding
in more vegetables and spices to get the scent just right.
     "What does your father really do for a living?" I asked
wincing all at once at the thought of my father who always
asked me that same annoying question with regards to my new
friends. And even though I always retorted that we never talked
about those sort of things, here I was asking her his favorite
question. If she's anything like me now she's going to want to
change the subject. But she didn't. Instead she just arched her
back sitting up straight, giggled, and leaned in close biting
my ear as she asked if I really wanted to know. Goose bumps
running down my spine, I watched next as she dropped her chop
sticks and shuffled around on her floor cushion before
relieving me of my fork and spoon to make sure she had my full
undivided attention. I was about to get the family history I
had been wondering about.   
     "Being one of 12 mayors in Bangkok is more a hobby than
anything else for my father though sometimes it's good for
insider information and chances to sponsor new government
projects. Rumor has it that as a teenager he used to run opium
from Burma down south to make his money but I don't think that
was really true. I know he tricked mommy into thinking that he
was older than she so that she would consider it proper to
marry him. And then since mommy's father was the                 ***19
commander-in-chief of the entire Thai military, he used mommy's
maiden name to get coveted massage licenses that he used to
open the two biggest "legal" massage parlors in the city. After
that he just used the money to open up a hotel and buy lots of
land," she said hoping that would be enough to satisfy my
curiousity.
     "He did do one thing more than that," I said as our eyes
seemed to focus on each other for a long time. I was too naive
to know it wouldn't work. Only she knew how it could. "Can I
ask you something else?"
     "Sure," she said sneaking a piece of abalone sandwiched
between a mushroom and a stalk of asparagus.                                            
     "Teach me how to seduce you in Thai," I said using the
opportunity to grab a combo of my own.
     "You already seduced me in English," she said. "Isn't that
good enough?"                              
     "Yeah but I think it would be more fun in Thai." I said
wiping off my hands and taking a sip of beer.
     Without saying another word she got up and with a wink of
her index finger I followed her upstairs where after I sat down
on her bed she closed the curtains and lit a candle next to
some incense before putting on her favorite Focus album. Having
set the mood she knelt down next to me and said, "Look at my
lips. Now, say rrrrak."
     "A rolling 'R', no way, this is a first grade nightmare
all over again. It took me three months to go from "wabbit" to
"rabbit" and that was only with an exaggerated start. And then
once I could I had to stand in front of the whole eighth grade
class to prove it. A rolling "R" no way. It's a Sister Agnes
thing," I said somewhat embarrassed wondering what lasting
traumatic effect that almost forgotten experience might have
had.
     "Okay. Okay. Never mind. Most foreigners can't say it
right anyway. You can say it with a colloquial 'L' instead.
Lak. Try it," she said encouragingly.
     "Lak," I repeated to Ta's giggles. "What did I say it
wrong?"
     "No. I just think it sounded cute," she said as she seemed
to wipe a tear from her eye.
     "Yeah? So what's it mean anyway?" I asked wondering what
all the fuss over one word was about.
     "I love you," she said with a kiss. "Do you have to hurry    ***20
back to the house tonight?"
     "And get bawled out for missing cleanup? No thanks. I'd
rather stay here and help you work through all that Thai food,"
I said giving her a hug.
     "Good. I'll take you back tomorrow afternoon. Tonight you
can practise your 'lak' with me," she said pulling me up to go
finish our lunch.                                                      

                                                               *   (21 minus 7)
"Sir, would you like to rent some headphones..."
                                                               *
     Slamming open the hallway door with the force of a college
fullback breaking through the front line, while ripping off his
apron and throwing it over his shoulder, "Damn stove is on the
fritz again. Any of you dinks want dinner there are coldcuts in
the frig. You ladies can serve yourselves tonight. And make
sure you clean up after yourselves. You have till 8:30 and then
the kitchen is closed," announced Terry, our red-haired,
commanding 6'2", New York City born and raised, no nonsense
alumni cook. And as if to dare anyone to object, he took one
last quick glare down the hall as he turned the doorknob to his
room, his bong, and his girlfriend.
     "What was that all about?" Timmy asked as an evening
appetiser of pre-dinner Cannabis smoke followed him out of his
room.
     "Bet his girlfriend is on the rag again," Jo-Jo guessed
walking by in a towel on his way back from a shower.
     "Want some?" Timmy's cute little blonde, blue-eyed
girlfriend, peering around from Timmy's waist, asked.
     "Can't. I have an 8AM tomorrow. Besides I've got company,"
I said holding up Ta's hand in mine.
     JoJo jumped in, "Don't mind if I do." And after a long
toke, "Oh yeah, Ta. How have you been since two nights ago? We
were missing you around here."
     Ta just nodded and grabbed my arm closer.
     Timmy, playfully grabbing a hug from his girlfriend asked
her, "How about we go down to Jack's? We can split a Caesar
salad and fried shrimp platter and I can get my hair trimmed
before my tennis match tomorrow?"                               
     "I can cut it for you," Ta said. Rummaging through her
elephant skin, Louis Vitton bag she pulled out a precision
steel Swiss-made pair of barber snips.                          ***21
     "Wow, it's got a gold plated handle," Jo-Jo said. "Can I
get a trim, too?"
     "What, no hair dryer?" I asked wondering what other      
hodgepoge of accessories she was carrying in there.
     "Hairy...that's still in the car in my other bag," she
quickly replied as if daring me to doubt her efficiency.
     "Wait a minute. Who's Hairy," Jo-Jo asked shifting his
glance between us as he prepared to take another toke.
     "She's Charlie," I said accusingly pointing a finger at
Ta. "You know orientals, Viet Cong, the war."
     "And he has hairy legs," Ta added lifting her hand to her
mouth to hide her laugh.
     "What guy doesn't?" I asked looking for a vote of
confidence.
     "Timmy doesn't," said his cute girlfriend still attached
to his waist.
     "Only to the top of the sock; it's for tennis," Timmy
protested.                                                       
     "Careful Timmy, any higher and you might go soft in the
loafers if you know what I mean," I said noticing by Ta's
reaction the joke had gone completely over her head.
     "Ta da, me first," Ricky said. Having overheard about the
prospect of a free haircut from my new girlfriend he had found
a chair and strategically placed himself in it with his own
towel draped around his neck.
     "Charlie, you up for this?" I asked worrying that things
could get out of hand if word got out around the house.
     Pulling me close and grabbing my butt she whispered in my
ear, "Sure. Why don't you take the car and go buy some pizzas?
The shop on Standard Street in Concord is open. I should be
done by the time you get back."
     "Pizza?" I asked a little too loud sending an invitational
echo down the hall. Even Terry couldn't make that. If Ta in an
instant was becoming an honorary member of SPD's South East
hall, I was about to get drafted as the caretaker of its home
delivery takeout service. "Money?" I asked even louder resigned
to my fate. "And no $2 checks I'm not a bank." Brothers looking
around either dug into the depths of their pockets or scurried
off to their rooms looking for anything they might have stashed
away left over from the weekend.
     ...$28.50
     "Hairy?" and with the stealth of a pickpocket Ta slipped
me another $20 bill.                                                  ***22
     By the time I had changed into some fresh clothes and       
walked out of my room into the hall ready to go, Ta had the
whole hallway under her control. There she was like a conductor
in front of the Philharmonic, her snips, her baton. She wasn't
just cutting hair. She was taking my friends to exotic places:
shopping in Hong Kong, gambling in Macao, riding the bullet
train in Japan, driving a sleep-4 speed boat to uncharted
islands in Indonesia. She seemed so infectious around American
guys, but always appeared to shy away from being friendly
towards most American girls. I asked her once, why?
     When she was 14 and not able to speak a word of English,
her parents sent her all alone on a plane to a Catholic girls
prep school  - Moravian School for Girls, in Bethlehem,
Pennsylvania. In 1967, being an oriental exchange student at
the height of the Vietnam War, she didn't stand a chance
against conservative, Protestant-American, blue-eyed,
blonde-haired, upperclass teenagers. They didn't even try to be
friendly instead spending most of their time either demeaning
or looking down on her.
     I saw where she was coming from. At 14 my parents moved us
from a rustic middle class New England town to a seaside upper
class snobby one. Living a quiet life of desperation I didn't
even get acknowledged as being one of their classmates until I
brought an old girlfriend up for the senior prom. But these
people had never been my friends. I didn't care if they didn't
understand why we left the party early. We just knew we could
have more fun on our own.
     I was still thinking about how cruel people could
sometimes be when backing through that hall door with five
pizzas, I wondered where Terry was when I really needed him. No
way. He was now himself getting a trim. And since when did
varsity soccer, football, and lacrosse come down to our hall?
But like a proud parent sitting in the bowels of an auditorium
at his daughter's first recital, I only watched, listened, and
laughed along not wanting to interrupt the flow of the moment.
That was until the unmistakable smell of pepperoni started to
bring a few in the rear back to their senses.                           
     "Pizza," the cry ran out.
     "TJ, Hairy, where have you been?" Timmy asked sporting a
new shag look.
     "Just popping the clutch out of second gear, just about to
hit the top of the entrance ramp at 90mph onto the highway out   ***23
of Henniker, lights, sirens, I got pulled over." I said opening   
up pizza boxes across the floor.
     "It wasn't that bastard Carter was it? He's that
buck-toothed Henniker cop with the scar on his face and salt
and pepper hair. It wasn't him was it?" Timmy asked reaching
down to grab a slice of pizza.
     "Must of been." Jo-Jo said. "He pulled me over because my
skis on the roof rack were too long for my car. BS, he just
hates college kids."
     "He pulled me over because I have New York plates," Ricky
added digging in for two pieces that he quickly folded over
into an Italian style sandwich.                                                             
     "Well, doesn't matter. He let me go," I said. "I got a bit
theatrical about how this wasn't my car and I was still in
second gear and I was on an emergency mission for a friend who
needed a prescription refilled. He just saw I hadn't been
drinking and he let me go."
     "You've got to be the first," Timmy said offering his
girlfriend a piece of her own.
     "Well, then there was the ride back. That didn't go so
well. I got pulled over again and gave the same story. The cop
grabbed on to my window ledge like he needed something to hold
himself up. He took off his sunglasses. Rubbed his eyes. Kind
of looked out into space and started laughing while he shook
his head - like he was thinking about something funny that
happened to him and he was just remembering it. Then he took
off his hat, rubbed his sleeve across his forehead, turned, and
stared right into my eyes. 'Son, you told me that same story
half an hour ago.' Yeah, he had buck teeth and a scar, court
next week. Any pizza left?" I asked looking around for the
mushroom with extra cheese box as I gave a wave to Ta who still
had a couple of customers left.
     My well-groomed pizza-loving brothers wouldn't let it go.
They had all been burned by that particular Henniker cop. So
come court 8AM Monday morning not having forgotten their free
haircuts and chance to flirt with Ta I wasn't alone. Held in an
all-purpose room under the mayor's office usually reserved for
Sunday school classes it intimidated anyone who had the
misfortune of being there under the current circumstances with
its grade-school sized chairs looking up at a prominent desk. 
I looked around. No Officer Carter. He must have slept in. Then
with his Caterpillar cap and two day old beard he walked in     ***24
with grease-stained jeans, high-top hiking boots laced up just
half way, and sporting a Van Halen muscle tee shirt. The guy
that runs the Esso station is the town judge?
     "How do you plead?" I could tell he was bored with college
students the way he fingered the wrapping on his Danish before
burning his finger pulling the lid off his plastic coffee cup.                                                       
     "Guilty with extenuating circumstances your honor," I said
suddenly remembering to tuck in my shirt.                  
     "Extenuating circumstances," he repeated as he lowered his
reading glasses. Guess to get a better look at me. "Please I
need a laugh before my morning coffee."
     And so like any actor playing a part, one I had rehearsted
so well..."You talkin' to me...?"  I became Travis Bickle,
Robert De Niro in the movie Taxi Driver. Well not really. But
seeing Officer Carter wasn't there I felt free to tell him my
previous BS story.
     "A red pantera. Isn't that Miss Ta's car?" he said
scraping out something from under his thumbnail.
     "Yes, sir," I said sneaking a look at my friends for
encouragement.
     "So why is she letting you drive it?" he said maybe
wondering if I had stolen her car.                                           
     "She's my girlfriend," I said hoping that would gain me
some browny points.
     "I thought she was engaged to that Thai fellow, Joey, the
soccer player, the one that graduated last year," he said
looking for ways to plug holes in my story.  
     "No sir, that's just what they told their parents so they   
could go to the same school together," I said obviously now
perking his interest.
     "Does he know that?" he asked leaning forward with a cold
stare.
     "I hope so sir," I replied looking right back at him.
     "Well, you tell Miss Ta to drive her own car from now on.
I don't want to see you in here again," he said finally taking
a sip of his coffee.
     "I can go?" I asked.
     "Get the fuck out of here before I change my mind. And ask
Miss Ta if she can make me up another batch of those spicy
chicken gizzards." The look in the judge's eyes as he stared
out into space reminded me of Officer Carter. No way were they
both hot spicy gizzard fans.
     Gizzards, multi-course first-time Thai meals, and Concord     ***25
takeout pizza were just the hors d'oeuvres before finally
taking Ta home for her first home-cooked family Thanksgiving
dinner. I just hoped once we got out of Henniker she was going
to let me drive.
                                                                * (page 26 is minus 4)
"Our inflight movie for..."
                                                                *    
     "TJ, telephone," Dicky yelled down the hall waiting and
holding the phone like a runner in a relay race, "I think it's
your mom. She called me dear." 
     The second floor SPD public phone overlooking the balcony
sat Just outside our hallway in a sound proof room with a slit
glass wooden door. Like a red light district peep show, it was
a pantomime of college life. He got a date. She just told him
there was someone else. He didn't get the grant. She's three
weeks late and worried sick. His parents are coming up next
weekend. The view through the glass told it all as we tried not
to pry in too obvious a manner. Preferring instead to look out
at the imposing forest through the wall of windows or down at
the goings on of the main floor below, we could pretend to be
respecting each others privacy without anyone knowing who was
the wiser.
     "Tommy, honey, did your brother Donald call you about Ta's
Pentara car, yet?" mom asked calling me up the first week in
December after I had driven Ta down to meet my family for
Thanksgiving dinner the week before.
     It had also been a chance to show her the state park near
our house with the longest natural beach on Long Island Sound
without the crowds that swelled the town to three times its
normal size during the summer months. And making 17 year old
Don and 15 year old Larry drool while giving 13 year old Patty
another reason to call me her favorite brother were added
bonuses. But I didn't expect the Pentara to start smoking like
a runaway 19th century locomotive the minute we pulled into
Pat's garage where Don was working pumping gas. Ta didn't get
upset with the sudden turn of events figuring one garage was as
good as another when it came to fixing her car. Instead she was
anxious to get into the kitchen where she could treat my mom to
the secret of how to make a nooy-naa Thai custard and us to a
new Thanksgiving dessert. Quiet and polite she still seemed to
be the center of everyone's attention. I could have almost         ***26
stopped time and walked away. Noone would have known I was
missing. She had just that much of her own magic.
     "Mom, his garage, haven't they fixed it yet?" I asked
getting bored with driving around in my old car that I had to
pry away from my brother just so we could get back to school.
     "Tommy, they fixed it the day you left. Donny has been
driving it around picking up girls for the past week. He is so
happy. Girls that would never talk to him before want to go out
with him now," she proudly said hoping for a bit of brotherly
love.
     "And they won't want to ever again after I get the car
back," I huffed. "Mom, it's not my car. What if something
happens while he's driving it? I'll be down this weekend to
pick it up."              
     "Tommy, please, there's this one girl he's always liked.
She said yes to a date this weekend," she pleaded still trying
to get me to give my brother a break.
     "Mom, you're a pain in the-"                                      
     "Tommy, don't you dare say what you're thinking," she
scowlded.             
     "I was thinking I love you and I'll talk to you later.
What were you thinking?" I asked as innocently as I could.
     "Big angels my son."
     "TJ, you done yet? I have to call the girls at Colby for
the party this weekend," Dicky asked trying to grab the phone
before I hung it up.
     "And I'm trying to get Ta's car back from my testosterone
charged brother," I said as I pushed him back and slammed the
door in his face.
     "Charlie I have some good and some bad news. Which do you
want first?" I asked almost ready to hold my breath.  
     "Hairy, Debby asked me to move in with her. She has a new
trailer just outside of Henniker. She wants to help me save
money. She wants me to let her take care of my finances..."                              
     "That gypsy wasp, I wouldn't let her take care of my dick. 
She'll have you on rations, then food stamps, then a diet of
sliced carrots and lentils. People that don't have any money
are good with finances. They don't have any to worry about. And
I suppose she wants to let you stay for free? Shit, with your
car you could get to school before I could walk down the SPD
hill to get to class. Unless she just became chairman of the        ***27
Concord Savings and Loan and wants to raise your account
interest rate I'd tell her to fuck off," I puffed wondering why
she would even be considering such a ridiculous proposal and
angry at Debbie for having had the nerve to ask.
     "Good news and bad news?" she asked.
     "Yeah, Don is whoring around in your car," I said.
     "Is he getting lucky?" she asked as she started to giggle
remembering fondly how he had tried to flirt with her.                        
     "You better hope not, those seats are corduroy," I said
just imagining what I might find under them.
     "Are you ready for the Calc 4 final next week?" she asked
obviously concerned about other pressing things that were
more directly under her control.
     "Not yet. I'll be in the library cramming for the next
couple of nights," I said wondering if I could get a private
booth this close to finals.
     "Can you help me get ready, too?" she asked knowing I kept
easy to understand but detailed notes.
     "Only if you bring a snack that's not moving or spicy
hot," I said figuring she'd be joining me late just around the
time I was getting hungry.
     "I guess the password is a roast beef melted provolone
cheese grinder with lots of ketchup and mayo?" she asked sure
by now that was my favorite.
     "Hold the Debbie?" I asked to make sure the subject was
dead.
     And with a sigh, "Hold the Debbie."
     "And what about your car?" I asked wondering if I was
going to have to make a special trip home.
     "Hairy, we both have finals to prepare for and I have a
lot of other things I have to do before I go home for New
Years. Why don't you let your brother drive it until you go
home for Christmas. I don't mind. You can drive it back when
you return for January term," she said.
     "You mean I'm not going to get to unwrap you under the
tree this year?" I asked.
     "Come on Hairy. You had all summer to unwrap me when I
stayed here instead of going home. Mommy will be mad if I don't
take the time to go see her over the holiday," she said.
     "No problem. Just I didn't know before that you had
already made plans. I'll be at the library tonight from about    ***28
5PM on," I said.
     "Kha."                                                                               
                                                               * 
"TJ move over, I need to get out and stretch my legs..."
                                                               *
     Ever since the beginning of summer before the start of my
senior year life's drive to get more complicated seemed to have
speeded up a notch. Besides working construction five days a
week and driving up weekends to be with Ta, I was thrown off
balance by my dad's sudden bombshell. He informed me that since
in the fall after my graduation Don would be starting school
and money was tight he was going to have me pay for my second
semester to give me a sense of financial responsibility. Not
knowing what else to do, I loaded all my second semester
courses onto my first. So by the middle of December when I went
home on break to pick up Ta's car I was relieved to finally be
done with my formal education. Done with school. Not done with
Ta. Now I could devote all my attention to her and worry about
finding a job some time after graduation. Or so I thought.
     Besides the usual presents under the tree - the turtle
neck sweater, the new socks, and a couple of dress shirts -
there was a curious card with an address on it. Wondering what
was so special that it couldn't fit under with the rest, I
wasted no time in ringing that doorbell. Only what I found I
never would have expected. Picking the runt of the litter, I
named the gold with black stripes terrier after my alma mater
 - Lager. But when I found out I couldn't leave him at home and
would have to take him back to school I started to have second
thoughts about having a pet. Even while driving the four hours
in that two seater back to campus I never stopped squirming at
the possibility of what excremental damage that puppy might
cause before we arrived.
     But instead he proved to be quite the champ choosing to
ignore me and sleep all the way. I guess the gentle vibration
of the engine lulled him to sleep like the constant reassurance
of being nestled next to his sleeping brothers and sisters. It
wasn't until I couldn't get my car up the unplowed SPD driveway
that I dropped him in a foot of snow, grabbed my gear, and
hiked towards the house. Obviously shaken at first, he took a
minute to get his bearing before plowing through the snow like
a slinky on steroids trying to keep up.
     There was another dog living in the house. King was the    ***29
frat president's male German Shepard. Strange that they got
along right from the start. The only explanation I could think
of was King had a fedish for getting his balls licked. But
while Lager made friends with everyone easily I was increasing
being chastised to the dog house. Spending most of my time with
Ta, I was never around to train him much preferring to let him
run outside where he could do the least damage. I had enough
weekly house duties without thinking of hourly cleanups. If I
let him stay in the house he would be his own house duty.
     That's probably what lead to the flurry of calls from all
around town.
     "Your dog and my Domerman Pincer..." it would start.                   
     "Is my dog dead?" would be the first thing I asked.                           
     "No, just come get the damn thing, it's eating all
Pulsar's food," would be the normal reply.
     Towards the end of the semester he had finally disappeared
for good. But I still heard stories about him being around
especially the one concerning a gold black striped dog pulling
down a deer outside of town...No, it couldn't be.
                                                               *   (page 30 is line 23)
"Please return your headsets to the..."
                                                               *
     Lager's disappearance turned out to be a prelude to and an
omen of the start of May madness which - as if on cue - began
just a couple of weeks before graduation with the much
anticipated call from Ta's father in Bangkok. What he had to
say as I watched Ta tear up on the phone sitting in the living
room of her condo was worse than anything we could have ever
expected.
     "Your mother and I will be heading for Las Vegas and some
Baccara on the 10th. Our connecting flight to Boston is on the
17th, TWA flight 106 arriving at 1:25PM. Please arrange for us
to be picked up," he said with Ta writing down his itinerary as
he spoke.
     And then the bad news.
     "That should give you plenty of time to sell your car, say
goodbye to your friends, pack your bags and be ready to return
with us to Bangkok on the 20th. My friend, the president of
Bangkok Bank assures me that you have a job waiting. You can
start June 1st," he said before abruptly hanging up.
     This wasn't right. This shouldn't be happening. Ta had
already submitted her application and had been accepted to       ***30
start graduate school in the fall with her mother's blessing.
So rather than just sheepishly giving into this sudden
unforeseen turn of events, she decided we should head back to
campus where she could consult with Peter a long time extended
family friend who ran the college pub. If he'd heard any
related gossip from the "Little Bangkok" crowd who were his
devoted patrons on a regular basis she had to find out about it
before things got so blown out of proportion that she wouldn't
be able to give it all an innocent twist. That's where after
drawing a blank with Peter we ran into his friend Bill who
having overhear everything we had been talking about asked if
he could be the first to take a look at Ta's car.
     "Well, it's got that dent in the rear panel. No big deal.
I can get that fixed for almost nothing. I'll give you $5,300
cash for her," Billy Dewar, another graduating senior, his
dad VP at Colgate in New Jersey, said.
     Ta, she looked away for a moment bowing her head and
holding her nose as if trying not to cry before recovering with
a reluctant nod. She knew it wasn't just the car she was giving
up that had caused her to react that way. She didn't care about
such toys - once having considered trading it in on a VW Thing.
It was realising that our dream of a future together was about
to be shattered. Being chipped away bit by bit because she had
no say of her own about what made her happy it gnawed on her
despair fully aware there was nothing she could do to prevent
it from happening. But worse would be the desperation with
which she sought to find the words to salve my broken heart
when there were none that would give me the strength to fully
accept the reason why.
      "You sure she wants to do this? I feel like I'm stealing
her prize possession," Billy said relunctantly reaching for his
checkbook.
     "You're not. Her father is. We want to get married but she
can't tell her parents, yet. She thought we had more time when
they agreed to let her go on to grad school but now for some
reason they've changed their minds," I said looking over at her
with a consoling smile.
     "Bummer. I never knew you guys but I saw you two around
together. Cute, like two kids playing in a sand box. Telling
you bro, I never understood how you pulled it off," he said as
he handed me the check.                                          ***31
     "I didn't. She did," I said as I passed it on to Peter to     
verify with a call to the bank. 
     Like a proud owner breaking in a new thoroughbred Billy
upon getting the okay immediately jumped into the sucking
Recaro seat. Adjusting it back and speaker tolerance testing
the stereo system with his own brand of jazz - a rare tape of
Col Porter - he was oblivious to anything I was trying to tell
him.
     "TJ?" he asked finally rolling down the window to hear me
better.
     "If she starts to smoke take her up to 90mph in second
gear. That should cool her off. And if that doesn't work take
her out for Chinese food in Boston," I added not expecting him
to understand the reminiscing reflection. 
     After a puzzled look accompanied by a farewell salute he
spun the wheels in the parking lot gravel before his driving
off signaled the storm front of my new reality to move in that
much closer. It wasn't just threatening to sever my umbilical
cord to Ta through a sheltered campus life. Without her in my
future I'd be in a boat knocked off its mooring with a broken
rudder and no paddles in sight.
     Would graduation in front of West Dorm doubling as an
amphitheater backdrop to the sloping hill down from the parking
lot of the library where we stood be the last time I saw her?
I could only wonder as I stared off remembering the concerts
and wrestling matches at nearby Bridges Hall that completed the
framing of the memorial wooden covered bridge set back over the
Contoocook River with its white water rapids supplying the
background music for the mid-morning ceremony. Mike and I with
our parents were bonding over small talk when Ta, one hand
on her hat, the other pushing down her gown, came running up. A
sea of blue, 330 graduates in New England College colors were
just starting to sit down.          
     "These are my parents - Khun P. my dad, Khun M. my mom,"
she proudly said once they had casually caught up promenading
in their formal attire.
     Mike and I both folded our hands as if in third grade
prayer and bowed our heads, "Sawadii khrap." It was a sign of
respect Ta had taught us to use whenever meeting a Thai elder.
     "Which one is Mike?" Ta's father asked shifting his eyes
quickly between us.
     Ta pointed.                                               ***32
     Taking his time to look Mike up and down as if he was
looking for a magic button Khun P.'s eyes soon widened and his
eyebrows arched when betraying his aloof air he finally asked,
"You really a streaker?"
     That was Mike. Hands held high, knees pumping, and
something wagging he not only rated the most visited picture
award in that year's yearbook but debuted on the front page of
the Concord Monitor - the most conservative paper in the entire
country - proudly displaying his centerfold credentials.
     He really shouldn't have trusted me and Peter Pub. He
should have known I'd try to find a way to get back at him for
revealing my secret to the whole house about my first date with
Ta. Except spreading the word about what he planned to do after
he leaked his plan to me hours in advance I knew wouldn't be
enough. He probably expected that I would do that anyway. After
all, ensuring maximum exposure with every place along the bridge
before lunch being taken leaving late stragglers to vie for
standing room only on the cliffs above was what he was most
likely ultimately after.
     But with Peter Pub who Mike didn't know was Ta's best
friend we could get some real payback since he was in charge of
the clothes and van for the eight guys wearing only ski masks
and sockless sneakers. Sure he had promised to meet them with
their gear and provide a quick clandescent getaway after they
had run through town, crossed the stone bridge, and slipped
away behind the gym. Thing was there weren't going to be any
clothes or Peter with his van waiting for them behind Bridges
Hall. If Mike and his crew wanted to get dressed and disappear
they were first going to have to run up the SPD hill buck naked
to the house past strategically placed cameras waiting for
them.
      "I sent Khun P. your picture," Ta said as she confessed
to the second, third, and fourth picture that followed him and
his crew up the SPD hill.
      "It wasn't me," Mike protested curling up laughing more
concerned with what his mom was currently thinking.
       "Mommy says you have cute buns," Ta said after Khun M.
cupped her hands to whisper in Ta's ear,
     Mike shook his head still laughing as he continued to deny
everything. Obviously enjoying the notoriety he was having a
hard time convincing his parents that it wasn't him.
     Then Khun P. - his eyes almost closed, his brow furrowed,
his nostrils flaring - gave me an intimidating almost           ***33
condescending going over. Culture. He knows. We're done. Ta
will never stand up to that. "Little Bangkok" had done their
job well with a spirited prejudicial briefing that all but
guaranteed I'd never stand a chance of seeing her again. Screw
graduation. What's the point? I had nothing left to celebrate.
Nor did I feel like having my face rubbed in it by politely
standing there and being subjected to his gesture driven style
of abuse.
     My mom noticed.
     "Tommy, what's wrong?" she whispered as she pulled me
arm-in-arm aside.
     I just shrugged. There were too many conflicting emotions
fighting for my attention to give a reasonable explanation.
     "Thomas," my mother rarely uses that word with me. It's
Irish for quit feeling sorry for yourself. And she wasn't just
Irish. She was third generation Brooklyn, New York Irish - no
taller than Ta or Khun M. she was a pit bull in a skirt if you
pissed her off. Her two older street tough brothers made sure
of that. All I could do was smile and give her a hug before we
turned back to watch Mike simmer in Khun P.'s praises.
     My mom was digging her nails into my palm as I faced his
glare a second time not quite sure which had without warning
caused me to bite my lip. He was a proud six foot, definitely
Chinese in his tailored silk suit, Testoni loafers, Armani tie,
Patek Phillipe watch and nickel size diamond ring. Resigned, I
just started thinking about the last time I was happy alone
climbing frozen waterfalls and traversing the presidentials in
the White Mountains of New Hampshire during the dead of winter.
Trekking from one peak to the next through gale force winds
waiting for the chance to ski down Mt. Washington in May I kept
wondering when did I suddenly need anything more to look
forward to.
     Then Knun M. emblazoned with more rings than a Brunei
sultaness but modestly arrayed in a long silk body tank dress,
a Roy Rodgers scarf around her neck and a embroidered shawl
nestling her shoulders broke the ice when she cupped her hand
to whisper in Ta's ear..."would Mike and TJ like to come to
Thailand?"
     Caught off guard by the impromptu nature of his wife's
uncharacteristic sudden outspoken idea, Khun P., in the company
of our parents, had no other choice but to back her up when Ta
translated since to do otherwise would have meant demeaning
Khun M. and having them both lose face. Was it possible that I   ***34
had a covert influential ally in the family? I knew Ta and her
mom were close. Maybe I had underestimated her ability to keep
us together. But after that first introduction I was not about
to start kidding myself. Whatever sway she had over her mom I
knew was marginal at best when it came to Khun P.
                                                               *    
 "We are now on our final approach into Bangkok..."
                                                               *
     As if from a dream our Lufthansa escort cut through the            
underbelly of the clouds opening the curtain to the next scene
in the drama of my quest for entitlement. Grateful for Mike's
required company since disposing of a daughter's unwanted
boyfriend or rival for her affection - without a trace - was
much more difficult when there was a hometown witness to shadow
my every move, I focused on the fields of rice patties
mimicking an old patchwork quilt peppered with stilted shacks
that from above looked like squatting peasants clothed in
bamboo smocks wearing straw hats busy at work tending home
gardens of newly planted palm and banana tree seedlings.
     The morning sun, having risen early to greet our arrival
reflected off the well irrigated plots making them look like a   
freshly waxed green kitchen tile floor with the grouting being
the raised dirt embankments that served as an artery of
makeshift roads between the rural encampments. This was the
breadbasket and outskirts of Bangkok.
     A city with an alluvial landscape that was built on a
swamp just 6.5 feet above sea level - rumored to be sinking
two inches a year - with a metro area of 3,000 square miles it
is home to 12 million people and host to 450 of Thailand's
40,717 Buddhist temples. Located on the lips of the elephant,
it became a deep water port at the mouth of the Chao Phraya
River - that ancient watery highway always whispering to
her cousin, the gulf, news from Burma and Laos, her neighbors
in the north while spreading her fingers as a network of canals
embracing the heart of this City of Angels. A city that shared
a lifetime with so many. She only had time to share a glimpse
with us.                                                        

                                                                *
2. City Of Angels
                                                                *
Thank you for flying...Thank you for flying...Thank oh hi Mikey
you have a good time now and don't forget to come visit me in
Dresden on your way back. I really want to see your bong trick.
Y'all still have my number right?" the first-class petite
green-eyed stewardess with the bunned up blond hair in her
sky-blue pantsuit with complimentary yellow and purple striped
scarf minus any wedding or engagement ring at the front hatch
door said.
     "Yes mam," Mike said as he dug in his pocket and flashed a
piece of paper as he walked off the plane.
     "Y'all? Since when does a German chick use the word y'all?
And how did you end up getting tight with a first-class
stewardess when we're sitting in the back of the bus? What
happened to the redhead sitting next to you? Figured it out,
heh? You agree with me now that she was too tall for you? Hey,
if we double dated, me on your shoulders I mean, it would have
been perfect. What do you think?" I asked still trying get the
back of my sneaker over the heal.
     "I think you're too damned hyper. I shouldn't have let you
sleep all the way from Frankfurt," Mike said watching me still
screw around with my sneaker, "And she's not German."
     "Which one?" I asked. "Hey bro I didn't sleep the night
before we got on the flight and then you insisted on stopping
off for some German draffs at the airport. How many did we
have? I lost count after four. And the way you went through
those bar bowls of goobers I thought you were under the
temporary tainted spell of a monkey-munching fever. Not much of
a tip for a shell-strewed bar. Did you see the look the
bartender gave us when we got up to leave?" Then suddenly
remembering, "Besides that German gorilla sitting between us
didn't give me much choice to do anything else the way he had
me scrunched up against the window." 
     "That's how I met her," Mike said.
     "Who?" I asked.
     "The German chick," he said.
     "I thought you said she wasn't German," I said.
     "Okay TJ hold up before you drive me crazy. The stewardess
is from Texas. She's an army brat. Her father was stationed     ***36
with NATO in Germany. He married a German national. They had a
kid. She has dual citizenship. She went back to university in
Dresden and decided to stay after she graduated a couple of
years ago," he said.
     "So is the redhead German?" I asked just busting his
balls.
     "No damned it," he huffed.
     "So what happened you don't like the redhead anymore?" I     
asked.
     "The redhead. Her name's Jennie. I like her fine. I'll see
her next week in Bangkok. The stewardess's name is Lisa before
you ask me another stupid question. But that damned Nazi
sitting between us. You're lucky you slept. I couldn't take him
anymore. He not only smelled like knockwurst and stale beer, he
kept farting and burping. I couldn't take his gaseous insults
anymore. I moved up to the galley and that's where I met Lisa.
Satisfied? Any more questions?" Mike asked.
     "Just one...can I have a good morning kiss?" I asked
twisting my body, clenching my hands, closing my eyes, and
raising my lips.
     Mike cringed like hearing bare nails across a blackboard,
"French?"
     "In your dreams big boy. Come on let's get out of here,"
I said following him out the door as he shook his head looking
at my hightops probably thinking that they made me look like an
oversized midget.    
     Exiting the Lufthansa jet, we were met by a wave of
bread-oven heat that weighed down on our jet-lagged bones and
beaded our banged brows. Luckily we were in Bermuda shorts and
baggy t-shirts. Any other fashion statement would have meant
we really cooked. Even in the enclosed terminal causeway, even
though it was greyly overcast outside with the arrival of the
rainy season, the sun's fury had found a way in. It was always
hot along the Tropic of Cancer. Even if we stayed past
September into Thai winter there wouldn't be any prospect of
relief. Thailand had only two thermostat settings: wet-hot or
humid-hot.
     Before I could wipe away the sweaty sting in my eyes Mike
was stiffarmed to a halt right outside the cabin door by a
police captain accompanied by two sergeants who looked more
like boy scouts than military stock. With a stern, lined,
tanned face bobbing over a picture like a rooster eating         ***37
barnyard corn he asked, "Mr. Mike and Mr. TJ?" 
     I leaned over to see what he was holding. I remembered the
picture. Ta told me she had sent it to her mom. She wanted to
show off how Mike and I liked her Thai cooking. Except this
picture looked like someone had just grabbed us both by the
balls rather than treated us to an exotic meal. Pointing I
said, "Yeah, spicy hot fried chicken gizzards. That's me.
That's Mike."                                                   
     And in a no-nonsense tone as if it was all routine he
unemotionlly said, "Passports and arrival cards please."
     Mike and I unzipped our carry-on bags digging through
accumulated candy wrappers, crumbled up cigarette packs,
bookmarked travel guides, thumbed through magazines, wrinkled
spare clothes, and other assorted paraphernalia to finally come
up with what he wanted.
     After thumbing through our documents and putting our
passport photos up alongside our faces just to make sure he
asked, "How long do you plan to stay in Thailand?" 
     "Three months?" I asked shifting nervously as I glanced
back at Mike.
     "Your visas are good for one month. You'll have to arrange
to leave the country and come back if you want to stay three    
months. Follow me," he ordered before mumbling something in
Thai to his accompanying staff.                                 
     As he started to walk away, his sergeants bowed with left
hands cradling right elbows as they extended open palms
offering to carry our packs and duty free bounty. We bowed    
back. Mike even remembered to fold his hands as if in prayer -
a polite Thai greeting. Both policemen almost dropped our gear
when they tried to acknowledge his unexpected gesture of
respect. Caught off guard, I patted Mike on the back, looked at
the guards and said, "Me, too." They both just looked at each
other puzzled. Guess they didn't speak any English. But
responding with smiles and nods they got my jist.
     There had been three other incoming international flights
arriving around 8AM that morning with only one nonresident
passport control booth open to process them all. As we walked
past the arriving passengers from our flight still waiting at
the end of that line - our captain in the lead his staff
walking behind - Mike's redhead cabin flirtation called out. He
responded by sliding his right forefinger across his throat to
show her what we had to look forward to before bowing his head  ***38
and putting his hands behind his back as if handcuffed.
     She mouthed an "O" and quickly raised her right open palm
to hide it away. Mike shook with laughter, pointed at our
captain, fisted his chest, and gave her the thumbs up. I knew
what she was thinking. I'd listened to Mike flirt with her
sitting in the opposite seat all the way from Germany.
     She was 22, from Redondo Beach, California, and a med
student on a holiday staying at the exclusive Oriental Hotel  
for two weeks courtesy of daddy a Beverly Hills plastic
surgeon. Like a Las Vegas strip veteran used-car salesman, Mike
had all but convinced her that we were friends of the King by
the time we had landed. Of that maybe now she had no doubts
since seeing how we were getting the VIP teatment she put her
clenched hand to her ear and with a right forefinger dialed
into space while mouthing the words, "Call me."
     I laughed remembering how I had told Mike, at almost six
feet in her flats, she was way too tall for him. But with those
long slender legs that wouldn't quit either would he. I warned
him. If she goes out with him and wears heals he is going to
look like her unic manservant. Yeah, I wouldn't of cared
either.
     And then there was that sumo-size German who had sat       
between me and Mike the whole ten hour flight from Germany
reading the Der Spiegal newspaper. We had been like tipping      
bookends on the elbows of his seat. He wouldn't even close his
paper so we could eat. Seeing us under guard he raised his chin
and jabbed his forefinger at us like trying to ring a doorbell
where noone was home. Yeah, the Thai police had caught those    
long-haired hippy, pot-smoking, drug-selling bastards before    
they could pollute the country he must of thought. Looking back
at him, I wished I really did bring something. Then I could
have slipped it in his pocket on the way out to thank him for
the inconvenience he had caused us. I knew all about the
sausage-sucking krauts who liked to come here with promises of
marriage to naive Thai country girls. Take them home. Take
their passports. Turn them into whores. Trade them with their
friends. Luckily they now had a stigmatised reputation for
their gluttonous lust that would spare other girls from making
the same mistake and suffering a similar fate. Mike just gave
him the finger and sent him a wet kiss.
     All at once from behind the clacking of heals like raw
rice falling onto an aluminum pan - stewardesses, "Mikey, are   ***39
you alright? Do you need us to call the embassy?" grabbing his 
arm one of them asked.
     Our captain turned to protest about the delay but these
were professionals. Slipping her grip and lowering her chin,
she teased with her haunting emerald-green eyes as her chest
rose while stroking our proudly decorated captain's army
sharp-shooter service medal. Close enough that he could almost
make out his reflection in her high-gloss lipstick she looked
to me like she was just getting started.                       
     "One minute," she begged as if in his arms.
     "Quickly, please," he started to say. Then realising the
hero he could be, "I am just escorting your friends for the
mayor. I assure you they are not in any trouble."
     Satisfied, she went up on her toes and rewarded him with
a kiss on the cheek before motioning to her crew that it was
time to go. But before racing away with their roller derby
carry-ons, "Bye Mikey, call me," echoed down the hall.
     Gesturing to the guards that the show was over and
pointing to our bags, I caught an unmistakable glimpse of
Mike's redhead peering out from the queue. Come on bro. Get
lucky. You'll stay here longer and I'll have more time to be
with Ta. That to me was the first order of business.
     Approaching the lone non-immigrant passport check-in      
counter, our captain pushed past an elderly, white-haired
gentleman in a London tailored cream linen suit with his beige  
cashmere overcoat draped over one arm cradling his Aigner
briefcase underneath while his other hand was occupied with his
outstretched passport. The sole processor nervously stood up as
he tried to adjust his glasses, salute, apologise to the        
tourist, and grab our passports all at the same time. Our        
captain looked at him like he was a bumbling idiot while the
old gentleman looked over at Mike and me with equal distain.
Mike just raised his chin and adjusted his Adam's Apple like
adjusting a tie and smiled. He was without a doubt enjoying
his role as the center of attention.
     THe processor quickly sat down to fullfill his tedious
duty. Flipping through pages, scribbling in the margins, and
stamping in the appropriate places, in less than a minute, he
stood up with a satisfying salute, "Sir."
     Our captain gave me mine with a nod and a smile. Sighing,
he touched Mike on the shoulder and gave him his. Still holding
on to it he whispered something in Mike's ear and gave him a    ***40
business card. Mike looked at the card, returned the shoulder   
touch, nodded, and gave him a thumbs up.
     Sliding down the escalator to baggage claim I had to ask,
"What was that all about?"
     Mike looking around at where we were heading said, "He
wanted to know if I had that blonde chick stewardess's phone
number."
     Wondering why I was asking such a stupid question, "Do
you?"                                                          
     Mike now combing his hair in some imaginary mirror, "Not
yet, but I know where they are staying. Wanna come?"           
     And then there she was. The only girl I wanted to spend
time with. And then there he was. The only guy I hoped never to
have to deal with. In his new police major uniform, Joey, whose
father as governor had just made him the head of immigration
was flirtingly tempting Ta in her bell bottom denims and tight
fitting flowered waist shirt with a bottle of cold water. It was
bad enough that I had to contend with her father. Now instead
of only delusionally competing with me for her affection he,
too, had the power of control over my very presence. That's if
the suddenly felt gripping lump in my stomach, piercing sting
in my eyes, and erupting acid in my throat don't do me in
first.                                                          
     "TJ, what the fuck?" Mike asked as he waved to them         
waiting in front of the carousel below. "This is total BS. We
shouldn't have to put up with..."
     I didn't answer, just under my breath, "Not now. Not now."
Then as Ta's eyes followed mine down the escalator, I could see
that they were big and glassy never for a moment straying from
mine. She was biting her upper lip with anticipation. I melted  
into a smile. I knew she was still mine. Never mind what Mike    
was still carrying on about, I was too busy feeling relieved to
hear anything that he was saying.
     I couldn't help but like Joey. He was funny like Mike was    
embarrassingly candid. We'd never met before. He didn't act
like we were in competition for the same girl. He asked me what
it was like to caddy at thirteen carrying two bags for eighteen
holes. Did I really sit on the stone wall at the entrance to
the Jewish country club right next to the third green and sell
fouled golf balls for up to a dollar a piece? How did I know to
ride my bike four miles into town to look at town hall records
to find one hundred year old garbage sights to look for old      ***41
bottles? How could I make up to twenty dollars in a day and    
then spend most of it sitting at my own table in a restaurant
eating a whole pizza before walking outside for a root beer
float at a roadside stand and finally peddle home on my own for
dinner? Thais at thirteen never had those kinds of adventures.
I was struck by how Ta had told him so much about me. Things
she liked. Things she thought were funny. Things she wanted to
share with him as a close friend. Guess I was no longer her
well kept secret. But the real question was how much did he    
really know about my relationship with her. He didn't pry. I
didn't offer.
     When our two earlier porters showed up with our carousel
bags, Ta covered her mouth and bent down grabbing one knee
trying to contain her laughter. 
     "Isn't that your laundry bag?" she asked trying to regain
her composure.
     "Mine, too," Mike added not caring if his comment wasn't
helping.
     "It's an army duffle bag," I protested hoisting it up on
my back like I was getting ready to go trekking on a camping
trip. "Not everyone can afford to go to Hong Kong and buy out
their entire limited edition Louis Vitton traveling collection.
Besides this is easier. I can wear it like a pack and keep my   
hands free for grabbing your ass."                                                     
     "Hairy don't you dare," Ta warned backing away and looking
around.
     "Don't be so paranoid. You know I wouldn't," I said
taking a sudden step forward as if to try again.
      I must have reminded her of a Mexican drug-smuggling pack
rat trying to steal across the Arizona desert border in the
dead of night because the longer I stood there displaying the
practicality of my gear the more she teared up like she was
about to cry until no longer able to hold back the tsunami of
tickling emotion she finally exploded in a fit of laughter.
That was the last straw. No more modeling in public places. I
might as well have been standing there naked the way she
reacted. If she hadn't grabbed me by the arm still trying to
settle herself she would have lost her balance. Good, serves
her right, having so much fun at my expense. Her mascara
running, "Oh, my stomach hurts," she complained.
     While she desperately tried to regain control of her still
convulsing countenance, "I brought along one for you, too.       ***42
Seeing as how you are so damned ugly I thought you needed a
bigger cosmetics case." Looking down into those still teary big
black eyes accented by eyelashes long enough to play tag with
her penciled in eyebrows when she was excited and made more
mysterious by a blend of sparkling purplish-green eyeshadow I
had to wonder, for someone so naturally beautiful, why she
thought she needed more cosmetic gear than a backstage musical
and spent more time putting it on than a Japanese Geisha. It
always seemed to me a futile attempt to look the same. I used
to kid her all she needed was her smile. She thought I was just
trying to be nice. I wasn't.
     But the comic relief contained a hidden bonus. Even though
Thai culture forbade touching, holding hands, and public
displaying of affection, in the moment, we inadvertently got a   
chance to do just that. It made it easier for her to explain
about Joey who she had used to get her past customs so as to
talk to me first out of earshot of her parents and spell out
why she couldn't tell them about us yet knowing full well that
she had told me that she already had. She confessed to being
afraid that if she had told me the truth I wouldn't have come.
Asking me to trust her, she promised to tell them when the time
was right. Just for now if I really loved her be patient and
don't get upset about the reception I might get or at any of
the play acting she had to do which didn't mean anything. It
was all for show. And another thing about Joey. She had to go
out to dinner with him that night to repay him for helping her
get this opportunity to be alone with me. "Don't be mad." She
snuck a quick kiss. "I love you." And that's why I do, too.   
Never a dull moment.
     Thing is. I was starting to be able to read between the
lines. It wasn't just that she was afraid of her father. She
was afraid of being put in a position where she had to make a
choice. She wanted us but she didn't want to risk losing the
security of what she already had. She was stalling for time.
She was grabbing at straws. At least with me here she thought
her parents could have a chance to get to know me. I would no
longer be this imaginary ogre that "Little Bangkok" with their
busy-body gossip had made me out to be. She asked me to trust
her. But why didn't she trust me enough to let me in on her
little secret beforehand instead of throwing me to the lions
and expecting me to be able to fend for myself? Did she really
think that my love was so shallow that I would desert her at     ***43
the first sign of trouble? Guess she too needed more time to      
get to know the real me. And I needed more time to get to know
the playbook. What better place to learn it but in her own
backyard.
     Joey led us right past customs waving to the inspectors    
who were busy violating an assembly line of luggage hassling    
new arrivals with prodding and probing that came just short of
a cavity search. Relieved to have missed out on that reception,
Mike and I went trolley racing out the swinging doors with Joey
and Ta tagging along behind. Joey touching her while he spoke.
Ta touching him to pull away. We hardly noticed. Like two five
year olds arriving for the first time in Disneyland, we were
all at once at the edge of the world.
     Almost.                                                     
     We brought the trolleys to an abrupt halt when we saw
Khun P. and Khun M. still formally dressed like they had been
at graduation a few weeks ago standing there together in front
of everyone else at the arrival gate waiting to greet us.
     We instantly both went to our knees at their feet and
bowed low, our hands folded as if in prayer, our thumbs
between our eyes. We knew. Don't look up. Keep our heads down.
Ta's orders and well rehearsed opening. And by the time Ta and
Joey had caught up, her father was roaring with delight at our
sudden outburst of respect while her mom was giggling with
satisfaction as she pulled us by the cheeks up to our feet
before touching us both on the head - an insult to a normal
Thai - a sign of endearment to her children. Other Thais         
standing behind the arrival gates looked, pointed, and urged us
on grabbing their nearest friend to get a load of these two
ceremoniously well prepared farang. Ta apparently knew what
would make for a disarming first impression.
     Knun P. was just that until Joey showed up.                                    
     Ta had him, both hands wrapped around his right arm as she
appoached her parents. Joey waayed Ta's mother and then her
father respectfully except not as elaborately as the way we had
done it from our knees on the floor. Ta's father, laughingly
put his arm around Joey pulling him aside. They joked fondly
together. And why not? They both had mutually compatible ideas
regarding Ta's future.
     Joey's father wasn't just the governor. Joey wasn't just
a police major and head of immigration in a police state. The
family together owned the iconic Rose Garden, a sort of Thai     ***44
Disneyland for the first time traveler anxious to get
thoroughly immersed in Thai culture. Like the trailer to a
block buster movie it highlights every knuck and cranny of
everyday traditional life. Situated in a seventy acre garden
and supported by a cast of one hundered and twenty actors        
it captures the imagination with bamboo piped mystical music    
and dancing where players in tenth century outfits show off
their cryptic mesmerizing steps and sword fighters without
regard to sex bounce off each other's knees or shoulders in
acrobatic martial art ninja fashion and Thai boxers you have to
watch closely because one distraction means either an elbow a
knee or a wild slap kick can take them down instantly and
elephant riding not so adventurous as trekking through the
mountains in Chiang Mai but with a properly angled shot noone
would know the difference and a cruise on a rice barge where
else could you stretch out to relax absorbing the sun and a
visit to the floating market in a long boat just reach out to
pick some fruit or eat a three course meal in this aquatic
traffic jam and garland making incase you buy that Buddha
souvenir statue that you properly want to show respect to and
fruit carving to give your Saturday afternoon picnics a
cultured taste and pottery making to introduce you to a new
hobby and silk processing just for fun and weaving to get the
foot pedal pictures and paper umbrella painting with floral
sweeps that would make any wall a conversation piece and Thai
cooking hold your nose shield your eyes it is going to get
spicy hot and an orchid nursery look close pay attention pick
out the rare color seedlings to take home with you and the
herbal pavilion of traditional medicine buy the salts that will
make your bath a massage and a chance to try your hand at rice
farming never mind the ox pulling the plow just watch your step
they don't think before they poop and the traditional Thai
houses that include a spa and a reenactment of a Thai wedding
old folks regard the first young bucks regard the second you
may be next. Or just stroll through the gardens and close your
eyes and get taken away to never ever land in the bosom of
hundreds of flower variety scents. It whets the first time
traveler's desire to see the rest of the country.
     It whet Khun P's ambition thinking that his daughter was
still engaged to the son of one of Thailand's richest families,
a family richer and more politically influencial than his own.
He didn't know Ta had only gotten engaged so that she could go     ***45
to the same school as Joey without having people gossip and now
that they had both graduated the engagement was off - even
though Joey by now had gotten so used to the idea that he
didn't want it to be over. Still, she was too afraid to tell
her father the truth. I'm sure he suspected. I think Khun M.
knew. But could she make a decision about us now? I don't think
so. I was too young. I was too naive she thought. Except she
forgot one thing. The way I loved her I felt like I could have
done anything. But it didn't look like I was going to get the
chance to prove it. Playing by her rules I would surely lose
the fire. She should have given me a chance. She should have
given herself a chance.
     Now openly displaying his true colors Knun P. further
foreshadowed a taste of things to come when chastising a porter
who dared to interrupt their intimate conversation he
dismissively told him to have me and Mike with our luggage wait
outside. In front of the taxi stand was fine. He'd tend to us   
later. Ta had warned me about the reception I would get. Now I
know why she had asked me if I really loved her. All the games
these people play were about to give our relationship a
psychological mind-tripping jolt.
     Being in front of the taxi queue was not the best place to
stand. Not just because Mike had relieved our porters with a
couple of Marlboros and everyone else thought we were cutting
the line. Left pruning for almost an hour in the unforgiving
heat under the midmorning clouded sun we were becoming a
sweat-soaked sight with our once bulky t-shirts now clinging
like wet discarded dish rags draped over a kitchen windowsill
rack. But that didn't seem to slow Mike down. The longer we had
to wait the more eye candy games he played with any girl
adventurous enough to return his smile while I settled for dog
fighting games with mosquitos buzzing the back of my neck. That
was until the redhead emerged through the arrival doors with
the heavy-breathing sumo German mentally raping her as he
looked her up and down and followed her from behind. That would
have been Mike's cue for a showdown except at that very moment
a 1972 Lincoln Continental dark brown coupe sporting a beige
half Landau top, wire wheels, and steering wheel on the
California side with an old restored Mercedes in tow pulled up
with a familiar beep.
     Ta opened the door and the intense air conditioning froze
and steamed in the midmorning heat prompting previously         ***46
released porters to race back out to grab our bags and throw    
them into the Mercedes trunk as Ta invited us into the cool of    
the Lincoln's back seat. So this is why Khun P. had us standing
there so long waiting. It was an ingenious plan. He never would
get blamed. His car air conditioner on high, we in our sweat
soaked t-shirts, an hour ride home, unexplained bouts of
pneumonia, he was sure our trip would be short and sweet. But
in the seclusion of the back seat we flipped open our carry-ons  
and donned new shirts. Nothing he could do or say was going to
so easily take Ta away from me. With her sitting between her
parents up front, Mike looked at me and shook his head.

                                                               *  (line 31 is pg47)
     Slower than watching a snail crawl across the street,
slower than watching the last traces of ketchup pour out of a
bottle, there is no way to accurately describe the constipated
flow of Bangkok traffic. And we were on an elevated express
highway. Every car had extra hood mounted mirrors strategically
placed like gun torrents. They were a driver's sixth sense
against the invading hordes, the motorcycles, the kamakazis
that raced in and out of traffic like swarming mosquitos
buzzing in and out of your ears while sitting on the back porch
trying to enjoy a humid summer night. Every car was a
reflection of the upper, lower, lack of middle class society. A
Mercedes Benz said don't get too close. I am a banker. I am a
gemstone dealer. I am a rice exporter. I am, I am... A
Corvette, a Camaro, a Porsche, a BMW bragged I am his son. I am
his daughter. I've just gotten back from America or England. I
have an MBA. I have a degree. I'm special. Look at me. I'm the
next generation. I'm the new elite. And then came the slums, a
post Korean War Japanese invasion of Mitsubishis, Mazdas,
Toyotas, Suzukis and Hondas, older than some of the people that
were driving them, taken apart and rebuilt more times than a
five-year-old's Tonka toy a week after Christmas. The ones with
the oversized exhausts sounding like sports cars, sounded out
their driver's dreams, a declaration of who they hoped to
become. The ones that belched and jerked clouds of oil-stenched
smoke like an eighty-year-old man coughing from a
three-pack-a-day cigarette habit advertised a desperate owner
just hoping along with his ride to survive another day. And
then I remembered the package my dad left with me before the
flight packed with intel and pictures of loaders, graders,
tractors, and dump trucks, all left over from various projects     ***47
throughout the islands of South East Asia years ago. Maybe I
could get Khun P. interested in buying and importing them as
junk. With the Thai reputation for dexterity and quality work
at a below-market price plus his extensive local connections he
could have them taken apart and rebuilt looking like new ready
to sell for a huge profit on the local or international market.
It would give me a reason to stay my dad said. He was right.
That's why Khun P. would never pay the project any more
attention than idle lip service.
     Finally off the highway, just a mile away from home, six
miles from the center of town, and fourteen miles from the
airport, Khun P., after almost two hours of bumper-to-bumper
traffic lost his patience and turned on his blue/red diplomatic
lights and siren. Like turning on a light in a darkened room
and watching the cockroaches scatter, the street children ran
for the cover of the curb and the protection of their parents
casually sitting on straw mats like they were spending a
leisurely day on the beach. I'd heard the sadistic stories
about families up north with large broods and too many mouths
to feed selling an unwanted deformed child into slavery so they
had enough to eat after a drought. Children taken - dressed in
scant rags to accentuate their afflictions -  were placed on
busy Bangkok street corners near big hotels with a cup to beg
after maybe having been taught a few choice words in English or
French; a caretaker monitoring from the shadows to make sure
noone could take advantage and steal the day's take of rich
tourists conned-into-feeling-guilty penances. These were not
those kids. These were the poor barefoot entrepeneur class -
ten, eleven, and twleve year olds, picking their noses between
red lights in their hand-me-down shorts with dirty t-shirts or
old school uniforms that were used for nothing else now since
their parents couldn't afford to send them back to school. Kids
selling everything to wipe away the weariness of the Bangkok
driver. With their bamboo spear display racks they were here to
do a battle of commerce. While some were laden with small
wreaths of flowers tipped with jasmine that when laid on an
open churning air-conditioning vent a driver could close his
eyes and imagine an early spring morning after a rain, others
opted for sweet, syrupy, red or green liquid delights in plastic
baggies, pregnant with ice, that could soothe any belligerent
crying child's anger or prepackaged fruit ready to eat with a
six-inch bamboo toothpick for a fork that included a selection
of pineapple, watermelon, water chestnut, or mangoe. Take your    ***48
pick. Every red light was a potential Thai stop-and-shop            
drive-thru window.                                                     
    The light changed and then within a matter of minutes there 
was a small street, a soi, not giving Mike nearly enough time
to pocket his gummed up change - never mind start on his
freshly bought bag of pineapple slices - before Khun P. flicked
on his right turn signal. "Want some?" I shook my head. In a
third world foreign country - especially one with mostly squat
toilets - I was leary of eating anything that was made up of
ninety percent unboiled native water, though Ta had told us in
advance if we had any problems she'd get us the Thai cure all
- sticky rice. The way Mike was starting out he'd better hope
that she had put in a standing order.
     As we turned in, the white twelve-foot cinder-block walls
were like cliffs through a mountain pass, iced with glass
shards and curled with barbed wire. It was their housing
compound both sides of the road on the corner. Then came the
commanding blue-speared double door flanked by a security-guard
box with a plexiglass peephole only accessable from inside.
"Dah-dah dah, dah-dah dah," the car bellowed an old American
melody. The door creaked. It moved. A guard peaked out.
     "OOOOY, " Knun P. said impatiently. Finally two maids both
with long black hair wearing matching white t-shirts and
wrap-around-tied silk ankle-length skirts ran out barefoot to
help the guard in his safari-style beige uniform and combat
boots struggle to open the two massive doors bowing low to
avoid his disapproving stare as Khun P. glaringly drove by. I
just looked at Mike. This country was definitely feudal. If you
weren't starving on a farm or begging in the streets the most
you had to look forward to in a police state without a middle
class was to serve the rich. But according to Ta it got worse.
Even upper-class women got treated as second-class citizens
when it came to being compared to men and teachers got more
respect than doctors getting paid about the same wage since
with so many poor people there was no health insurance market
and there was a draft to soak up all the poor uneducated men
because there weren't enough jobs to go around but many of them
opted to become policemen instead to get respect even though
the pay was still low. That's why she said her country had such
a problem with corruption and graft and why there were always
so many coups with the police backing up the army against the
elite ruling class.                                              ***49
     But the first view of inside distracted my thoughts. With  
two sixty-foot palm trees as door stops on my left, I was      
reminded of being four years old again looking up at a stilted  
circus performer on the boardwalk of Coney Island. They
strattled a life size fern. Piano-finger palms lined the
driveway like sentinels - medieval castle guards - their trunks
a wallpaper of indian arrowheads patterned in knightly chain
mail. Behind them, in the corner was a giant Bohdi tree - not
just a tree - a matrix of roots. It's hundred-foot canopy was a
Baptist minister's revival-tent dream. Embedded in it's roots,
perched about waist high, stood a spirit house - a dollhouse
size replica of a traditional Thai temple. The servants who
promptly opened the front gate by 6AM to feed the passing
monks, judiciously placed a bowl of syrupy sweet sticky rice
and mango at the door of the temple to make sure the ghosts
blessed their day. The rats squatting in its empty rooms were
happy for breakfast in bed. Someday, I'll build my son a tree
house in those broad branches like the one I built in the
southern pines of Mobile, Alabama behind my house when I was
his age. Except this secret, safe, secure place that he can
call his own won't be made from scrap wood I stole from a
nearby development. This would be a real castle. It will be a
place he can be anyone he wants to be: commander of the world
in a hot air baloon, a top-gun fighter pilot taking off in the
fastest jet from a carrier in the Mediterranean Sea, a
spaceship captain travelling the universe fighting off galactic
enemies in other dimensions, or head of a club with all his
friends, password protected, no girls allowed.
     Stretched out between the trees like a doormat amidst
their almost encompassing jungle garden was a well groomed
clearing. Someday, I will roll around there with my daughter
who is still too young to walk. Me and my new camera, I'll try
to capture her every move. But even on all fours she is hard to
keep up with. Finally, after two rolls of film one picture
finally captures her soul. And years later, still in my wallet,
that dog-earred picture still makes me smile. Then it is a
badmittan court. Mom and dad have just come over to meet their
grand children for the first time. After spending a day of
sightseeing, the sun is going down, the trees fill the yard
with shade, dinner won't be ready for an hour and the contest
begins. Mom, dad and Kevin against me and Estee. She plays
forward I play back. Kevin teases her. She cries. I pep her up. ***50
She smashes Kevin with a pounding spike. We win. She runs into  
the house up the stairs and locks the door taunting Kevin from  
her open bedroom window. Then it's a first tee. My kids want to  
learn how to play golf. "Show us daddy. We know you know how.
We saw you take off with your golfing bag almost every
afternoon last summer." Then it's a mountain stream as I cast a
new fly rod prepping for some back-home backwoods trout
fishing. But Kevin is waiting with a pair of scissors for my
recoil. "Sorry daddy no line left."
     Someday.
     But someday is today's dreams. If I don't start imagining
them now I'll never be strong enough to not give up when our
situation starts to look hopeless as I'm sure it will soon. I
need to know what I am living for if I'm going to take the hurt
and refuse to give up. Now I know this isn't just about me
anymore. This is about those two little darlings yet to come
relying on me to stick it out. Don't worry. I won't let you
down. When mommy starts to buy you cars, condos, and high-price
overseas educations just remember daddy was the only one that
had to walk on water to get you here first. Now let me look
around and imagine you some more.
     Peeking through the beefy three-inch-diameter bamboos I
glimpsed the twenty-foot waterfall diving into pools of orange
Japanese carp, the pools exploring the bamboo forest in a
constellation of blooming blue lotus blossoms. And all my mom
back home can think of is getting a pool in the backyard by
next summer. And all I can think of is someday. Someday, I will
carve out a bird cage, ten feet across and fifteen feet high, a
love bird condo peeking out of that bamboo. It will be finished
by the time my daughter is born but it will take another two
years of wading through weekend markets and investigating pet
shops browsing, comparing, inspecting, bargaining, buying and
breeding until I have every imaginable color combination.
Raising birds is raising colors. My armani group of starters,
in time for my daughter's birthday will have a kaleidoscope
brood of chick color that I'll cup in my shirt and release in
her room. Mesmerized she points and laughs, "Daddy, bird?"
     Temporarily blinded by a glimmering light shining through
the bamboo forest I rubbed my eyes and saw that it had been the
reflection of the sun on the swimming pool that complimented a
two-storey, flat-roofed, four-bedroom brick house that was
still hardly visible nestled in the seclusion of its jungle      ***51
decor. As it's front porch looking out on a yard of lotus
ponds and running the length of the house came into view I saw
that it was proudly displaying a bunch of bobbing bamboo bird
cages. Khun P. collected exotic singing birds, his orchestra of
chorus, melodies to remind him of his youth. 
     Ta reached back and touched my knee, "I live there with my  
sister and two brothers." Someday, maybe we won't have to sneak  
a touch. Someday maybe we won't have to hide our love. But
someday is an elusive mistress, sometimes cruel, always
demanding. She has things to do. She has places to go. She has
to be sure of your love before she can decide whether or not to
let go. She'll test you. Can you stand the pain? Can you give
up your youth? Can you give it all up for love? Can you wait?
Can you give it all up for me? I need to be sure. So many
things can happen. I have so many ways I can go; so many
choices to make. You're cute. I love your big puppy-dog eyes. I
love the way you look at me. I love the way you make me feel.
But I don't know if love is enough to give you what you want or
if it's enough to give me what I need. If you can't wait, I'll
understand. I know I ask too much.
     But someday, you cheat, you lie. You know what the fortune
teller is going to say. You knew I'd wait. You knew I'd crash
my car. You knew I might die. You knew it would happen the day
before I was to come back. The day I was to get what I wanted.
Nine years I waited. My parents are crying. Don't let the
doctor put that sheet over my head. Speak to me now. Wake me
up. 
     And in cryptic words someday did just that:                      
I don't wanna lose you,
I don't wanna use you
Just to have somebody by my side
And I don't wanna hate you
I don't wanna take you
But I don't wanna be the one to cry
That don't really matter to anyone, anymore
But like a fool I keep losing my place
And I keep seeing you walk through that door
But there's a danger in loving somebody too much
And its sad when you know its your heart you can't trust
There's a reason why people don't stay where they are
Baby sometimes love just ain't enough
Now I could never change you                                   ***52
I don't wanna blame you
Baby you don't have to take the fall
Yes I may have hurt you
But I did not desert you
Maybe I just wanna have it all
It makes a sound like thunder                                     
It makes me feel like rain                                        
And like a fool who will never see the truth                   
I keep thinking something's gonna change
But there's a danger in loving somebody too much
And its sad when you know its your heart you can't trust
There's a reason why people don't stay where they are
Baby sometimes love just ain't enough
And there's no way home
When it's late at night and you're all alone
Are there things that you wanted to say
Do you feel me beside you in your bed
There beside you where I used to lay
And there's a danger in loving somebody too much
And it's sad when you know its your heart they can't touch.
There's a reason why people don't stay who they are
Cause baby sometimes love just ain't enough.
Baby sometimes love just ain't enough.
     In many ways someday was just a reflection of what was
already hidden away in Ta's heart but they were feelings she
would never admit to having even to herself. How could she?
To do so would risk my misinterpreting her candour as a
betrayal of trust.
     While I flirted with my imagination fanning my daydreams,
winding around and turning to the right, Ta's father pulled
into the cavernous underbelly of his house, a split-level
three storey with an off-center-inverted sloping roof of modern
architectual design. "Mike and TJ, you'll be staying here with
us. We have an extra bedroom upstairs next to ours that has all
been layed out for you with a private bathroom." Yeah, equipped
with a ball and chain, too, I bet.
     Behind his house another building, the kitchen, led to and
and buttressed an air conditioned kennel, a playground for
ninety-three pedigree pinkanees playing puppies, every one of
them Knun M.'s undeniable favorite. At least until, as Ta
explained, one of the servants didn't quite shut their gate
tight enough during what was supposed to be a very solemn       ***53
morning with praying monks. Back then I didn't understand all
those religious ceremonies. Just they'd import the monks and
all their friends would come over. And after the prayers
everyone would have a leisurely catered breakfast out on the
front lawn once they had each taken turns serving the monks.
     Nice, 'cept one time.
     Those puppies didn't just sniff around the kitchen when     
they discovered their front gate was left ajar. They were so
happy to get loose they stampeded around the front yard. And
being puppies they had no qualms about jumping up on old ladies
who needed a servant just to get them into and out of a chair.
It was a geriatric 9/11. It was either healer palms to the head   
as they fainted out of their seats or Jerry Lee Lewis playing
"Great Balls of Fire" hands as they tried not to wet
themselves.        
     Across the street from where we came in, behind the facing
matching cinder-block walls, were apartments for their seven
servants and Khun P.'s driver - a safe haven after the puppy
debacle - along with a sheltered hangar for Ta's brothers' nine
race cars - BMW 2002s, Porsche 911s, and Datson 240Zs - and a
fully equipped racing garage to keep them finely tuned for
midnight-street and weekend-track racing. On the other side of
the walls in back of Ta's house were a soccer field with one
lone French colonial style house - where the grandstands should
be - barely visible in the banana grove Khun P. had wisely had
planted to reduce the taxes on land that would otherwise have
been zoned as commercial real estate. He owned it all. It was
his country reserve on the edge of the city.
     It was the caretaker of that French colonial who opened
Khun P.'s door and stepped back bowing and waiting for his cue
to tend to our bags. That little old man, Ja, who in his army
style crewcut must have been almost fifty years old when we
first met was, even though the same height as me, a formidable
figure when he finally straightened up. Having been Thailand's
only Thai boxer to retire with five belts not once coming close
to ever being defeated enlisting afterwards to do a stint as a
martial arts instructor for the elite Thai army rangers before
becoming the bouncer at Khun P.'s Turkish bath he still looked
a sinew of hard-packed muscle. But when Khun P. reprimanded him
for some unknown reason he seemed a pitiful man bowing and then
cowering with folded hands over his head. I kept thinking,
stand up for yourself. Don't let him talk to you like that. I
had no idea a couple of years later he would be my Yoda, maybe    ***54
even have saved my life. But I couldn't speak Thai. I couldn't
know him yet. He couldn't yet teach me how to survive. I had a
lot to learn about being Thai. I had a lot to learn about the
virtue of humility.
     Humility. That was surely not a defining virtuous American
quality. Mike and I, after settling in, spent the rest of the
afternoon laughing and boasting and confusing the servants with   
our pantomine request list for food, water, and information while
Ta tended to her parents upstairs in some sort of secret
meeting until overcome with jet lag we gave into testing our
skill on their oversized pool table happy to bathe in the comfort
of the three surrounding air conditioners.                                                    
     "Mike you really suck at this game," I said.               
     "TJ when was the last time you knocked a ball in, twenty
minutes ago?" Mike retorted.
     "What did you expect look at how small these pockets are
and how long is this table? It's gotta be at least twelve
feet. I think the balls are smaller, too. And look at the ends
of these cue sticks. They're almost tapered down to a point. If
I had a choice I'd stick to American pool," I said looking
around to see if there was something else easier to do. But the
first floor of Ta's house wasn't much. It was just one big room
including a kitchen bar accented with Hennessy cognac bottles, a
service for twelve table and chairs that was the normal family
recluse for dinner, a couch and two chair living room set and
this big annoying pool table.
     "TJ check this out," Mike said pointing to the gold plaque
attached to the end of the table.
     "Khun P., 1972 Thailand snooker championship, first
place," I read, "So this is what a snooker table looks like. I
always thought you just snookered somebody. I never knew there
was an actual table."
     "You know what a billiard table is right? Or you figured
people just get billiarded, too," Mike said. But the way he said
it I wasn't sure if he was kidding or not.
     "Shit. It's the one without pockets. Everyone knows that.
Whose turn is it anyway?" I asked chalking up my cue.
     "Go for it. I've had enough of embarrassing myself," Mike
said as he sat down and lit a cigarette.
     I kept shooting and Mike kept smoking until there she was
walking down the stairs in a Versace low-cut black and silver
ankle-length dress with a slit up the thigh carrying a diamond-     ***55
studded black night purse and dangling three-inch-heal Bally
leather open-toed shoes. Neither Mike nor I said anything as
she slipped into her heals at the bottom of the stairs.
     "What?" she asked finally looking up.
     Mike and I just shrugged smiling at each other. Our first
night in Bangkok and she had to go out to dinner with Joey and
her parents. Let the games begin.
     "Maybe you guys would rather watch some TV? It didn't
sound from upstairs like you were having too much fun playing
snooker," she said putting her forefinger to her lip as if she
had just remembered something funny.
     "You have a TV?" Mike said.                                            
     "Yeah, it's in the lower pantry of my parents house. It
doesn't come on till 8PM. The government wants to make sure
school kids finish their homework first," she explained before
doing a half turn and asking me, "You like?"
     I nodded
     "I bought it in Hong Kong the last time I came home to
see mommy," she said. "Oh, we're going to have dinner at the
Oriental Hotel. Here, I wrote down the number for you incase
there are any problems."
     And as she handed me a piece of paper, "The Oriental?"
Mike asked suddenly excited.
     "Yeah, you should take Mike along. A redhead he met on the
plane is staying there for a couple of weeks. In the
immigration line she asked him to call her. She thinks he's
visiting royalty over here. She's got at least three inches on
Mike," I laughed.
     "Mike maybe next week we can all go together. We can go to
the barbecue down by the river. There you don't have to be
dressed up. I know you Mike, she must have long legs," she said
with a knowing look to which Mike responded with a nodding
smirk.
     "So about this tv, does it broadcast in English?" I asked
checking my watch.
     Without answering Ta picked up the phone and a minute
later a servant showed up, bowing and pushing off her flip
flops at the door before rushing over with an English
newspaper, the Bangkok Post, in one hand and an FM radio in the
other. Grabbing the newspaper, licking her finger, and finding
the right page Ta adjusted the radio and in one triumphant
thrust placed them both into my hands, "There. It's some Steve    ***56
McQueen movie." That was good timing. No sooner than she had
sent the servant away a car horn honked and she cautiously
looked around before stealing a Thai kiss with her nose on my
cheek, "I'll be back soon."
     With her perfume following her out the door, "One night in  
Bangkok...," Mike chimed as he stared at me and I looked out
the window to get a look at Joey's car.
     I heard the distinctive sound of the dual Monza exhaust      
system at the front gate. Joey earned a date. His tuxedo was
his 1974 BMW 2002tii silver sports coupe with black and red
racing stripes and a black interior. It was a special order
with factory-fabricated flared fenders. A must if he wanted
deep-dish Centerline mags sporting wide low-series racing
tires. Add in the high performance Alpina racing suspension and
that barely-legal street racer hugged the road with the
clearance of a push lawn mower. Street racing is serious
business in Bangkok. No wonder my Thailand trip got delayed by
two weeks. No wonder I got that big bank transfer.
"Little Bangkok" knew I lived only an hour away from Danbury 
the high-performance racing-parts capital on the east coast. My
duffel bag was full of racing cams. Joey and Ta's brothers
needed their moonlighting racer's edge. While Ta thought she
was asking a big favor of Joey having him drive all the way out
to the airport to get her through customs so she could talk to
me first and protect me from her father she had no idea he was
going to be there anyway to walk me through customs to protect
his investment. With the thirty-five percent duty I was saving
him from having to pay who was doing who a favor? He should be
taking me out to dinner. He could have told her. But why would
he? Sneaky Joey. First round goes to you.
     After we watched the two cars file out the front gate and
walked over to the other house, finding the tv was no problem.
Adjusting the radio to the English movie translation was no
problem. But explaining to the servants the word "beer", that
was a problem. It was 7:30PM; we had time. How hard could it
be? Mike and I slipped out the sliding door abutting the
kitchen. The gabbing servants sitting around a wooden table
fingering various leftovers while the cook stood there looking
on fishing for compliments with her two young kids clinging to
her for life, all went silent when they caught sight of us. I
motioned for Mike to give it a go. They looked at each other
and giggled when he said "beer". Then he tried to act like he    ***57
was taking a drink, patting his stomach, rolling his eyes and
staggering. More giggles. I motioned Mike to take out his
wallet and show some cash. Then this little urchin, he
couldn't have been more than thirteen, jumps up and starts
counting on his fingers, "one, two, three..." I showed four
and placed my hands like "big size". He grabbed a bill from
Mike on the run and everyone chanted, "Ohhh, bia."   
     "Bia" is not exactly like "beer". It's twice as strong.
Mixed with jet lag it morphes into five Long Island iced teas.
No wonder we hardly noticed when the movie "Bullet" with it's
green Mustang fastback racing-car scenes had ended. It wasn't
even 10PM. The tv went to static; the radio went back to Thai.
But little did we know we hadn't seen the main feature yet.
Rolling over with heavy eyelids and stretching out on the cold
tile floor we unexpectedly witnessed the Thai show just getting
started. In Thai they are called "cingjok". In English roughly
translated they are called "house lizards". Every house has
them. They are a sign of good luck. They eat mosquitos. And
when they want to mate they chirp. Just the females need more
than a token bug to submit. And the males do fight and compete
especially if there is only one female around. And like a World
War I dogfight it broke out across the ceiling and lasted a
very long time. Six males and one female were the starring
cast. It wasn't until after the female was so full of offerings
from her suitors that she couldn't get away. Three of them
dropped almost on top of us still biting at each others tails;
two gave up and slipped through a crack in the wall. Then the
climax, the final act. The sole survivor crept up on her from
behind while she mouthed something as if it was caught in her
teeth, freezing everytime she made a motion to look around.
Inch by inch, slower and slower he got closer until with one
last lunge he bit the back of her neck and pulled her into
submission. Throwing her hind leg over his tail like throwing a
saddle over a horse, he rode her. I imagined her closing her
eyes and bowing down as he released his grip. He was done. He
was gone.                                                            
     "Well that was entertaining. Lizard porn. Can't wait to
send postcards to all my friends and tell them how I spent my
first night in Bangkok," Mike said rolling over to get up. "TJ,
the maids went to bed lets go see if there's anything left to
eat in the kitchen."                                             ***58
     "You go look," I yawned. Just as I was getting
comfortable...
     "TJ, you are not going to believe this. They use pot for
spice," Mike said holding up and smelling what he had found.  
     "What?"
     "Seriously. This is definitely Thai stick. I don't have
any papers."
     "So, lets use a cigarette," I said pulling myself up to my
feet.
     "Definitely going to have to do this outside. Let's go out
by the waterfall," Mike suggested as I turned off the tv and
radio.
     "Do you think they are going to notice one is missing?" I
asked as I opened the door to head outside.
     "No way. There must be a pound of this stuff wrapped in
newspaper under the stove," Mike said as he started emptying a
couple of cigarettes one in each hand across the lawn.
     "Wait a minute. You went in there to find something to eat
and you're looking through crumbled up newspaper under the
stove? What's with you? You have a nose for this stuff or
what?" I said finding a place to sit under the spotlight near
the waterfall outside of the view of the guard post.
     "Peter Pub told me about it," Mike said grinding out the
stalks and blowing into the top of the cigarette to open the
hole.
     "Mike be sure to take off the filter," I said starting to
fill up a dubey of my own. "Peter Pub? What's he know about
anything that goes on over here?"
     "He's friends with all the Thai students that come to
drink in the campus pub. They're always bragging how their
cooks use Thai stick to add as a garnish in their soups and as
a spice in different dishes. You know how hard it is to get
Thai stick. 'Oh it's nothing in our country'. Guess their cooks
are all alike. They all keep it wrapped up in newspaper under
the stove."
     "That's wild," I said passing Mike the first lit joint.
     "And get this. It used to be legal here until the Vietnam
War broke out and GI's came around the bars trying to buy it.
Now all those poor cooks with favorite recipes...," I lost Mike
in a long toke. I lit another one.
     After a while after we had finished four joints and half
the Thai stick, "Bro I don't mean to bust your balls on the     ***59
first day we got here. But it's my ass on the line too and I
know there are some things you haven't told me about that
happened today. Khun P. and Joey. What's the story?" Mike asked
staring off in to space.                                       
     "Mike you're my best friend. So I won't BS you. Just
understand this. Every day is a life with Ta. Every new day I
get I treat it as my last. I don't need to live with her for
forty years to have a life with her. I just live it day to day.
Shit if Khun M. didn't say something at graduation I thought
we were already done. So every new day now is a bonus. But I'm
not going to give up if I think there's a chance. If it gets
too hot and you want to leave I'll understand. It's not your
fight. But damned you should get your ass out to some bars. I
can't wait to hear the stories. I need something to look
forward to listening to in the morning."
     "What are you going to do about her younger brothers you
know they don't like you and are here for the summer?" Mike
asked dipping his hand in the water under the belly of a
sleeping carp.
     "Oh you didn't hear about this. Khun M. wants me to teach
the youngest brother Tik better English every morning for an
hour. Can't wait," I said watching the swirl of orange vibrate
the water. "So how much money did you bring to party down?"
     "After graduation and my ticket on Lufthansa...about fifty
bucks. Then my mom gave me some... My dad gave me some... My
aunt and a couple of uncles gave me some...I sold my car piece
of shit that is was...about a thousand bucks. You?" he asked
still tickling the carp's belly.
     "I sold a few old bottles....I sold a few coins...mowed
some lawns...framed houses for a week...gave my car to my
brother...about six hundred after the ticket. What you can do
in a couple of weeks with a college education, heh?" I asked
feeling the sand in my eyes.
     "Yeah but you graduated in January and worked. Didn't you
save any of that money?" Mike asked with a yawn.
     "Sure. I used it to pay for part of my second semester
room and board at the house. My dad wanted to give me a sense
of financial responsibility or some shit and picked up the rest
of the tab when he knew I only had a couple of weeks to make
some money for this trip," I said echoing his yawn.                                                
     While Mike was still perfecting his technique of how to
grap a sleeping carp, a car sounded it's code for the guard to   ***60
open the door. Before he could we were already through the back
door and up into bed. As the laughter of Thai walked up the
stairs, my eyes closed heavy, I was still humming "One night in
Bangkok..."                                                      

                                                                 *    (pg61 minus 4lines)
     Getting to sleep that first night aided by a mellow high,
heavy eyelids, and sandy eyes turned out to be not quite as
easy as I had expected. Not even the low hum of the sub-zero
air conditioner inviting me to snuggle up under the covers for
a New-England-style-winter sugar-plum snooze was able to
massage me into a dream. Maybe it was because of the jet lag
and the twelve-hour time difference with New York or the sudden
rainstorm that burst down with such deafening force I felt like
I was sleeping in a pup tent caught up in a monsoon or the
frogs that came out to play in the bayou of fresh mud puddles
after the rain. They certainly were a throttle chorus with
their chanting the raspy sound of a thousand metal files being
rubbed together. First one would start, then the rest would
chime in. The gnawing, belching, hawking, spitting and spewing
mocking the calm would last for ten minutes then stop for two.
Then, just when I thought they were done, they started up again
turning the darkness into an all night echoing burping contest.
Complete with double encores, guest appearances, repeat
performances, and standing ovations - earmuffing my pillows - I
missed the predawn grand finale.
     Night slipping into morning with our bedroom being right
above the kitchen, the servants ironing/washing area, and the
dog kennel, I felt like a homeless bum trying to pass out in a
New York City alley during morning rush hour. The noise still
hadn't stopped. It was just a commotion of a more domestic
variety. The dog kennel yelped. The kitchen sizzled. The cook
barked orders. Servants gossiped and giggled. Cleavers chopped.
Newspapers rustled. Silverware rattled. Rubber bands snapped.
Knives diced. A refrigerator popped. A washing machine hummed.
Dishes chipped. Khun P.'s driver caughed. Pots and pans
clattered. Spatulas stirred. And finally, abandoning all hope
of sleeping in, so did I.
     Leaning over I saw Mike was already up. Leaning back I
found my watch, 8:13AM. Okay, bathroom. That can't be the
toilet not that squat thing. It looks like a torture device for
elephant thighs. I'm not even sure how they use it. And I'm      ***61
sure not planning to ask anyone for first-hand instructions.
Please don't tell me that hose coming out of the wall is the
shower. I've got to hold that in one hand...How am I supposed
to take a one-handed shower? Damned thing is going to be
snaking around the room before I get done. Just wait till I
have to wash my hair. That will really be a mess. This is
turning out to be worse of a nightmare than boy scout camp.
The wide open, just out of reach, bathroom windows amplified
the busy downstairs activity. The servants were now inches away
and I was taking a bath in the public fountain of the town
square. After spraying myself into the corner so as not to
destroy the last bit of toilet paper that was left, I dried
off, yawned into my jeans and tee shirt, walked downstairs,
slipped on my Pumas at the front door, and headed out into the
parking lot.
     Everyone was there as Ta adjusted the seat of her new
powder-blue 5-speed Alpha Romeo sport coupe with a tan leather
interior that Khun P. had preordered as a homecoming gift to
celebrate her first job at the bank. But since he had gotten
blindsided by Khun M.'s generous invitation he backtracked
deciding that since Mike and I were here she could put off
starting work there and teach mathematics parttime at Mahidol
University for the summer instead. After all, being a professor
was a position demanding respect. Great, she was the C student.
I was the A student. Now besides keeping Khun M. happy by
tutoring in English her youngest son sixteen-year-old Tik who
was coming home next week for the summer I would be preparing
Ta's lesson plans as well. After flying half way around the
world to get here I really would have liked the option to plan
for myself what I wanted to do. I came here to be with Ta and
have fun not to be bogged down in servitude.
     "TJ, I have to teach from 8AM till noon, would you like to
study Thai at AUA? We can ride together every morning and I can
drop you off. Then on the way back I can pick you up from there
and we have the rest of the day free," Ta said rolling down the
window as she stepped out of the car.
     "Sure, but what about Mike?" I asked. "And what about your
brother? Your mom still wants me to tutor him in English."
     "Don't worry about my brother. You can do that anytime.
Besides, he'll probably be doing his best to avoid the extra
work," she said as her forefinger went to her lip, her thumb
went to her chin, her head lowered to her chest, and her eyes
looked up at mine. "Oh, and you don't have to worry about Mike. ***62
He is going to be very busy the next few months."                          
     I looked at Mike and all he could do was smirk like a
Cheshire cat and nod his head. "Charlie, what's going on?"                               
     Ta cupped her hand to whisper in my ear, "Mike's going to
be the star in a Thai movie."                                                         
     "No, seriously."
     "Really," she said. "A producer has been after mommy for
months to finance his next movie and when he found out you and
Mike were coming he rewrote one of his scripts and mommy likes
it. She said she'd finance the movie if Mike could have the
lead roll."
     "So, what's this movie about?" I asked looking over at
Mike trying to imagine him in a tuxedo and a mustache holding a
gun in one hand and two exotic girls in his arms.
     "You're not going to like it," she said fidgeting as she
looked away nervously.
     "Try me."
     "It's about a foreign guy who meets a Thai girl overseas
and follows her back to Thailand. In the end he loses her to a
Thai guy and at the wedding he gets drunk, has one last good
time with everyone and then goes back home to his country all
alone," she rushed through quickly before biting her lower lip
in anticipation not knowing how I was going to react.
     "Are you screwing with me?" I asked starting to feel much
the same as I did when I first saw Joey trying to flirt with
her at the airport - trembling knees, knotting stomach,
stinging eyes, and refluxing throat. All at once I didn't want
to be here anymore. If I wasn't annoyed enough to make it one
night in Bangkok just because I didn't want to give Khun P. the
satisfaction of winning I felt like heading for the front gate,
finding some cigarettes, buying some food, hopping on one of
those three-wheel taxis and disappearing into the city on my
own. How could Ta not stand up for me and let her parents think
they could treat my feelings as a joke.
     "No. I would have told you about it but..."
     "Then you must not care too much about me. Don't you see
what your mother is doing? Now it's not just your father, now
she is laughing at me," Khun M. looked over smiling at me. I
was in no mood to smile back. "You don't mind me risking
everything while you give up nothing. I'm thinking of heading
home. You can play your games with someone else."
     "TJ don't," she pleaded a tint of tears in her eyes as she    ***63
frantically looked from me to Khun M. and back again. I pulled
away to head back upstairs and find my wallet. But they must
have realised they had both gone too far because a minute later
she grabbed my arm. Except it wasn't Ta who pulled me back it
was Khun M. giggling and pinching my cheek like she did the day
before, greeting us at the airport. She nodded once like it was
okay, I win. I passed the test. From that day on she always
tried to protect me. From that day on Khun P. considered me
more than just a threat. It didn't mean that the movie would be
cancelled, the funds had already been committed to that. But Ta
in a moment of weakness when she thought I was going to leave
had let her guard down hinting to her parents how important I
was to her. Now they both suspected our secret.
     Before Khun M. eased into the car with Khun P. to take
Mike to their office where he'd meet the producer and stand for
the tailor, she pulled Ta aside. "You should think about taking
TJ to your tailor to get him some proper clothes if he wants to
stay here with us."
     "Charlie, what did your mom say?" I asked as they drove
out the front gate.
     "She wants me to take you to get some regular city clothes
so noone looks down on you thinking you are some hippy drug-
addict tourist wandering around living down on Gaysorn Road,"
she said as I followed her back into the house where she'd left
her bag. "And since where we're going I can't take the car
because there's nowhere to park, you get your first Bangkok
wish. We have to take a tuk-tuk, the three-wheel motorcycle
with the surfboard roof you like so much. But there is
something I need you to help me with in the closet first before
we go."
     "Sure, but...," before I could finish she had dragged me
into the dark and ambushed me with the longest, deepest kiss
since we had last been alone together.
     "Do you love me?" she asked licking her lips and lowering
her chin so that when she looked up her eyes were even more
alluring.
     "Sure, but..."
     "Then trust me. I don't care about my father. Mommy likes
you. Give them time to get to know you like I do," she said
tilting her head to get just the right effect.
     "Your father hates me. Your brothers want to kill me..."
     "Can you trust me?"                                          ***64
     Looking into those big black eyes with dried tears of     
running mascara, I surrendered as she knew I would, "Okay.
Just make sure there aren't going to be any movie sequels."
     "Hairy, I just found out about what mommy was planning to
do the afternoon you and Mike arrived. That's what we were
talking about upstairs for so long while you and Mike were
playing snooker. I wanted to talk to you about it but it was
such a rush to get ready for dinner and then it was so late
when we got back. There was no time. I'm sorry," she said
diving in the deep end for another kiss.
     "You can't keep pulling these shock maneuvers on me. You
know I can't hide things the way you do. Plus I'm already a
nervous wreck with the way your father looks at me; with trying
to say the right thing to your mom; with anticipating what's
going to happen when your brothers get home; with not being
sure what to make of Joey; and all these customs - don't point
your foot at or touch anyone's head, don't wear shoes in the
house, only waay equals or elders never servants or common
people - I'm going crazy and I just got here," I said diving in
for a kiss of my own.
     "Okay, enough. We can't...I'm going to go fix my makeup
and have the guard call us a tuk-tuk. Five minutes?" she asked
straightening her shirt and peering around the corner before
sliding out to pick up the phone.
     There was a reason other than convenience that Ta had the
guard go flag a tuk-tuk rather than our going out and flagging
one down on our own. There was a reason the guard had the
driver park inside. There was a reason he made sure the cabby
saw him write down his rig ID. This was June 1974 but this was
a country with stricter protocol than Victoria England. Still
steeped in old world superstitions, customs, and traditions
everything had to done in just the right way in order to save
face. The Vietnam War was all but over with R&R troops, expats,
and Air Force personnel from bases in Khon Khaen - northern
Thailand - still flocking to the Bangkok nightlife in droves.
Any Farang - foreigner - seen with a Thai girl projected the
stereotype connotation of a GI and a whore. This is why Khun M.
wanted me to rethink my attire. This is why the servants
brought our driver water and fruit while he waited. This is why
after checking him out they insisted on a day rate. They had to
make sure he knew this clientele was different from his normal
fare and he alone would be held responsible for getting them     ***65
home safely. Everyone satisfied; finally, we could go.          
     Reving up his cart, he was surprised to see who he would
be escorting around town. He asked Ta if I could speak Thai.
She smiled and said not yet. He saluted. I waayed back with
folded hands. Ta smacked me on the shoulder. I wasn't supposed
to do that to common people. He smiled, "Okay boss."             
     It was Saturday so traffic was a bit lighter than usual
especially since school was out and most businesses were
closed. But after getting treated to a refreshing snack and a
healthy retainer our driver saw it as an opportunity to take
to the streets with abandonment navigating a course like every
move meant precious seconds shaved off the clock. A stop light
meant never mind even slowing down. If he wasn't driving up the
sidewalk he was in oncoming traffic playing chicken barely
cutting back in at the last possible moment. I was laughing. I
thought that was the way all tuk-tuks got around. But the way
Ta was squeezing my hand white and scolded him when we finally
arrived I guess he must of been showing off a bit. 
     The tailor was in Pratuu Naam, an intersection of
seductive contraband. Our driver motioned he could see some of
his friends' rigs parked under the bridge. He'd wait for us
there in the shade he said after he dropped us off on the curb.
Tarps stretched out from over the first-floor open-air
entrances of the shops - bulging with merchandise out onto the
sidewalk - and were tied to the four-foot railing bordering the
curb to block out the sun; we were walking through a tent city.
Here you could buy anything. Five dollar Levis fanned in the
breeze. Converse high-top basketball sneakers were dangling
from a pregnant girl's finger tips for a twenty. Barbecued pork
on rice with cucumbers was just a quarter. I heard the offer in
Thai, English, Spanish, and French. I could smell the choking
traffic exhaust as it stung my eyes and mingled with the
competing aromas of the food vendors. The hustle of language
hummed in my ears. The crowd was a wave and we were caught in
the current. Without a breeze, the sun salted my lips with the
taste of sweat as I bounced, weaved, and sidestepped feeling
all around me the pulse of the city. Until...A beggar who
couldn't walk crawled down the sidewalk on his elbows splitting
the crowd like an exposed boulder diverting water in the middle
of a fast moving stream. His knees bulging with sores he had no
choice but to drag them behind. With dirty swollen deformed
feet so infected they were purple he didn't miss not having any ***66
shoes. He just crawled along in his black torn rags pushing a    
bowl with his chin hoping for pennies. People just ignored him
and walked by making a special effort to not get too close. I
couldn't. I leaned down. He was maybe twenty-five and smelled
like the street. I didn't have any Thai money. He looked up at
me his lips quivering his hands shaking, did I have something
for his cup? I pulled out a Marlboro. His eyes lit up. I lit it
and put it in his chapped lips. I took the rest of the pack and
my lighter and put them in his near-empty cup. Ta leaned down
next to me never having before witnessed my sense of
compassion, and moved, gave him the equivalent of what was a
fifty. We looked at each other and smiled. She explained, "This
is 'tam boon'. It's how we make merit."
     "Yeah, but that much money. Aren't you worried someone is
going to steal it from him before he gets to the corner?" I
asked. This was a side of her that I hadn't seen in the states.
Sure she spent money like it wasn't important treating my
friends or offering to buy what caught my eye. But this was
different. I knew she followed Buddhism; this was the first
time I saw how she practised it.
     "That would be a 'baap', a sin for someone else. Don't
worry. See he's already tucked the bills away in his shirt,"
she said as she started to work her way through the crowd. "And
now that he has enough money to eat comfortably for a couple of
months he won't have to drag himself down the street every day.
His wounds will have a chance to heal. Maybe he'll even get off
the street and let the monks at a temple take care of him. He
can afford it now."
     "Yeah, unless he's a drug addict and decides to shoot it
all up. 'Goodbye cruel world'. Bam one last blastoff to catch
the tail of Haley's Comet and spirit around the universe until
he gets born again. Isn't that how it works; what you believe
in, reincarnation?  I mean for a guy like that he must figure
this life was a penance for something he did in the past and
the next life can only get better," Ta turned around sharply as
I said it. Here we go, politics and religion...
     "Harry, what he does is his choice. What I did, what you
did, that was our choice. But...but...if he chooses to do good
with the opportunity given him, it reflects on us favorably in
the next life tenfold. Understand?" she asked touching my hand
as she spoke.
     "And what if we gave him the means to take his own life    ***67
then what? In my religion I go to hell and in your religion you   
return as a fruit fly? How's that supposed to work?" I asked
enjoying learning about this new side of her.
     "It all has to do with you...you... you... and your
intentions," she said with a poking finger. "If your intentions
were honorable you're not responsible for some crazy thing he
does on his own."
     "Do you do that for every beggar you see?" I asked trying
to keep up with her as she suddenly turned to walk away. "I
mean it would be the law of averages. The more beggars you give
enough money to in order to change their lives the better are
your chances of coming back with a prosperous next life. Must
of been a beggar that originally came up with that idea."
     "It was Buddha...And hardly, just for the very unfortunate
ones and that time to make merit for you. You stopped and gave
him the only thing of value you had. That meant more than my
sharing a bit of what I have so much of," she said as she
slowed down and pointed to a shop with a turbaned bearded
Indian who had to be six-five and three hundred pounds - armed
with a hickory cane - guarding the front door as if it was the
entrance to a diamond exchange rather than that of an
insignificant tailor shop.   
     "Miss Ta, so happy to see you again. What can I do for you
today?" walking into the shop this little gay mouse who came
out to greet us asked. Turbaned, bearded, and Indian, too, this
skinny little man looked nothing like his younger brother
outside whose buttons ached to be let go from his shirt. In his
tailor-made black bell bottoms with slit side pockets and
tight-fitting patterned long-sleeve dress shirt, loosely
buttoned to frame a gold chain and Italian emblem peaking out
from his chest, and complimentary crocodile boots, I had to
admit he looked sharp.
     "This is my boyfriend. He needs a makeover. Can you help
him?" she asked before turning around to look at fabric.
     He stepped back leaning this way and that all the time      
cocking his head as if he were a photographer searching for the
best angle. Cupping his left hand under his right elbow and
with his right forefinger and thumb massaging either side of
his nose he continued to look me up and down. "Can you turn
around please?"
     I did.
     "Has Miss Ta ever told you that you have cute buns?" he     ***68
defly asked.                                                     
     I looked at Ta with stern eyes. She covered her mouth and
turned away laughing. She knew I wasn't used to gays,
especially one trying to give me a compliment. "She never told
me they were cute but I guess since she likes to grab them all
the time..."
     "Hairy!"
     "Well, Mr..."
     "TJ," I said.
     "Well, Mr. TJ What would you like?" he asked opening up a
hand and walking over to show off his stock as if he was asking
me which door I wanted on 'The Price is Right'.
     "I like the way you dress," I said suddenly catching
myself wondering if now he was going to think I was flirting
with him. "Ask Ta she knows about these things." And she did.
Having once bought me a v-neck sweater with all manner of
crisscrossing stripes in all grades of pink to red that she saw
and liked while shopping in Boston she was pleased to see me
wearing it the next day on my way back to campus. I just hadn't
expected that the heat in the seminar would be turned up so
high that hidden under my parka I would eventually be forced
into showcasing it. Then when not one, not two, but three girls
complimented me after class on what I thought had been a sissy
look, I never again doubted Ta's eye for style.
     Ta told him five pants and ten shirts and proceeded to
show him the material she had picked out as he nodded and asked
to measure me. Looking up from my crotch he really got started
"Which way sir?  Left or right?"
     "Depends on where she is sitting," I said looking out the
display window at the passing crowd.
     "Not him?" he asked pursing his lips and tilting his head
with raised eyebrows in a hopeful glance.
     "If I was of that persuasion. And you were him. I'd be the
luckiest guy in the world," I teased as I rolled my eyes at Ta
while she was shaking her head and biting her lips at my play
acting.
     "Ta, I love your new boyfriend!" he said jumping up and
clapping. Okay that was enough. Ta get me out of here...
     Back out on the street, Ta reached into her Louis Vitton
bag. "I have something for you to go along with your new look."
But before she showed me what it was she pulled her hand back
out empty. "Oh, I have to tell you this first. I've been going    ***69
to Hong Kong and Macau every weekend with mommy and daddy since   
I got back collecting name-brand bags that Joey helped me sneak
through customs without paying duty. I'm going to open a shop
in one of the vacant rooms next to my father's office since
noone is using them for anything except to store customer
towels and bubble bath. And I bought some books and equipment
to make candles, too. I thought that since you did art and      
sculpture in school you could help me make candle designs to
give it an exclusive look. Nobody else sells them here but I
know where to buy wax and scent so we can make our own." Even
talking about making candles she seemed excited.
     "Do your math, teach your brother English, learn Thai,      
make candles, dress like a pimp...I can do all that," I said.
Besides running and meditating to clear my head, I sculptured
and did a lot of artsy-craftsy things in college as a sort of
math indulgence to aid in figuring out proofs. Engrossed in
chiseling knee-high logs and scribbling charcoal sketches I'd
solved - via daydreams - a lot of them.
     Momentarily forgetting where we were she hugged me before
digging again into her bag this time producing and placing a
red box in my hand. She looked at me. She looked at the box.
She looked at me. "Well come on...What are you waiting for?
Open it."
     I slowly opened the double-door cushioned top. On a bed of
white satin was a jeweled time-setter maroon-faced Cartier
watch embedded in a silver wristband encrusted with pinhead
gold screws.
     "I thought about you every minute that we were apart and
wondered if you would really come. I worried you might have
changed your mind and I might never see you again. Maybe you'd
found a new girl on the beach who was prettier than I or my
father might have scared you off and you didn't want to tell
me," she said as I thumbed it around my hand before trying it
on. "Say something."
     "I'm here. Doesn't that say it all?" I asked as I squeezed
her hand and she looked down blushing. "So where to next? It
had better not be to visit any more of your gay friends. I
don't think I can handle more than one a day."
     "Don't worry, next stop is old city shopping," she said
racing on ahead.
     Our driver was busy playing Thai chess when we finally
found him. But the way he jumped up and hopped into his cab     ***70
when he saw us I could tell he was happy for the excuse to get
away from his chess-master creditors before he lost any more of
his retainer. He and Ta had quite the spirited conversation
about his misfortune at the hands of a street hustler as we
sped through the city.
     "What's he saying now?" I asked as he pointed at something
and seemed to be talking to me.
     "He wants to know if you like horse racing. That's the
Royal Turf Club horse racing stadium off to our left," she said
holding onto the rig's grip as her hair blew freely in the
breeze and she squinted with all the flying dust.
     "What's that moated gated forest on the right?" I asked as
I nodded to the driver grabbing a stablizing grip of my own.
     "That's the king's residence. It even has it's own private
airport hidden away somewhere in there," she said suddenly
gripping my thigh.
     "Right across from the racetrack, now isn't that a
coincidence," I said as we pulled up to a traffic light. "Is
that a temple overlooking the racetrack on the corner?"
     "That's the Marble Temple. When we have more time I'll
take you for a tour. It's made of white carrana marble. King
Rama V built it around the turn of the century. It has
stained-glass windows just like a church, a gold Buddha statue
as tall as the ceiling, and a cloistered courtyard collection
of life-size bronze Buddha images," she said as the the light
changed and we sped up to third gear before downshifting to
take a left onto a six-lane boulavard that could have been a
red carpet to what we saw next.
     "What's that white domed building set back on the right?
It looks like a replica of the capitol building in DC," I said
admiring its wide expanse.
     "Oh, that's the parliament building. Daddy is thinking of
running for a senate seat so he can work there. I didn't
mention it but after we left Pratuu Naam and drove over the
railroad tracks we passed his office on the way here. It was
just a mile before the racetrack," she said.
     "Whoa, what is that? It looks like an iceberg with a
gold-domed hat...no it's an eskimo lighthouse...no it's the
all-seeing eye on the back of a dollar bill. Look at the way
the sun is reflecting off the top of it like a beacon," I said
looking down to the end of the two-mile boulevard.
     "Hairy...that's the Gold Mount. If you ever get a chance  ***71
to climb it count the steps," she said before translating
something to the driver that got him nodding, turning around,
looking at me, and laughing.
     "Why? Is there supposed to be some religious significance.
Some number of Buddhist precepts? Some number of rules novice
monks have to obey? Some number of good deeds you have to do
before you die?" my mind was working I was going to figure it
out.
     "Hairy...you're unbelievable. No, no, no, and no. It's
just a joke tourist guides use to get their clientele thinking.
It's nothing," she said joking in Thai with the driver again.
     "So have you ever been up there? Do you know how many
steps there are?" I asked mimicking the driver's smile.
     "Of course," she said looking at her nails.
     "So how many are there?" I asked impatiently.
     "Why don't you climb it and find out for yourself?" she
said looking out the window trying to be stubborn.
     "Bitch if you don't tell me I'm not going to ask you to
marry me," I said wondering where that came from.
     "Marry?" she asked the driver to pull over. "You want to
marry me?"
     "Not yet. How many steps?"
     "You really want to marry with all the problems you see
here?"
     "No, I came here to tour Thailand and risk my health for
nothing," I said sarcastically.
     "318."
     "Is that a yes?"
     "And you get an eagle's eye view of Bangkok...and there
are Buddha relics from India. And before you ask, all those
bullet holes in the base are from the student riots. And I
don't think you need another 318 questions to figure out my
answer. And I am not 'a' bitch. I'm 'your' bitch..."
     "Onward George," I said tapping our driver on the
shoulder. He looked at Ta. She nodded.
     I wouldn't even have noticed it except we had to go around
a rotary with a spiralling monument for a hub. It was set back
between the buildings looking like a pigeon perch more than
anything else. But standing twenty-five meters high and painted
fire-engine red with ornate trimming it must of been an artifact
of historical significance. "What is that thing in the park
with all the pigeons flying around it?"                          ***72
     "That's the giant swing. Years ago they used it to see who
could swing the highest for a bag of coins. It's actually a
Hindu symbol representing the earth in the epic myth in which
Uma Devi makes a bet with Shiva that using a swinging serpant
suspended between two Putsa trees over a river he can strike
Shiva and make him fall down. But Shiva stands in its path on
one leg with the other crossed and when struck doesn't fall and
so the earth is saved. It's an old fairy tale we learned as
kids," she explained.
      Finally our driver stopped and Ta pushed me to get out.
While I waited patiently leaning on what looked like an
uncarved twelve-foot teak totem pole, she paid him, checked her
watch, and told him where we'd meet up. Satisfied, he nodded,
gave me the thumbs up, and drove away.
     "Know what that is?" she asked.
     "An abandoned telephone pole?" I asked wiping the grit off
my palm.
     "That's the center of old Bangkok," she said. "It's been
there for over two hundred years."
     "And what's that across the street? It looks like a walled
castle," I said. "Actually with all those buildings covered in
reflective colored glass it looks like some sort of
Disneyland."
     "That's Wat Phraw Gaew. It contains the emerald Buddha,
which is actually a two feet tall statue made out of green
jasper that gets adorned three times a year in a different
seasonal costume. During the summer it wears a crown and
jewelry. During the winter it wears a gold shawl. And during
the rainy season it wears a gilt robe and headdress. They're
all elaborate ceremonies that the king himself performs. The
walls around the inside of the temple are a painted mural story
of 178 scenes depicting the entire Ramakien, the Thai national
epic. It's like a fairy tale with monkey kings and dragon
spirits. Behind that is Wat Pho housing a gold-plated reclining
Buddha that at forty-six meters long and fifteen meters high is
the largest in Thailand. It's designed to illustrate the
passing of the Buddha into nirvana. The feet and the eyes are
engraved with mother-of-pearl decoration, and the feet also
show the 108 auspicious characteristics of the true Buddha.
Around the grounds of the temple are more than one thousand
Buddha images, most from the ruins of the former capitals
Ayuthaya and Sukhothai," she said.                                     ***73
     "Wow. You're good. What's that pyramid thing on the other
side of the river?" I asked.
     "That's Wat Arun, also known as the temple of dawn. It's
a bit over one hundred meters high and is decorated with bits
of porcelain which had previously been used as ballast by boats
coming to Bangkok from China. For a brief period it was host to
the emerald Buddha. Can I stop with the guided tour now,
please?" she begged.
     "Sure. What's next?" I asked.
     "Look to your right dummy. It's the weekend market. It's
the reason we're here," she said. The king's field, the site of
military extravagence, royal cremations, political rallies, and
a curious ceremony similar to Ground Hog Day where they paraded
a water buffalo with much fanfare offering it rice or water to
determine whether the coming year was going to bring a good
harvest or draught was normally on weekends not occupied with
one of those days of all out splendor but hosted a smorgasbord
of Thai commerce instead with a maze of wall-to-wall booths
overflowing onto the sidewalks offering upcountry delicacies
and handmade novelties.
     We weren't supposed to touch but Ta instinctively grabbed
my hand anyway as we crossed the buzy street and dodged the
oncoming traffic to reach the market. No sooner than mounting    
the curb I felt a tug in the opposite direction. As I looked up
from the cold, wrinkled, black-nailed hand with weathered spots
of age that had snagged me visions of a Grimm's Fairy Tales
witch pulling me into the black forest stirred a haunted
reaction. Dressed in black rags from head to toe, she almost
sent me into shock with her warted nose, hunched back, and
toothless grin. Old and ugly and still refusing to let go, she
whispered such that I had to lean in closer to hear her
cinnamom-tinted English. "You farang you want nice souvenir to
take home?" she asked reaching into a dusty burlap sack and
pulling out a hairy black spider the size of a soccer ball.
Falling on my butt as she released her grip, I was relieved
when she started laughing and pulled the aggressive Jurassic
specimen back on a nylon string. Thinking of Mike in bed I
asked her how much as Ta kept pulling me the other way. She
told me I couldn't just buy her pet I had to earn him. I asked
how was I supposed to do that. But Ta pulled harder, I never
got an answer.
     Ta pulled on me a lot that day. I was like a kid in the       ***74
FAO Schwarz toy store on Fifth Avenue in New York City at
Christmas time. Everything to me was new. Everything I had to
smell. Everything I had to touch. Everyone I watched and some
things I wanted to taste. But in the swirling dust and baking
sun, Ta after loading me up with bags of unnamed bounty said it
was time to head to the river she'd had enough. We had one more
stop to make - our most important stop of the day.
     The twenty-foot longboat with its 200 horse-power engine
that Ta had picked out just for us was more heart-throbbing a
glide than any tuk-tuk ride when we got to sit up front. As
the engine torqued we were three feet in the air and twenty
minutes later refreshed with water mist we docked in Chinatown
 - a fifteen minute tuk-tuk jaunt home - a five minute walk to
her fortune teller's house. But he wasn't your garden-variety
palm reader. He was instead a statistician basing everything on
the stars, on dates, and on historical data. And Ta had my
exact time and date of birth - 12:13PM, November 9th, 1952 -
that she had gotten from my mom when she came down for
Thanksgiving. She needed to be sure as if her superstitious
proclivities had anything to do with reality. Of course they
didn't but if she believed in them wholeheatedly they might as
well have. Was my future with her more in the hands of a
stranger now than anything I could do or say? Would his counsel
infect her with more doubt or foster her with new motivation? I
was apprehensive. He was old school. He gave advice to her
parents. He would want to stay in their good graces. If they
couldn't get through to her maybe he could. Personally, I just
think that fortune tellers are busy bodies that just want to
know family secrets of the rich and famous because they don't
have lives of their own but walking up from the river I felt my
heart sink. This was more and more starting to feel like a bad
idea.
     This guy can't be too smart I thought as we walked down
alleys over planks of raw sewage. I was glad I hadn't eaten
lunch. I would have lost it. It was a small stilted house with
rows of shoes lined up at the front door. A teenage girl with
long black hair in a peace-symbol gray teeshirt down to her
knees greeted us on the lower landing with glasses of iced
water. Ta took off her shoes and was invited in. I went to
untie my Pumas but I bare-chested guy smoking a hand-rolled
cigarette tapped me on the shoulder, shook his head, and waved
that I couldn't follow. Ta didn't question. She had to show     ***75
respect. She told me to take a walk. She wouldn't be long.     
     Ta had given the fortune teller my specs a week ago. He
told her he hadn't invited me in because he didn't want death   
in his house telling her I would be faithful until I died in a
fatal car accident after I turned thirty-two, days before I was
finally going to be reunited with her. She walked out in shock
telling me through her tears what he had said. I didn't take
off my shoes. I marched up the stairs pushing away the guard's
stiff arm as I head-butted him over the balcony into the sewage
they called a front yard and walked into the house with
everybody screaming and pulled the shocked fiftyish fortune
teller up by his larynx. The neighbors rushed in to grab me.
Thais aren't big. They couldn't keep me off him. "If you ever
talk to my girlfriend again I'm coming back here with an axe
and putting your house in the sewage where it belongs with your
foul mouth. I'm Irish Catholic and I not only believe in God, I
trust him. Ta is going to be my wife and none of your bullshit
or anyone elses is going to keep me from making it so. Having a
life with her. Having kids with her. Where do your loyalties
lie anyway?"
     "You are going to die," he said squirming and coughing as
I let him go.
     "Someday we all die but if you don't shut up you'll be
burying your family very soon and then I'll be back to piss on
your grave. If you're so smart how come you live in this dump?
You're a fraud. Don't make me come back here again," I said
staring at all of them  before I walked out. Superstition.
First time I think I ever scared Ta. Her father, her mother,
her brothers, now her fortune teller?
    "Home?" I asked walking down the steps and putting my arm
around Ta.
    "Home," she said. "But we have to go to Chavala after we
drop off all the food. Our tuk-tuk should be waiting for us
where we came up from the river. You didn't hurt that old man
did you? Hairy you can't do that around here. People will kill
you if they think you made them lose face."
     "Didn't you hear? I'm golden till I turn thirty-two," I
said.
     "Hairy this is no joke. I'm serious," she said looking at
the bruise on my forehead.
     "Just tell me you're not buying into all this
superstitious crap. You know someone tells you something then   ***76
if you start to believe it you make it come true all on your   
own. All the education you had in the states I thought you    
would have outgrown all of this," I said.                     
     "I'll try," she said as she motioned to our tuk-tuk
waiting on the corner.                                           

                                                                *   (pg77 minus 5 lines)
     Ta leaned forward and blew the secret house code on the
tuk-tuk's horn signalling the servants to come rushing out as
he throttled with a roaring echo into Khun P.'s parking spot. I
nodded that she should give him a big tip while the servants
unloaded everything so we could get out. She barked something
at them as she headed to and crawled into her car. I followed
and crawled in the other side next to her. She buckled her
seatbelt. I buckled mine. She turned the key, turned on the
air, and slipped her favorite Focus tape into the cassete
before throwing her bag in the back seat. She grabbed the
five-speed gear shift making sure it was still in neutral.
It wasn't the old slotted type she was used to but she smiled
when my blood-tinged knuckles covered hers like they had so
many times before when we went anywhere in her Pentara. After
bowing her head and turning to me with a smile she took her
other hand off the steering wheel and squinted, stroking them
lightly. There was something new here. I don't think either one
of us knew exactly what it was but there seemed to be a new
found closeness. "You ready?" was all she asked.
     "By your side always," I said nodding towards the gate.
"Come on woman. Time's a wasting...Let's go." But after just a
day and a half I should have known I was in way over my head.
In the beginning it was so easy. Or almost. It was culture
shock enough trying to get that first date. But that was
college everything there in one way or the other was possible.
Now I was up against a culture of hard-core male-dominated
tradition and for once being naive seemed to be a good thing.
Any sensible person would have known what I wanted was near
impossible or suicide. I just knew I couldn't give up. I knew
if I couldn't have her, the rest of my life would be no better
than an oxygen-starved, second-hand, hand-me-down,
never-can-you-compare-to-her vacumn. She wasn't yet willing to
go for broke. I was. From what she had done to me, I had no
choice. I pushed it to the next level as soon as I got here
especially when I knew she hadn't told her parents about us     ***77
like she said she would. I had nothing to lose. I'd already     
told everyone close in my life I was going for it no matter
what. It was my life to dare. I couldn't live by anyone else's
standards. One way or the other I was going to pull Ta out of
this muck. That's when I knew what I was doing was dangerous.
But I didn't care. If she really loved me she wouldn't let me
push it too far. And if she didn't I needed to know. But I
knew. For both of us I knew. Always playing it safe, she
couldn't face up to the reality of being herself yet. She
wanted to. She had tasted what it was like to be in love and
unconditionally happy. Now she had to see how strong my love
was. Not that I said I loved her. But was it strong enough to
convince her that I'd never give up.
     She could have been our tuk-tuk driver's mentor the way
she punished the gears and made them scream betweem lights. If
she was going to drive fast and crazy she only trusted herself
behind the wheel. I pushed down the visor not because the sun
burnt my eyes, I didn't want to see what she had in store up
ahead. Lighting a cigarette like it might be my last I listened
to the tape and the protesting horns as she made her illegal
moves. But my mind was somewhere else. I'm still playing with a
spoiled child who doesn't want to or is afraid to grow up. Why
did it take me until getting here that I finally started to
understand that simple fact. I can't approach her. She would
just deny it. Not because it isn't true, she just doesn't
realize it. This is going to be more work than I expected. Why
did I fall in love with this girl? Now I'm hooked. And what
happens if I can't get her back to the states and she's stuck
here? Will she get so reimmersed in her culture that I won't
know her anymore? She's never had time for many Thai friends.
What happens once she does? Will there be peer pressure? Will I
just be an outlet for cute Eurasian kids if it somehow all
works out? Will I end up being used for that or maybe a brain
drain? Her family thinks about money like air and she's always
competing with her brothers. I don't know what to think about
these people if I have to leave her here for a long time and
fight years for acceptance. Maybe I should just be happy for
what we had and let her go now. No that would hurt too much.
Forever probably. I'm too young for that much hurt and
sacrifice. I'm so confused. I think too much.
     Chavala opened early at noon on weekends instead of its     ***78
usual weekdays at four so the hundred-car-capacity parking         
lot was full to double parking by the time we slipped past the
yellow and black banners over Ta's new storefront and through
the underpass into the reception area. Most buildings in the
swampy sands of the capital never rose above two stories unless
they were a bank, a hotel, an insurance company or a government
building since deep-earth foundations were prohibitively
expensive. Here we just passed under six stories, six-hundred
rooms, and eight-hundred massage girls.
     Pulling up toward the near entrance, crowds of men some
Thai, some Chinese, some Japanese, and a few Europeons - all
excited and shouting with laughter - were walking through the
sliding glass doors after sucking in their guts and adjusting
up their pants. I could see the busy open-air kitchen up ahead
lined with girls in navy-blue uniforms reviewing order pads,
tending to serving trays, and waiting for completed dishes. It
was only when the ocassional brought-back-to-life
slightly-drunk customer tried to flirt with them that -
innocently and naively - they huddled up trying to ignore him
not knowing what to expect or how to react. They in their
Buster Brown black saddle-strap shoes and white ankle socks
weren't like their more experienced older sisters upstairs who
after work were into high heels and high fashion. Didn't these
men know, as I could see the minute I got there, that these
girls were out of bounds? How would they know? Look at where
they worked. How could they understand where each girl had come
from and why? How could they know that an uncle of an aunt of a
best friend knew someone acquainted with Khun M. who after
hearing about a father suffering in the hospital, a family
starving from draught, or a mother of six passing away had
arranged for the only daughter old enough to quit school to
come down to make money for her family following days of
waiting for an audience to ask for Khun M.'s help? How could
anyone know the extent of their caring, both Khun M.'s and the
daughter's. One a chance to 'tam boom', squeeze a cheek, and
give back. The other a chance to care for herself, help her
family, and ease their pain. Beautiful, alone, and young coming
here to work was scary enough. Barely sixteen...the only men
she had ever kissed were her father and younger brothers when
 - with tears in her eyes over a final hug - they said their
goodbyes. Khun M. never saw the rest of her challenges. Always
arriving early and leaving late, she only saw what transpired   ***79
between the car and the office.                                 
     But it was the additional commotion I could just make out   
from three cars back of a bag-lady trying to drive a motorized
cart full of plastic, paper, aluminum cans and anything else
she could salvage to sell, out the front entrance, that was
causing such a stir and backing up the queue of cars waiting to
get in. With two young boys sitting on top of her load it must
have been a language barrier rather than senility that was
hindering the valets efforts to direct her on which way to go.
The wide open borders were an invitation to Burmese, Laotian,
and Cambodian illegal immigrants. Ta just sighed. The valets
didn't recognize her car since it was brand new. It was only
when one of them walked by with a bag of barbecued pork and
sticky rice looking for place to have a quiet lunch that she got
noticed. Yelling out to his coworkers, he let them know who was
waiting in line.
     Forgetting the bag-lady and the two cars in front of us,
the rest of the valets ran up to our car to be of service. If
he hadn't opened my door, bowed low, grabbed my wrist, and
massaged my arm till it was almost numb as he guided me out of
the car with a low-pitched laugh, I probably wouldn't have
noticed him. It was Ja who I had met the day before. Continuing
to bow repeatedly as he led me by the arm, he pushed people
aside so I could get to the sliding doors while other valets in
their light-blue waist-cut short-sleeve dress shirts and
navy-blue pants bent low opening Ta's door, glad to follow her
instructions as they offered to carry her bag and empty her
trunk. Confident that she was in good hands, he led me up to
the one-way mirrors where he left me in the care of a notepad
toting man in a white dress shirt like I was a preferred
customer. Curious, I took a look through the shoulder-high
peephole at the rows of girls in a sea of white with little red
numbered buttons on their lapels. Most were watching tv. Some
were reading newspapers. Some were knitting. Others were doing
their nails or adjusting their makeup. Cute ones. Skinny ones.
Fat ones. Young and old, pretty or not, they had all been well
trained via years of practise and had a steady clientele to
back it up.
     Ta's nails bit into my arm. "This is not for you," she
said with a menacing giggle of faked concern having finally
caught up with me through the building crowd.
     Walking down the hall with her, I saw between the showroom   ***80
and the front counter a turnstyle of revolving men meeting            
accomodating women who had been waiting for them in their white  
medical smocks and flip flops holding plastic baskets filled
with towels and tubes of Badedas bubble bath. A Turkish bath,
take off your clothes and let a masseuse give you a perfuming
bath and soothing massage. It never lasted just an hour.
Sometimes it took up a whole afternoon. The counter itself was
a fury of navy-blue uniforms taking money, handing back change,
checking schedules for customers, taking phone-call
reservations, processing receipts, and penciling in
bookkeeping. As Ta lingered there, I could make out up ahead
under the subdued coffee shop lighting tables filled with
customers waiting for their special number to get free and have
time for them. With coffee, beer, fresh-squeezed orange juice,
fried rice, or a full-course meal to choose from - after all it
was Saturday - they were willing to wait for what they had been
looking forward to all week.  
     After a few words with the head receptionist, Ta led me
through that same revolving gateway, past the line of waiting
gossiping girls, past the elevator packed with more of them
plus their smiling customers, and opened the door into her
father's office. He was sitting in his mahogany-colored
high-backed leather chair behind a teakwood desk reading the
Thai Rak newspaper as bowing office workers waited patiently to
update him on current affairs. Khun M. was relaxing on one of
the wall-to-wall matching leather couches with some friends. By
the look on her face they were telling a sob story and asking
to borrow money. Mike was engrossed in his new script off in a
corner. While Ta went over to listen in on her mom I went over
to check in with him and find out what I missed.
     "My don't we smell pretty. Did you go up and get a massage
already?" I asked sniffing at his ear after I sat down and put
my arm around his shoulders.
     "Two hours," he said not bothering to look up.
     "Think I need one, too?" I asked raising my arm up over my
head. 
     "TJ," he protested suddenly dropping the script and losing
his concentration. I just leaned back laughing as Ta walked
over with a bit of news.
     "Daddy is taking us all out for a special dinner tonight
with some of his and mommy's friends. It won't be for another
few hours. Hairy would you like to get a massage first? I can    ***81
pick out a girl and you can get it right here in the office.
It'll relax you after your long flight. I'm going to get one,  
too," she said momentarily glancing back at Khun M.              
     "Thanks, but I'll pass. I'm too ticklish." Ta wasn't. Her
massage girl looked like she could have been a sumo wrestler.
As she started to fall asleep under her sumo's spell, I watched 
her eyes close like watching a sunset. Mike kept reading his    
script. Khun M. kept talking with her friends. Khun Pa was busy
on the phone. Nobody noticed me get up and walk outside. Not
just outside the office. Outside the sliding doors.
     Standing just out of the way of incoming and outgoing foot
traffic, I lit up a Marlboro and noticed the long valet bench
in the shade. The afternoon was hot. The humidity was wet. Half
the twenty-five valets were sitting there trying to stay out of
the sun with baggy-style iced drinks to keep them cool while
the rest ran back and forth retrieving and parking some of the
one-hundred odd cars in the parking lot. That's when I saw Ja
sitting there with his roster notebook. He had the command. He
knew where every car was. He was also the bouncer and alert to
any wily customers giving the girls in blue uniforms a hard
time in the kitchen line. Attentive as he was, I caught his eye
and extended my arm. He gave someone else the book. I couldn't
speak Thai. He couldn't speak English. He squacked at the first
two valets to move over and motioned for me to come sit. I sat
and nodded my head. His bobbed vigorously. He yelled for a
stool to sit on. He drew lines up and down my arm with the
point of his index finger. His uncut nail tickled. The valets
started to gather around as he worked my arm muscles. Ja's
secrets, could he teach someone who couldn't understand Thai? I
had a choice of eight hundred upstairs...Why did I come back to
find him?
    Thing is he wasn't giving me just a massage. With every
kneading motion preceded by a joint lock he was methodically
teaching me how to do Akido. In two hours he had me flipping
valets all over the parking lot. Then I'd give in and let them
do it to me. Hand signals and gestures I never knew could be so
much fun. Suddenly a receptionist ran outside from behind the
front desk. Get Khun P.'s car... Get Ta's car... Get the van.
They'd be leaving in five minutes. Ja rushed to sit me down
next to him. His boss wasn't supposed to see the fun we were
having. Ta ran out looking for me. I waved, waayed to Ja, and
followed her and Mike to her car.                                ***82
     "What did I tell you about doing that to servants?" Ta
asked readjusting her seat.                                      
     "I know but you also said I had to show respect to          
teachers. Ja was teaching me how to do Akido," I retorted.
     "Akido? What's that?" she asked.
     "It's a kind of martial art they use to flip people or put
them into submission. It's really cool. It's actually a way to  
give a massage, too," I explained.
     "Well just be careful. I don't want you to get carried
away and hurt yourself," she said as I rolled my eyes and she
headed out of the parking lot.
     We were going to Wong's Chinese Restaurant, one of
Khun P.'s favorites, located on a pier jutting out into the
Chao Phaya River. From the parking lot it was a long walk down
a pebbled stepped walkway lit by red Chinese lanterns. While
the pier served as the kitchen with docking boats dropping off
their fresh catch to be displayed in a huge eye-level aquarium,
the actual restaurant was a cutout lawn in the jungle with
waterfalls and a carp-stocked stream providing the background
melodies. It felt like a moonlight picnic except that Khun P.'s
reservation for twenty-two meant it would be anything but
casual and we would have to be on our best behavior.
     After an appetiser of shark fin soup with turtle eggs,
came another one of dancing shrimp - raw peeled shrimp in a
garlic sauce. Temporarily satisfied, Khun P. couldn't wait
any longer calling Mike to come over and sit next to him.
Opening the zipper on his handbag, he thumbed the bills inside.
"Mike $1,000. It's all yours if you streak this restaurant. The
owner is my friend. I promise there will be no repurcussions."
     Mike put his head in his hands shaking back and forth,
"Khun P. I'm not a streaker. Really, it wasn't me in the
picture Ta sent you."
     I was sucking on a spicey sour shrimp thinking come on
Mike go for it when Ta grabbed and shook my arm. "Is he going
to do it?"
     "It will be quick. It will be sudden. I know he will no
matter what bs he gives your father," choking and gasping for
water, I said. Ta patted me on the back and pointed at the
rice. Seems living here I even have to learn a new way to eat,
never mind a new way to act.
     Then came the main dish. A fish. It was almost two feet
long. It had just been dipped in hot oil up to within an inch
of it's gills. This was the house specialty. The gills rowed. ***83
The eyes rolled. The mouth gulped for breath. It was like      
winning a carnival ping-pong toss for a goldfish and looking   
at it eye-to-eye through a glass bubble.
    Then the piercing screams, the accusing shouts, the         
overturning tables, the crashing dinnerware, the turning
heads, the defending stances, and the shocking looks...it all
happened in just what seemed like seconds. Initially bouncing
from table to table like a pinball during a bonus round, a
naked intruder hooding a Wong's Restaurant plastic takeout bag
must have gotten his mask temporarily turned around. But
regaining his composure as he leaned over the table of a
shocked couple he was off again making one last stop at our
table stealing a slice of papaya right out of Khun P.'s hand
before disappearing into the jungle underbrush with his hands
held high causing me to squint because I could tell that
widely exposed exit must have definitely hurt.
     Fifteen minutes later while four or five waiters with
flashlights and sticks were still beating around where the
intruder had disappeared, Mike came out from the bathroom near
the kitchen rubbing his stomach. He kept rubbing it while he
looked around wondering what had just happened. "Sorry, must
have been the shrimp. What did I miss?" he asked as he eyed the
other guests who were themselves still looking around not quite
settled from what they had just witnessed. Even two policeman
who had just arrived seemed confused as they interviewed the
staff wondering how they were going to fill out their report.
After all, noone back at the station would ever believe what
had just happened. This was an event without precedent. 
     As Mike sat down he could see that Khun P.'s face was all
red. He had taken off his glasses and was wiping his eyes with
his hankerchief. It had been a long time since he had laughed
so hard and seeing Mike he motioned him closer. He filled a
glass with ice and his special brand of Hennessy Cognac and
pushed it in front of Mike as he put his arm around him. "That
must have been quite an exhausting experience for you. I'm sure
this will help relax you after that tortuous escape through the
underbrush. My God, Mike. I never thought you would really take
me up on my offer."
     "What? I haven't got the slightest idea of what you are
talking about. I was in the bathroom that's all. I think I must
of eaten something that didn't agree with me," he said as
Khun P. just kept staring at him.                                   ***84                    
     "So, you're not the streaker?" Khun P. asked putting on    
his glasses again.
     "I told you. I had a stomach ache. I was in the bathroom,"
Mike protested loud enough so everyone else could hear him       
proclaim his innocence.
     "I'm relieved to hear that," Khun P. said. "After all with
the mask he was wearing it could have been anyone. There         
certainly are a lot of crazy people in my country. Now, at
least, I don't have to spend any money on our little proposed
arrangement."
     Mike glanced around before reaching in under his shirt.
With an index and middle finger pointing out the eye holes of a
Wong's Restaurant plastic takeout bag, like manipulating a
child's handheld puppet, he tried to ventriluqist "I knew you
would try to get away with saying that."
     But Khun P. could never have imagined the bang he was
going to get for his buck. The next morning just past 8AM he
barged into our room his roaring laugh waking us both up. It
seems there had been a few Thai Rak newspaper reporters with
cameras enjoying Wong's fish specialty the other night while we
were there. With quick reflexes and an adjustable zoom one of
them had caught Mike in action. One shot long and appropriately
blurred. One shot from the shoulders up. One shot up close from
behind as he entered the jungle. Covering the entire front page
of the morning edition, Mike's escapade was a breakfast expose
to seven million readers. Three pictures. A bag over the head.
Another bag full in hand. The headline read:
     "Wong's new takeout service really takes off."
                                                               *
3. Point Blank

This damned place.
That damned gate.
These damned people.
Those damned assumptions.
     Mike lucked out. He missed all the unexpected action this
morning. With his movie shooting schedule he's rarely here
anyway. But he came home yesterday at the crack of dawn, the
first time in weeks, tripping over the monks gathering alms at
the front gate as he staggered in. 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 and
stained, his blue silk shirt with a pattern of white circles
torn and misbuttoned, his hair tousled and spiked, his
two-day-old beard matted with an unidentifiable goo, and his
left eye strangely drooping, the monks were sure he needed
their help.
     Mike raised his right hand and begged them off as he
stumbled backwards through the front gate with a young teenage
monk grabbing his left elbow to steady him before he fell. Mike
just smirked and after unceremoniously tapping him on the
shoulder, remembered and waayed him with folded hands. Reaching
into his pocket for his wallet, he wanted to give the monks
something for their trouble. But they shook their heads, waved
their hands, and pointed him towards the house as the servants
looked on not daring to approach him. Not exactly the idyllic
ascot with smoking jacket and pipe image of an aspiring actor.
     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 once they
got over the shock. Instead, he 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 smelt 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 from the pile on the counter.                    
     If he hadn't eaten the whole thing, he wouldn't have been  ***86 
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 run.
     Maybe.                                                        
     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 to 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 fifty 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 punishing my
right leg numb as I tried desperately to get a right foothold.
Bending my knees and putting all my weight on my unfeeling
right, I scratched and clawed until I cleared over the top.
With my knees and elbows bent, my open palms hit the asphalt
hard but like a spring I recoiled at a sprinter's gait.
     No time to think.
     No time to stop.
     Just time to run.                                            ***87
     One minute...the house of a brother's girlfriend went by, 
still no sound of a car starting or a gate opening. Two        
minutes... I looked back over my shoulder, noone was following
me. Another minute... there were no more houses on the soi,
just recently cleared land and ahead swampy underbrush matting
a jungle of mangoe trees. Lots of places to hide but it was
still a dead-end street. At least if there was a standoff I
wouldn't starve with so much ripened fruit to eat.
     The underbrush fought back as I ran out of road, dodging
trees and sweeping away branches until the three inches of mud
slowed me down and I finally gave up. Leaning against a mangoe
tree by now caughing and spitting, I noticed it was tall with
firm branches extending out for a good view of where I'd just
come from. A cozy loft to keep an eye on any activity coming
out of the house and get away from the leaches, lizards,
snakes, rats, ants, and spiders I knew were lurking about. It
took a bit of a jump to reach the first branch but I managed
after a few tries to pull myself up out of sight.
     My heart and mind were racing. I had to think. I had to
relax. I had never before been deprived of air conditioning
during a rainy-season morning. They were hot, humid, and sunny
before the afternoon rains. My clothes were soaked with sweat.
My mouth was dry. The streaming sweat stung my eyes. Having run
through the underbrush, my whole body had a poison-ivy itch. I
noticed my right arm and leg were bleeding. Beads of blood were
racing past the beads of sweat from the bite of the speared
gate. My palms were pitted with little pebbles and glass,
souvenirs from the road. My right knee was numb having used it
as a battering ram. A sudden breeze sent a chill through my wet
clothes reminding me of my great effort and narrow escape. 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 with a hug 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 come face-to-face 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 it resisted with the
muscle tension of a coiled spring when I tried to uncurl it        ***88
from where it had wrapped snugly around my arm. Luckily it
didn't bite and wasn't poisonous but who knows what else they
have around here.   
     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 restaurants. No more rush to drop the bags in  
the room. Grab an overnight bag. Grab a taxi. Race to the pier.
Grab the forty 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 getting to the airport minutes
before last call with only seconds for duty free. 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.
had given me a thousand to spend. And just like every trip, she
refused on the way home to take any money back.
     I'll miss watching her friend Khun Paa, Ta's adopted aunt,    
as she tried to outdo Khun M.'s fedish for collecting airline
silverware. A hobby that had already filled up a number of
suitcases under Khun M.'s bed. Coming back through Bangkok
airport customs the 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, her collection
prompted a customs officer stare of disbelief as he shook his
head and waved her through.  
     Then that one weekend, Ta couldn't go to Hong Kong because
she had papers to correct. Khun P. wasn't pleased knowing she
would need my help and he would have to leave us at home alone
together. Except we took advantage of the quality time and went
off on a trip of our own down to his summer retreat in Hua       ***89
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 nomadic wind surfers. Hua Hin's
main street from the railroad depot - a stop between Bangkok
and Malaysia - to its virgin beach was a quiet hideaway with
its one modern hotel, local shops, and guest houses with their
own bar and pool table. Three miles south out of town was a
two-hundred-step stone staircase cut out of a cliff leading up
from the water's edge to a Buddhist temple overlooking the gulf
and overrun with monkeys. You would think living in a monastary
would have domesticated and encouraged them to be friendly and
playful but failure to bring them bananas and peanuts was an
invitation to get bombarded with feces and exposed to obscene
anal gestures. Imagining what it would be like if Bangkok
beggars ever picked up those bad habits, planning to see them
before we left and knowing their reputation, I brought plenty
of both. 
     You could see the monkey temble as the beach leading to it
curved into the gulf from Khun P.'s house four miles to the
north. His cottage sat on stilts, boasted six bedrooms, and
rested fifty feet from the water and just a half mile from the
king's summer palace. Its front yard of sand and palm trees was
otherwise bare except for a stone picnik table built atop a
four-foot seawall extending the length of the property, just
out of reach of high-tide ocean spray but in earshot of a
kitchen annex.
     And squatters.                                             
     Khun P. let two families of fishermen live on the land in
exchange for watching over the house year-round. With two
bamboo huts, two boats, fishing tackle, and a motorcycle cart
they carved out a simple life. And after sleeping on the
picknik table under a barage of shooting stars that first
night, I was up before dawn watching them mend their nets and
taking in how they lived. One family was a mother and son. She
was old, heavy, and gray. Her husband had died from cancer
twelve years ago. Kop was her only son. She looked over sixty.
He looked almost forty. She was hunched over tending a fire.
She couldn't walk except with his help and the aid of a cane.
She was the reason Kop never married. His mom was all he cared
about.
     She spied me squatting there thumbing the nets and never
having met a foreigner before, waved me over with a toothless    ***90
smile framed by shocking-red lips from eating bezel nut.        
Pointing at her pot sitting on the sand over a wood flame in
front of her hut, she clutched her hand like spooning something
to her mouth inviting me to have a taste. I sat in the cold
morning sand next to her while she kept sticking out her tongue
over an imaginary spoon until I grabbed the wooden ladle,
stirred it around, and scooped up a generous portion of her
mystery stew. As her eyes followed mine I squinted and
hesitated until just before I took a sip she started licking
her fingers and shaking her head frantically. I thought to warn
me that it was hot. But it wasn't just hot, hot. It was spicy
hot. Seeing the crunched up and distorted look on my face, she
clapped her hands and bounced on her buns while I coughed
uncontrolably. She was obviously treating herself to a little
entertainment at my expense.
     Everybody laughed as I got up still holding my nose,
coughing, gagging, and spitting in the sand. Then a kid poked
me in the back with a stick, laughed, and ran away. With me
being a couple of inches taller than his father compared to him
coming up to my elbow and with me having brown hair accented by
a blonde sun streak compared to his black locks and with me
having big green eyes compared to his slanted black ones and
with me having milky-white skin compared to his
chocolate-stained complexion and with me speaking an inaudible
language compared to his perfect Thai and with me wearing
Converse hightops compared to his flip flops it's no wonder in
his young wild imagination he thought me some creature that
snuck up in the night from out of the deep. Not wanting to let
him down I chased him around on all fours making screeching
sounds until I made the mistake of cornering him in his
mother's hut. Now she could screech... I had inadvertently
stepped on her prayer mat while she was experiencing a moment
of fervent devotion saying her morning prayers. In her silk
patterned scarf and Muslim garb she looked like a fashion
conscious Sister Agnes from first grade. I couldn't speak Thai
and in post-traumatic shock from nine years of catholic school,
I folded my hands and blurted out in English, "I'm sorry." I
started to back out of the hut hoping I wouldn't go to hell and
the kid poked me in the back again. 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    ***91
grabbed them and motioned for me to stop. Satisfied, 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 while the young renegade chased
his baby sister around them trying to pull her hair. I ran up
to help, growling and grabbing the little girl into my arms as
I put her up, over, and into a boat. His sister temporarily out
of reach, ignoring her tongue wagging and taunting victory
dance, the boy sat down in the sand to watch his father and
uncle work. They were a team. Takes two boats to work a net. The
boats in the water, Kop rapped his chest. "Kop" he said proudly.
     I rapped mine, "TJ" in response.
     Pointing to his friend, I watched as Kop walked over and
said something to him. Wiping off his brow, he walked over
tanned the color of an old worn copper penny, black hair to his
shoulders, maybe a couple of years younger than Kop but they
looked almost like twins - short, skinny, and both wearing only
khaki shorts. He touched my shoulder and stared intensely into
my curious green eyes with his slanted black ones tilting his
head as if I reminded him of someone. Finally, he took a deep
breath and leaned in close enough to kiss smelling of summer
sweat and boat grease. "Daiii", he exaggerated as if teaching a
child.                                           
     "Daiii", I said lowering my head hoping to get it right.                                                  
     He jumped up and down, laughing and clapping, and pointed
to his son who still sitting and sulking with his stick on the
beach looked about twelve and seemed a miniature version of his
father, "Farsssttt," he said encouragingly.
     "Farsssttt," I tried grabbing and putting him over the bow
with his sister as he laughed and screamed.                                                
     He clapped and pointed again, this time to his daughter
who couldn't have been more than ten. Just wearing shorts she
looked like a pot-bellied oversized doll with long black unkept
hair down to her waist leaning over the side of the boat
yelling who knows what back at her older brother, "Kaffeee," he
said.
     "Kaffeee," I tried feeling more confident.
     That was all the introduction they needed. Dai and Kop
started a tug-of-war figuring to have a foreigner along for the
ride could be fun. But with Farst and Kafe rooting, too, Kop
was at a disadvantage and eventually gave into their screaming
pleas. That was fine with me I liked the kids. And with neither   ***92
the sun nor Ta up yet I had time to kill. Dai finally got his
wife to join the kids in the boat and after giving it one more   
long push into the surf - by this time up to his neck spitting
and grabbing the side - with a trampoline bounce he landed feet   
first on the deck. The three-horse-power engine looked no
bigger than a pressure cooking egg-beater as Dai leaned it back
into the water and yanked the starter cord. The engine coughed,
spat, smoked, and started, gargling us out into the gulf barely
strong enough to lift the bow of our eighteen-foot oversized
rowboat. Kop's engine echoed our asthmatic start as the two      
boats puttered along like racing go-carts. Half an hour later
still shivering with goose bumps in the early morning breeze, I
could see the lights of Pattaya across the gulf, like looking
across the Long Island Sound from Connecticut and seeing the
lights of New York.                                                                  
     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 probably be staying in town 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 purple and yellow blankets of
sunrise somewhere over Pattaya as Kop steered his boat up
alongside Dai's, squeezing the lapping waves until they
overflowed into the 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 squawking, echoing from the zigzag
darting and kamakazi diving of seagulls, stitching together an
imaginary seascape tapestry as they followed and eyed our
buckets of fresh-cut bait, interrupted the hum of the engines
and the lap of the waves. That was until Kop called out,
pointing back to the way we came. I could make out the
shoreline and the monkey temple easily enough but only when we
hit the crest of a wave could I find Ta's house. Behind I saw
the mountains of grey. Kop waved his hand and shook his head.
We'd be back in plenty of time before the afternoon rains.
     The boats became a flurry of activity. Farst baited and
tied off the drop lines slipping the notched bamboo slats into ***93
the predrilled slots to prop up the lines and give the first
sign of a strike. Kafe shovelled ice in anticipation of the      
catch. Dai's Muslim wife in the back of the boat had a fire      
going in a clay stove heating a pot of rice porridge waiting
for some of the day's catch to finish making breakfast. Kop and
Dai were laying out a huge net in folds between the boats
getting ready to drift apart as its weight slowly sunk it to
the bottom. I took off my shirt as I looked down in the water
at the seaweed floating by and the colored prisms dancing on
the waves. It looked like a good day to work on my tan.
     Farst let out a yell. Two of his drop lines went taut with
a zip at the same time snapping the slats as the lines started
zig-zagging back and forth almost in sync with each other. The
lines went so taut they squeezed the beads of water off the
sweating line. 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 six-inch serrated diving knife
strapped to his calf with his left. In one clean swoop he had
the eighteen-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 even before Kafe could pick it up. With
the dexterity of 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.
Having broke the water once, it looked almost four feet long.  
Farst grabbed the line with me. He looked up at me excited and
worried shaking his head that the line wasn't strong enough.
Finally, his father made his way over with a long pole pointing
it out to me with covered eyes before looking back towards
shore hushing his lips and shaking his head. I understood. What
he was about to do was illegal and I couldn't tell anyone. The
grouper broke the surface one more time and with a loud bang it
rolled over dead.                                
     After mooring it securely alonside, Dai grabbed my arm as
he, his wife, Farst, and Kafe all went to their knees with
folded hands bowing to me and mumbling a prayer. Seems they
thought I had brought them good luck. But a second later Kop
yelled out. His boat was drifting towards us from fifty feet
away. His five drop lines were pulling all at the same time.    ***94
Farst had just enough time to get a nod from his father before
he was in the water. Almost just as quickly as he dove in, he   
got a hand up onto Kop's boat. We were in a school. For          
forty-five minutes we tied off, gafted, stabbed, and rebaited     
and then they were gone.                                         
     Twenty-seven red snappers and a hundred pound grouper
later - me with nylon-burnt hands and drenched with sweat - it
was time to pull up the net. Dai and I, 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. Every time we met a weight it was one meter and time to
make a fold into the boat. We pulled. They pulled. The net drew
us together. Soon the boats would meet and each would have its
share 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
as she sliced and diced to fill up the pot with the best meat.
Finally, the boats touched with the overlapping net holding
them together. Kop looked at me nodding his head, obviously
tired and still sweating with 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 by now
and Dai's wife gave him a generous bowl full sprinkled with an
assortment of green and brown herbs. He gulped it down like it
was a cold beer. Smiling back at me with a porridge mustache,
he pointed back the way we came and poked his wrist like he was
pointing at his watch. That only led to Dai's wife scolding
him. I guess she figured if all those tourists on the mainland
can get breakfast in bed, at least after all my help, I should
be able to share with them before we headed back.      
      But Kop was right for both our sakes. None of us in the    *  (line 11 is page 95)
early-morning excitement had thought it through before
moonlighting out into the predawn ocean breeze. It had been a
spur of the moment thing. We were just supposed to be gone a
couple of hours; drop the net, catch breakfast, and maybe have
a little something extra to sell in the market. Who knew,
besides the grouper, we'd run into a school of snapper and have
the time of our lives for another couple of hours. Now it was
midmorning and Ta would be awake. Not knowing where I had gone,
by now, she would have grown quite concerned about what had
become of me. And being the landlord's daughter, she had Kop         ***95
quite apprehensive about getting a stern reprimand.
     Except we both had to contend with another strong-willed   
woman first. Dai's wife thought it bad manners if she didn't
offer me breakfast and I in the same fashion thought it bad
manners if I didn't accept a bowl. But as opposed to Kop's
gluttonal excellence I needed time for mine to cool. Throwing
up his hands at the delay, Kop went about unlashing the grouper
and transferring it to his boat. Looking back as I blew on the
bowl, he started loading the snapper and refolding the net.
Then as I started to sip, Kafe came over and sat next to me.
Seeing me put the bowl down empty, she opened my palms up and
looking at the nylon-line burns, scooped out chunks of ice and
placed them in my hands before folding up my fingers tightly
around them. She looked up smiling with playful eyes as she
pressed my fingers tight and the water dripped out the sides.
I'd caught a grouper and now her daddy could pay for her and
her brother's tuition, new school uniforms, shoes, and books.
Kop, his boat loaded, finally understood, taking a break to
wait patiently as she showed her thanks in the only way she
knew how.
     With the ice melted and all the big fish and the net
loaded on his boat, I kissed Kafe on the forehead, shook hands
with Farst, waayed Dai and his wife, and joined Kop, still
straddling the boats, for the ride back. We left them there
eating and playing like they were in a park having a picnic.
While the sun kept baking me brown and the salt air kept
clearing my nose I couldn't help thinking as I sat in the bow
and Kop tended to the engine what an innocent, enjoyable
morning it had been. We barely knew each other. We could hardly
communicate. But I knew it would be a day I'd never forget.
They thought I'd done so much for them. I just wish they knew
what they had done for me. Opening up and sharing their
morning, they gave me a glimpse of Thai rural life and living
carefree.
     A little over a hundred yards out, Kop let out a yell and
pointed towards the shore. There was Ta, her hand over her eyes
as if giving a salute, in a flower-patterned blue bikini, new
Chanel sunglasses, and a yellow silk scarf tied invitingly at
the hip. Tapping the floor of the boat and grunting like an
ape, he regained my attention and motioned for me to hold on
and lay low. At first, I thought he was thinking the same thing
as I; that if her father ever saw her in that outfit when I     ***96
was the only one around, it would be lights out. But when he    
kept fanning his hands up and down frantically and didn't slow   
down I got what he meant and huddled up under the bow. He was
going to run the boat full throttle up onto the beach. Tilting
the engine at the last moment so it wouldn't drag into the
sand, he glided us in with a slide that was effortless and
smooth up to within inches of her. I jumped up grinning and
motioned for Kop to grab the grouper first so we could show off
our prize. But as he grabbed the gills and I grabbed the tail
Ta frowned not trying to hide that she wasn't amused.
     "Hairy, that's not your job," she said backing away
fanning her nose.
     "Hungry? I caught it," I said now beating my chest for      
effect with the tail between my legs.
     "Since when do you take off and not tell me? I was worried
sick. I had to go ask that crazy old lady in the bamboo hut
where you went," she said squatting down, brushing away flies
as she looked at the fish.
     "Come on. It was fun. You were sleeping. I didn't want to
wake you. Give me a kiss you sexy bitch," I said now holding
the grouper by the tail and walking towards her.
     "Don't touch me. You smell like cat food," she said
stiff-arming her hands and backing away.
     "Okay. I'll go take a shower. Happy?" I asked as I threw
up my hands and knocked Kop off balance. But he didn't seem to
mind. Getting knocked on his butt and having to carry the fish
alone, he figured was a small price to pay in exchange for not
getting fussed at.
     "And use soap...and wash your hair," she said as she
nodded at Kop and followed me back to the house. He didn't
move. He cocked his head and enjoyed the view.
     It didn't take long in the cold shower before I walked
back out in my shorts drying my hair just in time to see Dai
and his family beach their boat. Ta was sitting under the
stilted cottage at a table with a fan whipping her hair like
she was taking a ride on the back of a Harley. She was
surrounded by books and notes and munching on a prepared plate
of mangoes, papaya, and pineapple. Her freshly brewed cup of
coffee simmered in her other hand doing double duty holding a
pencil.
     "I thought you didn't have any papers to correct," I said
as I looked over her shoulder to see what she was working on.    ***97
     "I don't. I still have to make a lesson plan for Monday.   
Don't worry, I don't need your help this time. It's just        
review. Go get some tan or play with your new friends. I won't   
be long," she said grabbing the towel and pulling me down for a  
kiss.                                                             
     "What? After that wretched cold shower I endured to wash
my hair, clip my nails, shave, and smell this pretty...no way
am I getting sweaty again or going off to play with fish," I
said sitting down next to her as I went to nibble on her ear.
     "Hairy, come on. Please..." she started; pulling away
giggling she almost spilled her coffee.
     "Okay, just remember when you're old and gray you'll be
thinking back on today and regretting not having taken
advantage of...Never mind, I see a lounge chair and have a
new U2 cassette that..."
     "Hairy, if you smoke pot, I..."
     "I knew there was something I forgot. Do you think the     
kitchen..."
     "Hairy..."
     "Just let me know when you're done."
     "I will. There's something I want to do this afternoon."
     "What?"
     "You'll see. Let me finish this first. Please?"
     Thumbing in the earplugs, pushing the play button, and
adjusting the volume, I got comfortable with a pillow to take
in all the next-door activity. Kop was busy loading up the
grouper and the red snapper into a cart of ice doubling as the
front steering on a modified motorcycle. He'd first take his
catch to the tourist hotel. They'd pay good money for a grouper
that size and first pick at the rest of his catch. Then he'd
cruise the boardwalk of seaside restaurants. They always needed
a good supply of red snapper. Anything left, he would probably
buy a quart of beer and catch a nap in the market. Lots of the
locals there would be looking forward to buying what was fresh
caught only that morning.
     Poor Farst. Arching his back, he had to fill up two
five-gallon plastic paint buckets with fish that fell out of
the net into the boats and carry them balanced on a specially
carved bamboo pole up the beach and drop them on a tarp to get
sorted and weighed before dragging the buckets back through the
now double-lined sand for another load. That was a big project
for such a little guy. The snappers had stirred up the bottom    ***98
and produced a good catch.                                        
     Dai's wife took over from there. Gathering up a few after   
sorting out the best, she wrapped them in newspaper for Kafe to  
deliver to Kop's mom - the main ingredient in her red milky
stew. Then, if there were any mutilated or unfamiliar fish, she   
and Kafe would take turns throwing them to the stray dogs and    
cats that gathered there the same time each morning. They were   
a strange bunch showing no species rivalry. Sitting there
abreast of each other, just their heads moved as their eyes
watched until they got thrown something to eat. If it was to a
cat, it would arch its back and pounce digging in its claws and
severing the head. If it was to a dog, he'd pin it with a paw
before taking a lick. But if it didn't stop moving the
bewildered mutt would look up with big sad eyes wondering what
to do next.
     That done, Kafe helped her mom pick and sort out all the
shrimp, squid, mussels, and clams from the net into individual
buckets. Later they would add spices and dry them out in the
sun for snacks and the market, unless Dai wanted the mussels
and clams for the hole in the sand he was digging. It looked
about four feet square and two feet deep by the time he was
finished with his makeshift oven. He added logs on the ends,
started a fire in between, added a grill, and topped it with
wet banana leaves before adding fish and covering the whole
thing with a pegged-down tarp. Looking at the sun to check the
time, he held up two fingers to let me know when we could eat.
     "In two hours I don't think we'll be back yet. Come on.
I'm finished with all my paperwork," Ta said looking over my
shoulder, digging her chin into my sunburnt back. Pulling the
earplugs out, I had no idea what she just said. But when she
went running down to the beach and waved for me to follow I
understood what I had missed.
     "We're going someplace?" I asked, yawning and stretching
after I caught up to her.
     "I'm going to pray. But it's a place I think you'll like,"
was all she said, now wearing a light summer dress with a
wide-rimmed straw hat. Walking along holding hands and barely
exchanging anything more than a smile on the deserted beach for
almost an hour with only the ocassional gull, lapping waves,
and swirling wind for company, away from prying eyes and anyone
we knew, away from a culture neither one of us was used to,
alone together for a weekend, recharged, our love rekindled       ***99
anew, we were ourselves again. Even the afternoon storm clouds  
over the hills had vanished and been replaced by cottonball     
cumulus and feathered cirrus assuring that nothing would spoil    
the rest of our afternoon and the long walk back. Sort of a
reflection of where we'd just come from; Ta explaining family   
politics until the fog was lifted.                              
     "Okay, 225, 226, 227. It has to be 227, right? And why did
you make me carry all these peanuts and bananas from the market
all the way up these seaside cliff steps?" I asked as I looked
down the sheer two-hundred-foot drop to the rocks and the Gulf
of Thailand below.
     "227...now let me see...that has to mean something. Maybe
I'll bet those numbers on next week's lottery. You sure it was
227?" Ta asked, reaching into the bag for a couple of nuts.
     "You said this place is full of monkeys?" I asked,
ignoring any more references to any more steps as I looked
around and surveyed the trees waiting to get a glimpse of them.
     "Yes, you and peanuts and bananas and monkeys. I'm going
in the temple to pray. Have fun feeding them," she said as she
slipped off her shoes, folded her hands, got down on her knees,
and went inside.
     Monkeys. I don't see any monkeys. She was kidding, right?
What does she expect me to do; go hang from a tree and grunt a
mating call while she's in there humming and chanting? Next
thing you know she'll come out in an hour and say I should have
been channeling the number 227. She probably bought this stuff
as a dessert for the fishermen. What didn't you see any
monkeys? I know they were here last year. The temple was
overrun with them. She just wants me to waste my time walking
around looking for them so I don't get bored waiting for her.
"What? Hey! Quit pulling on my shirt!" Turning around ready to
punch some asshole's lights out, I at first didn't see anyone.
It wasn't until I looked down, saw the flat nose, the hairy
head, the elephant ears, and the mouthful of teeth growling at
me that I knew she had set me up. "God you're ugly. What? You
want a banana? Here have a bunch. Now, get lost and leave me
alone." It wasn't until it headed for the trees and the
scrambling fight for a share ensued that I saw what I was up
against. This was more than I had bargained for. I'd better get
moving before any of the others get wind of me.
     Jogging up the hill to the observation deck where there
were a bunch of tourists in Hawaiian shirts taking pictures and ***100
eyeing binoculars, I hoped, with so many people around, to      
discourage any more of those filthy beachcomer beggars from     
groping me again. Or so I had relied on as I mingled with the    
crowd smiling and making small talk from my seat on the ledge
where the cool salt breeze ruffled my shirt and tousled my
hair. But with all the camera clicks and flash flicks suddenly
aimed in my direction, I knew that the stirring scents of
ripened bananas and roasted peanuts had lusted the air,
betraying my camouflage efforts to hide in plain sight. A pesky
runt had singled me out with a death-grip on my leg accompanied
by a volley of echoing screams warning others to stay away.
With its blood-scarred face from trying to compete for one of
my goodwill bananas, this time it was determined to be the
first in line. All at once, sensing there was no competition it
backed off, swinging its arms as it looked around and then up
expectantly, waiting for whatever I had left over exclusively
for him. Not so easy this time you little shit. Now its my turn
for a little fun and drama. Except shelling some peanuts slowly
and sensually with yummy background noises while it watched and
drooled was only tolerable until a handful got to within inches
of my mouth. I'll never make that mistake again. Thinking I was
going to eat them myself, that crazed monkey almost scratched
my eyes out, grabbing for them.
     Now that they knew I had their favorite food I was at
their mercy. Like a foreign businessman in the slums of Mumbai
with a pocketful of jingling coins ambushed and surrounded by
a gang of dirty-faced orphans, I curiously had fed one, then
two, before they seemed to be appearing from everywhere. My
first impulse was to hide out in the tourist restroom. That was 
wishful thinking. This was their turf. They knew every way in.
Only behind the sliding glass doors of the temple could there
be sanctuary. And that was a good five-minute walk down a paved
trail from here. But if the Pide Piper could do it with a flute
and mice, so could I with peanuts and monkeys. Throwing open
the stall door with a bang, I threw the rest of the bananas in
all directions. As the brawling jungle marauders bit, scratched,
screamed, and grabbed, I made a head start out the door,
leaving a bread-crumb trail of peanuts behind to slow them down
as I made my way, running down the hill. It wasn't until I was
inside, taking off my sneakers that I looked back at the
confused faces, nosing up to the glass. Strangely, they looked
kind of sad as if wondering why I didn't want to play anymore.      ***101
     The foggy air inside overpowered the senses with the        
sweet-scented smell of burning incense and fresh-cut jasmine.   
Dreamily coasting and swirling over the polished teakwood
floor, the swamp-gas-like mist seemed to transform the
parallel planks into a mirage of narrowing arrows that with
siren beckoning drew my gaze to a gold-plated, twelve-foot
tall, six-foot wide, sitting, fat, happy-faced Buddha statue
presiding over the dugout chapel. That's when I noticed,
sitting at its feet, surrounded by floral offerings, Ta and an
old orange-clad monk, glancing up momentarily with smiles and 
waves, but I dared not intrude. Instead, after taking a quick
look around and turning back to discover that the monkeys had
moved on to find a new snack-laden playmate, I went in search
of an unimposing place to relax. That's when the sun moved past
the shadow of a cloud and, all of a sudden, with the intensity
of a SWAT flash grenade, ignited the Buddha image, through the
floor-to-ceiling cave window, with a reflection proclaiming all
its late afternoon splendor that bathed the room in a blinding
light; out of which walked a monk, his robes almost
indiscernable in the orange glow, as if he were an apparition
and I was witnessing a divine revelation. It was so awe
inspiring as he seemed to materialize out of the light that I
almost lost it until, recognizing his face, I regained my
composure. That was one hell of an illusion - I nearly wet
myself. One I'm sure he's used many times before to his
spiritual advantage. It was Ta's monk. But when he sat down
next to me he didn't say anything. He just stared through his
thick-rimmed glasses further unnerving me as I prayed that Ta
would show up and get me out of this. Seeing that I was a still
a bit shaken, he touched my arm, smiled, and nodded. What? Did
he know I had fed his monkeys? Did he know I loved Ta? I had no
idea of what they had been talking about. If Ta had only told
me what to expect like she did in the states where I knew in
advance what was going on, all this trial and error of being
the last one to know and having to figure it out on my own
wouldn't have confused me so much. Then with his other hand he
touched my head and mumbled a prayer. Now I understood. Ta
wanted him to pray over me to keep me safe.
     By the time we walked back down the steps for the long
beach-walk home, the late afternoon sun had just started to
melt into the yellow-tinted magenta sky. The cool sand was the
texture of confectionary sugar between our toes as the incoming       ***102
waves lapped a tranquil beat and raced each other up and down
the beach. Ta was quiet, peaceful, almost contemplative,
strolling just out of their reach as she gathered up what
looked like thorny-skinned, puffed-up mushrooms strewn out
along the way.             
     Bending down again and giving me a quick look, she held   
out her hand and smiled, "Dried sea urchins. I don't know why.
They just lose their spines and wash up like this during the   
rainy season."
     I didn't say anything, walking over dragging a hiking
stick I had found washed up on the sand.
     "Mommy and I used to collect these on the way to and from
seeing the temple monks while my brothers who came along were
busy planting metal construction rebar in the ground hoping
lightning would hit them and turn the sand underneath into
giant glass crystals."
     "Did it work?" I asked tickling her palm as I pretended to
fiddle around with what she had discovered.
     "I don't know. Everytime they went out to check in the
morning the rebar was gone," she said cupping her hand and
pulling away before giving me a playful shoulder slap.
     "And the temple monk, was he the same one that almost made
me pee in my pants with his crafty little lighting trick?" I
asked looking down and stretching my shorts in an exaggerated 
effort to check if I was still dry.
     Ta laughed. "He likes you. I told him all about us. He    
thought you were so polite for not interrupting. I really miss
having him to talk to. Sometimes when I can't talk to you or
mommy he gives me what I need to keep going. There's another
one in Ayudhaya I want to go see. Maybe next weekend, if I can
convince daddy that instead of Hong Kong I have too much work
to do here. Wanna come?"
     "It depends on whether he's going to try to give me a
heart attack or not. And if there are any more monkeys or you
want me to feed elephants or snakes or anything, you can forget
it. Today was like Custer's last stand. Those crazed chimps
barely let me out alive. I'm lucky I didn't get abducted..."
     "Hairy, come on..."
     I was finally starting to understand Ta. As independent as
she appeared to be in the states, here, she couldn't make a
decision on her own to save her life. Upcountry, she needed
monks to give her permission to trust her feelings and think      ***103
for herself. In Bangkok, she needed fortune tellers to help
give her confidence that whatever she was thinking of doing
wouldn't be a misstep. At home, she needed to seek her mother's
approval to shield her from her domineering father. It was
important that she knew there would be someone to back her up
incase she decided to stick up for and assert herself. But if
she keeps on avoiding doing what she wants and continues to
take the path of least resistance things will just get worse
and she'll never find closure. You'd think that after all she's
been through - getting put on a plane alone at fourteen to
travel to and live in the states, surviving an all girls prep
school of bigoted snobby rich brats with noone to confide in,
and having to survive the rest of the time on her own - she'd
be stronger than that. Or maybe it was when I got thrown
unexpectantly into the mix and her preplanned charmed life was
no longer so cut and dry, that seeing her options, she panicked
and felt overwhelmed with trying to figure how to sort it all
out. I just hope she follows her heart and doesn't break mine
while she's deciding what's the best way to go about it.  
     That's what made me a little nervous about our second
getaway trip to Ayudhaya. Ignoring the urgency of our present
situation, Ta was only focused on visiting one of her favorite
monks and didn't seem worried about playing Russian roulette
with her father's suspicions. Never mind that she was relying
on the same excuse, all it would take was a bad weekend at the
bacara table and Khun P. would come back with a chip on his
shoulder. Then it wouldn't matter what secrets the servants
had promised Ta they'd keep. If a sniffer of cognac didn't
drown his disappointment and he had any doubts about us, they'd
end up the next focus of his frustration. With his ominous
presence he'd have them cowering and admitting what we had been
up to all weekend in a matter of minutes. Only Ta's reliance on
Khun M. as providing a buffer could put a stop to that,
enabling her to rationalize, as minimal, the ever-present risk.
So, already starved of quality time together with few prospects
of a future to look forward to, spinning the wheel one more
time seemed like the only logical thing left to do.
     About an hour's drive north of Bangkok, the old capital of
Ayudhaya, now just a tangled memorial of overgrown snaking
vines strangling brick-rubble tombstone foundations, had once
been an imposing city without rivalry in grandeur of its ornate       ***104
temples and lavish palaces until the Burmese invaded and
ransacked it back in the mid-eighteenth century. Though nothing
like the backyard fallen pillars in Rome or staid temples in
Athens, it was home to one of Ta's favorite monks and a
community of diehard rice farmers who by nature of their always
removing tree stumps to expand the plowing field yields,
digging deeper wells to improve the irrigation water flow, and
making higher embankments to hold more draught reserve water
were often rewarded for their excavation efforts with uncovered
caches of rare antiques that told their own story of that
fateful era.
     Blood-rusted swords with etched-silver scabbards paid
tribute to acts of valor and fallen warriors in forgotten
battles. Matching flint guns with mother-of-pearl inlaid stocks
hinted of a slain warlord prince who otherwise would have never
parted with his prize possessions. Old coins dropped and left
behind were a reminder of hysterical peasants running for their
lives in the heat of the fight. Gold-encased clay and copper
medallions of revered monks ghostly whispered tales of
last-minute betrayals and shallow-dug graves. Detailed wooden
carvings labored over for months were like solid gold to the
artisan who had brought his dreams to life and hidden them away
so carefully in a remote mountain cave. A bundle of bronze
statues and figurines implied a warrior's looted booty that he
stowed well but never survived to retrieve. Gem-encrusted
silver and gold jewelry stashed away in the bowels of a tree by
loyal servants until the cloud of destruction, murder, and rape
had passed never got a chance to readorn a princess in all her
privileged regal finery. Intricately hand-painted porcelain and
ceramic ware once displayed with pride in a place of honor,
adorning some rich rice merchant's office were now chipped,
broken, or stained from frightened fleeing servants carting
them off filled with whatever they could hastily grab for
flight into jungle survival. These were just some of the
blessings inadvertently bequeathed by their war-stricken
ancestors that had survived the years to become useful again as
a supplement to their meager incomes. A helping hand from the
past to help the farmers get by and hopefully rebuild their
great city in honor of those who had fought and died.
     Unlike Hua Hin, the temple here was a peaceful place with
bamboo-caged birds announcing our arrival in a jungle chorus as
the orchid and jasmine gardens drew us in with alluring colors   ***105
and dizzying scents. The hundred-foot tall ceedi mirrored the
pinnacle topping of a Dairy Queen ice-cream cone. Unlike other
temples I had seen this was one of a different style. Covered
in a skeleton of bamboo scaffolding, it was a symbol of the
past that the monks were hoping to soon restore with the help
of devotee donations. Looking up at the white expanse against
the deep-blue late-morning sky, I remembered something Ta had
told me about the war. With the threat of invasion looming
near, the Thais had painted their gold monuments white in hopes
that the advancing armies would think them worthless and pass
them by. Others they used for markers to hide their treasures
under. But looking at the foundation work going on and the
chipped bricks running up the side, I could tell this was of
neither kind. Only the gold-leaf patches pasted randomly around
its base gave any hint of what it aspired to become.
     "Hairy, when you're finished siteseeing would you mind
helping me carry some of these boxes? They're too heavy for me
to carry all by myself," Ta said, by now rummaging through the
trunk and arranging different parcels together on the dusty
ground.
     "Sure. What's all this?" I asked, bending down to see how
many I could balance at one time.
     "Just everyday things the monks need to feel comfortable,"
she said, wiping her forearm across her brow.
     "What about that other stuff?" I asked as she shut the
trunk, leaving it half full.
     "Oh, never mind that. We'll be handing that out later 
somewhere else after we finish here. It's one of the reasons I
especially like to make this trip. You'll see. It'll be an
experience you never expected but one I think you'll find
eye opening," she said with an elvish look in her eyes.
     "Here we go again..."  
     After a meditative visit, Ta praying with her monk and I
strolling the grounds, we took an unexpected detour into the
hinterland of rice-soaked muddy fields, makeshift corrugated 
shacks, and dirty-faced barefoot imps. Now I knew Ta was up to
something. No way was she going to don rubber boots and wade
through mud to pass out aspirin, antibotics, sweets, blankets,
toiletries, bottled water, and household items in fullfil of a
pledge to give back and reduce karma unless she had an ulterior
motive.
     Watching her share a campfire meal with one grateful
village family, I nibbled on roasted chicken while waiting for   ***106
some tell-tale sign of what she was up to, still laughing and
giggling and chatting with our host. Then came the woman's
confiding feminine touch, one of trust, one of respect, and the
conversation grew low and serious. Her young son and daughter
came over to sit at my feet each massaging a leg. A burly
husband uncurled from the dirt-packed floor and hobbled off
bowlegged to a corner. Smacking his beer-guzzling friend on the
side of the head to get out of the way, he got to his shovel
and dug until he could reach down to unlatch the trap-door
cover that his staggered friend had been standing over. He
didn't interrupt Ta or his wife, he just layed the burlap sack
in front of them. Ta never looked down; all her attention was
focused on the woman's problems. The husband, now getting
worried about the delay, scratched his head and walked back
over to uncovered his soccerball-size treasure with delicate
care. Ta smiled at him and glanced at it as he layed it back on
the floor but never took her attention away from his wife until
she guided Ta's hand down to admire it. I just smiled at the
young boy and stuck out my tongue as he offered me one of his
sweets. Then his younger sister not wanting to feel left out
grabbed my arm for one of hers. Strange then that Ta called me
over wanting to know my opinion as if in an afternoon through
osmosis I had been endowed with some curator instincts. I just
wondered what had happened to the rest of it. Well, what else
could I have said? It was only a bronze Buddha head. How could
I have known from the history of Ayudhaya that the Burmese
armies cut off the heads of temple idols as a form of
psychological intimidation, mocking disrespect, and willful
sacrilege?
     The farmer had dug it up late last summer during a drought
while pulling up a stump and now that his wife was eight-months
pregnant with twins he thought it only fair to offer it to Ta
first since she had unselfishly been so kind to them. When he
bowed and in a whisper asked for five hundred, even I knew well
enough to bite my lip. But Ta said no. Mumbling a prayer as she
stood up holding their hands, she said a gift from the angels
of two babies was not something they should barter with. But if
they would let her honor their forefathers' blessing with an
offering of a thousand as an acknowlegement for looking down so
favorably on them, she'd be happy to donate the piece to a
Bangkok temple in their names as a token of thanks. Securing
that ancestrial bond of respect, she knew would ensure this       ***107
rare find wasn't her last.                                        
     All the way home Ta was giving me a headache with her
constant drilling. No way could she keep this find from her
mother and she had to be sure I was well rehearsed...yes, I
finished Ta's lesson plan early....yes, we went to see a
monk...yes, it was just a day trip... no, I had no idea of
where we were going... yes, I thought I should go along incase
there was a problem with the car on the highway...Mike? Shit,
who has any idea of where he is... And Sunday? Yeah, that's the
day we went. We just got back.
     Her parents were predictably captivated by the uniqueness
of the piece. Well preserved, barely tarnished, and depicting a
droopy-eyelid meditative trance, it reached out from the grave
with tales of the past, prompting Khun P., even at ten in the
evening, tired from his trip, to invite close friends over to
the office for a late supper and a privileged look. But 
somewhere during the course of the night after we had all
returned home and gone on to bed a tormented Knun P. woke from
a cold-sweating dream as if its haunting gaze had been an omen
with a foreboding message, triggering the rising pitch of a
muffled argument through the wall, the frustrated slamming of a
bedroom door on the way out, and the revving start of a car
engine with pissed-off tires screeching for the guard to open
the front gate. That was only a prelude to what was in store for
the rest of the night as Ta knocked on my door and told me to
pack an overnight bag. We were going to escort Khun M. to a
temple in Chiang Mai.
     Taking an eight-plus-hour road trip to the mountains in a
twenty-something-year-old restored Mercedes seemed like an
overreaction to a fifteen-minute argument until I found out the
instigating culprit had been me. Khun P. had insisted that Ta
and I were getting too fond of each other and maybe it was time
to cut my visit short and send me home before things got any
more out of hand. But Khun M. had insisted that he was taking
things out of context and blowing the whole matter way out of
proportion. We had just been overly excited about discovering a
treasure that we couldn't wait to share with them and our
bubbling enthusiasm had been perfectly natural, just two
friends caught up in a collaboratory moment after accomplishing
together an amazing feat. She said not to worry and enjoy the
trip. This had not been the first time she had run away like
this. By the time she calls home in a couple of days he will    ***108
have had time to calm down and the only thing he will be
fussing about by then will be why hasn't she accepted his
apology and when will she be coming back.
     As we took turns driving down two-lane potholed country
roads, switching when we stopped off for a snack at roadside
stands that weren't much more than stilted plywood-sheet
floors supporting greasy propane-gas grills under leanto
palm-leaf roofs, I began to understand Khun M.'s motivation for
wanting to get away. She'd listened to Ta and challenged
Khun P. by standing up for us and now was setting the stage
to get her way by giving him time to come up with a compromise
reconciliation as if the idea had been all his own. But even
though they'd resorted to these meditative cease-fire retreats
before, this was the first one that was exclusively because of
me and I was already feeling apprehensive about the homecoming
reception we could look forward to. I was winning and losing
acceptance both at the same time. Confused and concerned, I
chain-smoked cigarettes, contemplating all the possible
scenarios and drove on.
     The morning mist was still blanketing the foothills when I
pulled in, navigating past mud-packed motorcycles, motorized
carts, insistent vendors, stand-their-ground roosters, and
cudding cattle, to fill up at a single-pump shack just as a
backseat yawn and mumble cued Ta to forget the hotel and head
for the mountains. For another hour we zig-zagged up the
clay-packed roads on a featherbed of grey-goose down until
awaking with a giggle, Khun M. reached over the front seat
grabbing my arm. We were at the top. Now I could stop. There
was something here she wanted to show me that few foreigners
had ever seen.
     Leading the way up a well-trodden dirt mountain path
through a vine-wrapped jungle alive with the rustling and
whistling of a high-altitude breeze, I almost got stung by
a barrage of arrows shooting across the path within inches of
my knees. The golden triangle, a mountain pass, I thought we
were getting attacked by a band of pigmies until Khun M.
started laughing and Ta started yelling, scolding the six
would-be bandits out into the open. Just dirty-faced, barefoot
boys, barely in their teens, with a bare-chested girl half
their age in tow, they emerged from a dug-out makeshift bamboo
fort on the side of the path patting each other on the back and
laughing as they mockingly pointed their bows at me. In their    ***109
traditional Mao tribe, black with red embroidered trim,
judo-pajama costumes, thick silver necklaces, dangling           
earrings, and silver-belled ankle bangels they could have        
passed for ninja pirates. Only the girl with her silver-encased      
plume of hair spiked up like an Asian Hiawatha feather hinted
that they were only playfully waylaying as an introduction to
what they were selling. Gathering around, they admired my
Converse sneakers, inspected my Cartier watch, motioned to
their lips if I had a cigarette, and grabbed at my pockets
feeling for spare change before holding up their newly-crafted
teak crossbows sure that they could talk me into buying one.
     But as I dug into my pocket and pulled out an unopened
pack of Marlboros and began to unwrap it, the tallest boy
pushed past the rest shaking his head as he scolded them and
grabbed my hand, encouraging me to follow him. As soon as we
entered the grass hut my eyes stung from being entombed in the
smoke of a strange-smelling smoldering fire that by now was
making me feel a bit light-headed, as well. Not seeming to feel
the effects, he pointed me towards an old man sitting on a
wooden stool stirring up a black mixture in a wooden bowl with
a wooden spoon. With his face the withered texture of crumpled
newspaper, he just stared at the wall with lifeless black eyes.
Rolled in rags, his black-nailed limbs trembled in arthritic
spasms while his toothless gums mimicked muffled cymbals as
backup to his eerie chant. Wondering if I understood what he
was offering, the boy pulled on my shirt sleeve and motioned
for me to have a seat on a pile of moldy burlap bags as he
anxiously unwrapped his collection of elephant-tusk engraved
pipes trimmed in silver.
     "Opium. No, no, no..." I said, waving my hands and shaking
my head. Rumored to please like hashish on steroids, for all I
knew, one toke and I'd start ripping off my clothes as I ran
into the jungle, screaming like a banchi and howling at the
moon, never to be seen or heard from again - not exactly the
quiet retreat I had in mind.
     Not trying to hide his disappointment, he lowered his head
and frowned until seeing me pick up one of the tar-resined
pipes, he exploded into a blistering pantomine of a sales pitch
that finally ended with "five dollar...five dollar". Amazed at
the price I pointed to his crossbow. Again the same response
"five dollar...five dollar". I ran my finger down its smoothly
carved track as if I was wondering about the arrows. Again       ***110
"five dollar...five dollar" as he held up a handful. But this
time I shook my head and reached for another pipe as I reached  
for the arrows, hoping to bundle them together. Again the same   
echo "five dollar...five dollar". The only words he remembered   
from some forgotten tourist. Everything was for sale in the      
village. Everything was "five dollar...five dollar".
     Walking out of the hut and taking a few minutes to gulp
down some fresh air, I finally got my first real look at the
secluded village. It wasn't much, just a bunch of chickens, two
cows, some ponies, a water buffalo, a pen of pigs, and eight
straw huts, three with silk weaving contraptions; and Ta with
her mom sitting on a coarse-weaved mat in front of the nearest
one, eating fresh mangoe from a hand-crafted laquer bowl while
scooping sticky rice from a slit bong of bamboo were teasing
the captive audience of kids surrounding them with promises of
sweets and pennies if only they could find some comfortable
chairs. With just a few women tending the weaving machines and
all the men playing cards and drinking, I looked to the
terraced hills above and spotted the others lugging large
baskets with oversized shoulder straps. I had an idea besides
the opium what they were farming. From what I knew they grew
coffee, red kidney beans, potatoes, rice, corn, and cabbage.
     "Harry's been shopping at the local mall?" Ta asked,
looking at my stash and ribbing her mom as she reached into her
purse for another napkin. But then her mom touched her arm,
said something, and Ta spun around. She concentrated. "Hairy,
your eyes are really red. Mommy thinks you should go lie down.
I told you last night not to drive so much."
     "It's not the driving. It was the opium den," I said,
reaching down to grab a piece of fruit. "And no not in this
lifetime would I ever think of smoking any. I just went along,
following the kid and the room was filled with a smog of the
stuff. By the way, you didn't pay five bucks for that mango and
rice did you?"
     "What?"
     "Never mind. Inside joke. But you're right I am tired.
Mind if I walk down and crash in the car? Oh, wait. I'm sorry.
How long did you guys plan to stay here?"
     "No Hairy. Go ahead. Mommy wants to wait for a couple of
the kids to bring her a kilo of fresh strawberries from their
mountain garden. I think we'll be here for awhile. I'll wake
you up when we're done."                                          ***111
     "Don't pay over five bucks."
     "What is with you and..."                                    
     "I'll tell you later. Just don't wait too long to get back
to the car. The wind is gusting up and I can smell the rain.     
See those nasty cumulus thunderheads? They will have no mercy
on your Italian sandals and I don't want mommy to slip in the
mud. Is there an umbrella in the car I can get for her?"
     "TJ, go take a nap. We'll be fine. I'll wake you up when
we're done. Seriously, no sleep for thirty-six hours and you
turn into a space cadet." To which she replied in kind to my
final salute, a kissed extended index finger.
     Getting roused by a hotel porter who inadvertently opened
the pillow of a door that I had been leaning on wasn't the
friendly nudging where and when I would have expected. But it
was fortunate that Ta had given me a chance to catch up on
three hours of much-needed overdue sleep since, thanks to
Khun M., it was a luxury I wouldn't have an opportunity to look
forward to again until much later that night. If she hadn't
been in such a hurry to call home, we would have never known.
Now plans for a visit to the temple and the night bazaar seemed
inappropriate. It was the shocking news of Joey and his younger
brother. Street racing, there had been a crash. His brother was
dead and he was in a coma. The doctors had no idea if he would
ever wake up.
     With just a quick cold shower for a timeout, I drove all
the way home adrenalized in thought while Khun M. and Ta talked
strategy in the back seat. They knew. Khun P. would try to find
a way to blame this on me, too. I had taken Ta away from being
with Joey. If I weren't here she would have had time only for
him and he would have been so preoccupied with courting her
that there wouldn't have been any need for this acting out
nonsense. It was somehow because of me, he was out being so
destructive, taking chances. I was the problem, the convenient
scapegoat to explain away what Khun P. refused to condone or
understand. Just Ta hadn't thought to warn me in advance of his
bias predisposition. Maybe she thought if I knew, I might never
have come, or worse yet, that now I might leave. Maybe. But it
should have been my choice to make. Now I can only hope that
she was right and Khun M. will find a way to sort it all out.

     "TJ..., TJ..., where are you bro?" Mike shouted repeatedly
as he walked aimlessly down the soi alone, stopping every so     ***112
often to look around. Still feeling a bit haggered from a
hangover, his hair tousled, his shirt wrinkled, with the
pockets turned out on his khaki shorts, he was probably cursing
under his breath wishing he could be anywhere else. But having
been lost in time and thought, reminiscing and trying to put
into perspective how the events of the past four months had led
to my tree-bound exile, I didn't notice him until he was right
below me staring into the jungle. He looked as if someone had
abruptly woken him up to come out and try to find me, knowing
that after what had just happened, he would probably be the
only one I would respond to.                        
     "Mike, shut up. I heard you the first time," I whispered   
as I dropped the twelve feet down from the extended tree limb
right in front of him.
     "Jees, TJ."
     "Jees, yourself. What the fuck is going on in that house?
Why is Khun P. so pissed off that he's chasing me around with
a gun? And how the hell did you know where I was?"
     "One of the servants told him you kissed Ta," he said
horsely, rummaging around in his shirt pocket to grab us both
a cigarette. "And hell, I didn't know where you were; I was
just taking a walk to clear my head. Damned I wish I was still
on the set. It was so quiet and peaceful in Chiang Mai. You
should have been more careful bro."
     "Mike, you know better than that. No servant would ever
dare speak above her class. It's gotta be Tik, her little
brother. He's always trying to make himself look better. He's
so goddamned jealous of his big brother who leads the valets
around at the massage parlor like his personal gang, he'd do
anything to impress his father. The little shit even put a
ladder up to Ta's bedroom window the other night to see if I
had snuck over to sleep with her."
     "So did you kiss her?"
     "Mike, not within sixty miles of the house."
     "So no problem. He just wants to talk to you," he said,
turning his back against the breeze to light the cigarettes.
     "Mike, the guy pulled a gun on me. You think I want to
talk to him? He probably just wants a clear shot. Bang. Point
blank. Why should I trust him?"
     "Ta told me you don't have to worry."
     "Is she okay?"
     "She will be. Just you need to talk to her father and        ***113
clear the air. And I need some coffee before my head explodes,"
he said, handing me a smoke and turning to walk back.
     "Oh really? You make it sound so simple like we are going
to sit down over milk and cookies and have a back-slapping
chat. I don't think so; more like a rerun of the Spanish       
Inquistion is what I think he has in mind."                     
     "Better to bite the bullet than eat one."                  
     "That's for sure."                                          
     Walking through those same sliding-glass doors that
earlier had served as a head-start buffer and unaware that Mike
had hesitated, lagging behind, I met Ta's teary-eyed glance as
she looked up from the sofa, cuddled safe and secure in her
mother's arms. Behind them, Khun P. was staring coldly at me
about to put out a half-smoked cigarette. Standing next to him,
proud, protective, confident, feet apart, arms crossed, Tik was
smirking. In the shadow of his father, he felt untouchable. Not
until I looked him up and down, shook my head, and dared to get      
in his face with "You know damned well it never happened" did
he blush and shift uneasily, giving himself away. Ignoring his
sudden stuttering defense, I waayed Khun P. respectfully, never
once losing eye contact as he started into his tirade about how
things were going to change and no longer were Ta and I to go
anywhere alone together. Whatever else he was carrying on about
I don't remember; finding it easier to just let him get it all
off his chest and reassert his authority, I struggled to hold
my tongue, show no emotion, and with my gaze stand my ground. No
way was he getting the validation of a weak-kneed response or
telltale excuse to make his case; not if I could help it.
     Then he said the strangest thing. He didn't have time to   
take Mike and me to Hong Kong to renew our visas next weekend;
instead, he'd be driving us to Cambodia tomorrow. And that was      
that, like nothing had happened. But deep down, I knew better.
This was just the starting line for the brewing gauntlet that
was waiting.
     In 1974, the 140 mile trek from Bangkok to Poy Phet,
Cambodia was a two-lane embanked minefield of potholes with
some stretches paved, some stretches graveled, some stretches
washed-out into dirt detours just to pass them; cattle blocked
and sheep deep, serving convoys of ten-wheel trucks stuck in
second gear and overcrowded tour buses playing cymbaling Isaan
travel music while providing a shoulder for tractors dragging
earth and straw, it was the nearest frayed conveyor belt into    ***114
the frontier east. Relying on the lawless route, taking his car
and insisting on driving, Khun P. intended to reassert his
omnipotent authority. Now in control, his driver relegated to a
vigilant watch for pending problems, he could impress upon us
that our lives were in his hands and only in them would we be   
out of danger. Except his repertoire of country legends to set   
the mood that might have had Ta and her mom sitting next to him  
or his driver sitting in the back with us cowering, didn't mean
anything to us. They were like Grimm's Fairy Tales; we didn't
know any better. He couldn't scare us with what we doubted even
existed. All we saw was the innocent expanse of pasture land.
And then, the teenage girl, up close, smiling at us, riding a
water buffalo. Ta looked back and started to smile as we kidded
about Mike's streaking across the fields on one with her in the
lead. It was only when we started ribbing each other about who
she had really been smiling at that Ta turned away and Khun P.
gave disapproving looks in the rear-view mirror. We had no idea
the girl wasn't his concern. It was the one story he hadn't         
told about how the locals who by day were farmers at night were
bandits with guns not afraid to shoot and kill anyone -
especially someone driving an expensive car - that worried him.
     Then the Sherman tank of American manufacturing excellence
balked and limped. The Lincoln's new ten-inch steel-belted
series-7 Michelin radials were no match for this unforgiving
rural terrain, one having expired in a rim-shattering flat.
     Content to just sit there and watch as Mike and the driver
eagerly fought over who was going to jumped out first to
inspect the damage, it wasn't until Ta imploringly mouthed
"please" that I reluctantly followed. But as I lit a smoke,
Mike waved me off as he grabbed the jack and the driver grabbed
the spare. This bit of showing off and feigning initiative was
first-come-first-serve, leaving Khun P. and me standing there
on the side of the road with nothing better to do except stare
at each other. I knew this test of wills wasn't over but when
he briefly smiled I suddenly got the impression that rather
than hating my guts, he was testing me. That couldn't have been
real; more likely it had been a relapse of wishful thinking - a
figment of my overactive imagination.                                       
     Reaching the border just before dusk without any further
mishaps having slowed us down, Khun P. took our passports and
proudly paraded us in front of the single-shack Thai police
outpost, displaying his mayor credentials. One of the three
officers, after reviewing our papers, directed him to drive       ***115
across the border, over the bridge, through the town, around
the fountain, and then come back. By then the visas would be
ready; adding that, we should give serious thought to staying
over since traveling back at night wasn't safe.                                                                             
     A two mile drive down a rutted dirt road and we were in     
another world of bombed-out buildings, tarped roofs, cutthroat
faces, bare shelves, roasting dogs, and people with barely
enough limbs to get across the street. What happened here? As
we slowed down and passed a woman sitting in front of the town
fountain, hand-cupping water to her two babies' lips, both just
skin and bones under a puss of sores, a man with one eye and no     
legs somehow managed to get himself attached to Khun P.'s door        
handle. Cursing at the annoyance, Khun P. had no choice but to
pull over, get out, give the old cripple some money, and have
his driver pick him up and put him safely out of the way under
a tree. But by then, a man dragging a cart of straw had pulled
up, grabbed his machete, and started walking over with a
gathering crowd following him. Both Khun P. and his driver drew
guns. The man went to his knees. That was his uncle. He was
worried about him. Khun P. held his gun fast on him while his
driver stepped on the machete and then threw it away. On
Khun P.'s nod, his driver put more money in the shaking hands
than the war survivor could have hoped to make in a year. But
he didn't stop there. Still holding his gun on the man with his
handful of money in the dirt, Khun P. pointed to the fountain
and the woman with babies. Holding up the town, they gave money
to everyone in sight. Mike and I went to join them but Khun P.
waved us back, seeing a foreigner's face might start a riot.
This was a world we didn't understand. But between the chills
of excitement, I started to understand him. Aloof and hard to
talk to, deep down he had a sympathetic heart.
     Khun P. pulled around and back out to the outpost while
Khun M. giggled and said "tam boon". Sometimes you have a
chance to give back and reduce karma in the strangest places
under the most bizarre conditions. But Khun P. was creating a
situation of his own. Getting our passports back, he dismissed
the advice of the border guards that we should wait till
morning before traveling back; even chosing the moment to share
with us the story of the revolutionary farmers. This had been
the point of the trip, why we weren't sipping wine coolers on a
Peninsula Hotel veranda overlooking Hong Kong harbor. It was a
power play. I knew it. He'd picked the spot. Mike cursed me       ***116
about it. But there was no way I was going to show fear. It     
wasn't that I wanted to compete with him. I just wanted him to   
see I was strong enough to deserve his daughter. But risking    
those he loved to make a point and their being willing to go      
along didn't make sense. Now I truly saw his sway over them.     
     It was some forty miles later that what he never expected
happened again. The Lincoln got another rim-smashing flat. With
no more spare tires, it looked like we were stranded for the
night until his driver pointed up ahead to some lights and the
sound of tinkering, excited that maybe it was a garage equipped
with a tow. Grabbing Mike for backup, he went to investigate;   
at least maybe he could arrange transportation home. In the     
meantime, preparing for the worst, Khun P. led me to his trunk
and his arsenal of two military shotguns, a .38 Smith & Wesson,
and a .357 Magnum, telling me to pick one. He, as a mayor and
lawyer, assured me that if the situation went south and I had
to use it, he would make it all go away once we hit Bangkok.
But insisting that he was much more suited for the role, I
refused. Suggesting that since I'd never fired a gun, I'd be
much more useful taking care of Khun M. and Ta, leading them
into the safety of the jungle with him covering our retreat.
After all, he'd seen first-hand my knack for evasion. No way
was he going to box me in; I didn't see him offer Mike a gun.
     Fortunately, the only bullets we ended up dodging that
night were the bugs ricochetting off the cab roof of our
open-air rented pickup as we huddled in the back against the
wind amongst pillows of greasy burlap bags filled with wood
chips. With Khun P. literally riding shotgun and his driver
glued to the rear window, our chauffeur had no choice but to
behave himself. The only casualties being sore muscles and
rumps that could easily be cured with a morning massage, we
arrived home safe and sound for an early breakfast, sweetened
by a marmalade sunrise.
     Mike, however, seemed preoccupied from the minute we got
back. Instead of joining in for a moaning group massage and
boisterously lavish breakfast, he spent the entire time making
calls on the dining-room phone before slipping away on his own
with a notebook back to our room. Something was up. I was
determined to find out what. It wasn't like him to miss a meal
and be shunning everyone. But the last thing I had expected
when I walked in and sat down just as he was coming out of the   ***117
bathroom, juggling his toiletries and heading for the two       
waiting half-packed suitcases laying on his bed, was the cold
shoulder he had waiting for me. After only paying close
attention not to wrinkle his prized movie costumes in their
plastic sheaths now packed away in their own reserved
custom-made bag, he looked around the room one more time,
stroking his chin, wondering if he had forgotten anything.                           
      "Going on another movie shoot?" yawning and leaning back
on the bed, I casually commented, knowing full well this was
anything but. If there was a problem, I needed to be prepared.
No way was I going to let him go off and do the unexpected
without at least giving me a head's up, first.                                     
     "TJ, the movie's done and this is me leaving. I have a 4PM
flight, first for some R&R in Hong Kong, then back home to the
Jeresy shore," he said, rechecking his notes and the address       
where he could pick up his new ticket. "Don't worry, I'll just
tell everyone there was a family medical emergency. Nobody has
to be the wiser. No harm, no foul. We were originally only
going to stay here for the summer anyway. Khun P. just renewed
your visa; you still have time with Ta."
     "Right. No way will they see the coincidence. Movie's
done. Cambodia was too close for comfort. Mike weren't you the
one that went along with Khun P. to watch the student riots
when I wouldn't? When the police were shooting at them and you
stood behind him as he got interviewed live on the scene under
fire? What no more chance to be in front of the camera and so
now you use the Cambodia fiasco as an excuse to leave?"
     "TJ, you're nuts. You're going to get us both killed if we   
stay. That shit with Cambodia was way over the top. It was
definitely too close for comfort, even for Khun P. who thought
he knew what he was doing. And what's next? He knows you won't
back down. Don't you know that you can't win, that sooner or
later he's going to bury you?"
     "You're probably right, but most of the time you weren't     
even here. Just now you don't have anything left to show for
it. Movie's done. Drank and screwed through all your money. If
you want to go, fine, just be honest with me and cut the BS.
You know without you bro, I never would have gotten this far.
Thanks for that, but look at what you are doing." I got up but
didn't leave. Instead, I took a stand, leaning in the frame of
the door. I couldn't help it. He was pissing me off. "Where are
you going to go before your flight takes off anyway? If you       ***118
don't care about your hosts you are really being an asshole. I
know you're pissed off about the Cambodia. I don't blame you.
But Khun M., she did everything for you. You owe her. Don't
leave like what you did here was because of anything you did on
your own. You know without her you would have had nothing"
     Mike took a deep breath and without saying anything bent      
down to pick up his bags using one to nudge me out of the way
as he walked through the door. Then he turned back with a pause
and his characteristic smirk. He just nodded. I was right. But,
so was he. This was my fight not his. Time I faced up to it. He
didn't know if we'd ever see each other again. But he knew, for
sure, I wouldn't leave without Ta, especially now that Khun M.
was on my side. Just the way I had naively faced up to Khun P.,
he knew it was time for Ta to make a choice. He just couldn't
watch it. He couldn't be my excuse anymore. He had a life of
his own to look forward to. "Watch out for yourself, you crazy
fuck," was the last bit of advice he had for me.
     But deserting his bags on the front porch and disappearing
for almost an hour because there was one last thing left to do
when noone else had any idea as yet of what his plans were, he
was putting me in an uncomfortable position, covering for him.
At least, between Ta and me, she could keep a straight face
when making up and telling a story. Adding the tidbit that Mike
was too upset to elaborate, she told her parents why he was
leaving. So when he found his way to and from the market with a
bouquet of wild flowers wrapped in laurels of jasmine to
present an unexpected last-minute thoughtful gesture to Khun M.
as he stepped into the taxi for the airport, no other words
were needed for his sad departure.                                  ***119 vs 61  
  4. California Dreamin'
                                                                *
Even though Mike had never been around much while he was here,
spending most of his time, pursuing his one-shot movie career,
now that he was gone for good and nowhere near to back me up, I
felt an uneasy compulsion to make myself scarce. Ditching the
ritual crack-of-dawn ride with Ta to get dropped off at a Thai
language school on her way to teach math at Mahidol University,
I slept in, opting, instead, to hop a tuk-tuk and head for the
pulsating stimulation of the Chinatown markets. There I could
explore and get lost in the fragrant stalls, stock up on extra
paraffin, experiment with a variety of new scents, rummage
through their selection of molds, and search for accessorising
trinkets to transform the designer candles now monopolizing her
shop into true works of art.
     With a stock of new supplies and fresh ideas, the lab
behind the office percolated for the next few hours; finished,
the transformed molds, curing like fresh-baked loaves of bread
on a windowsill, I'd be miles away on a tennis court before
either Ta or her parents arrived for work. After a grueling
two-hour match, an eight-mile jog back, and finally a cold
invigorating shower, I still had one last place to retreat to
before showing myself. 
     Squeezing oranges.
     Mountains of orange-green dwarf oranges that had to be
squeezed and mixed with sugar to make their special blend of
fresh-squeezed juice was the first order of business every day
for the coffee-shop staff. And as a great mixer for a bottle of
Carlo Rossi rose wine after a sweaty match and smoggy run, I
was eager to help get out the first test batch. But it was more
than that. Laughing and correcting my feeble attempts to speak
Thai, they had the patience to persevere until I got the
pronunciation right - not a chore anyone in the family seemed
anxious to do.
     Then an unexpected surprise as I was trying to mimic the
crew, all rolling their lips to see who would be first to
correctly teach me how to pronounce a guttural second-grade
"R". A teenage girl in a blue uniform, ankle socks, and white
sneakers, wearing her hair short, shyly made her way through
the crowd up to the bar, carrying three letters. One from Mike.
Two from mom.                                                      ***120
     He was ecstatic about having scored a job as a steward for  
TWA airlines, promising that once he got international status,
if we were still here, he'd be back to see us. With his Bangkok
creds, I wasn't surprised. Given his gift for exaggeration, by
the end of the interviews, he probably had everyone eating out 
of his hand, queuing for an autograph as he pushed his luck,     
adding that if all went well, the producers might ask him back
to do a sequel. I'm sure he neglected to mention the streaking
incident.
     Mom, on the other hand, had risked the overseas mails with
a two-month-old Vogue magazine cutout care package of sorts,
telling me, among other things, in her separate cryptic note,
to pay special close attention to the stuck-together pages of
thirty through forty. My birthday had been a month ago. Any day
now, it would be Christmas. She wanted to be sure. Just a
little something extra. No need to pay her back. It was just
important I didn't feel embarrassed by running short of cash.
She knew I'd always worked and saved on my own when there was
anything I wanted to buy - double-bag caddying and old-bottle
collecting to buy that first ten-speed bike; washing dishes,
waiting tables, and mowing lawns to buy that first car; and
managing summer cottages and working construction to pay for
college. She understood. This trip just came up. I didn't have
much time to work for it. I hadn't called home since I came
here. That's okay. Your dad and I understand. Just stay safe,
be yourself, and come back to visit us when you can. 
     An unexpected windfall presented with cloak-and-dagger
flair made correctly pronouncing guttural "R"s or squeezing
oranges now seem like such trite affairs. Only one thing left
to do. Rushing out to the front counter with citrus hands, I
couldn't wait to see how much I could exchange it for. But with
blue uniforms rushing back and forth, some doing accounts, some
answering phones, some making change, and some flirting with
customers, it looked like I was in for a long wait.
     Longer, when there came a tap on the shoulder. "Mr. TJ,
they want to see you in the head office right away."
     A familiar preopening ritual, Khun P. was holding court
from behind his huge mahogany desk. Arching his back against
the burgandy leather of his high-top chair, he seemed to relish
in scolding another group of cowering servants, reduced to
their knees, huddled on the floor, nervously clutching their
section reports, in between cue-card glances at his Thai Rak     ***121
newspaper as if it contained the next fiery lines to a
well-prepared script.
     Oblivious to his echoing outcries and submissive staff,
Khun M. and Ta were preoccupied in a corner on the couch
totally engrossed in their daily conspiring and whispering over
a late-afternoon snack.
     But as soon as I walked in, still clutching a fistfull of
American dollars, suddenly shivering under the sub-zero hum of
the air conditioner as my head started to throb from the insane
shrill of the Thai operatic music playing in the background, Ta
and her mom came up for air and Khun P. motioned me over as he
barked at the servants that they were dismissed and rummaged
around his desk for a just-received letter. Without looking up
he said, "There is no gambling here."                                                       
     "Gambling? Since when have you ever seen me gamble. This
is from my mom. I got a letter from Mike, too."                 
     He didn't seem interested. "TJ, I want you to contact
someone in Las Vegas for me. Can you do that?"                             
     "Sure."
     "Talk to Ta. She has all the information. This is the
original letter you can use for reference." Handing me the
envelope and readjusting his reading glasses, he waved me off
and returned to his newspaper, releasing me to turn around and
get a come-over nod from her.
     "So Charlie, what's up with Khun P.?"                      
     "Hairy," she exclaimed, shaking and gripping her mom's
hand ever tighter as her eyes widened. "We're going to Europe
and then America."
     "No shit. When?" Having caught me off guard, her surprise
revelation sent a sudden chill through my entire body with such
a frostbitten numbness that I didn't feel my knees buckle as I
caved into the couch. So this was how it was going to happen.
This was how they were going to split us up. This was how we'd
say goodbye. They could speak freely amongst themselves since
they knew I didn't understand, ensuring I'd have no clue to
what they were planning. No clue that would lead to avoiding
uncomfortable glances. No clue that would lead to lapses in
small-talk conversations. Just an easy let down to find out in
the end my time here was done. At least, I was an excuse for an
around-the-world trip. One last hurrah before finding out I was
the only one not making the last lap back. Ta's parents would
leave us alone until then. They knew she needed time to find    ***122
the words to explain what her heart didn't feel. There would be
no way for me to object, they assured her, since they were
spending so much to throw me a going-away party. I wouldn't see
it coming. It wouldn't happen until LA. Ta would cry, telling
me it couldn't work and maybe it was time I got on with my life
just like Mike. And then my heart would be frozen forever.
     "The day after New Year's," she said, giving me a caring
concerned look as she clutched again her mother's arm.
"Hairy?....are you all right?"
      I avoided her glance as I held my breath and fought back
the sting of swelling tears, feigning annoyance. "Damned citrus
acid...the oranges...I forgot and rubbed my eye...I was in a
hurry and didn't wash my hands...Okay... Next week? What's
going on? And why does Khun P. want me to contact someone in
Las Vegas?"
     Ta nudged me to sit closer as she spread out an array of
documents across the coffee table between us. There were cost
and profit projections, location diagrams and traffic flows,
game drawings and play explanations. Khun P.'s friend, a pit
boss at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas, had a new gaming idea
that he wanted her father to invest in. And for some strange
reason he wanted my opinion as to whether it was a good
investment or not. "So....?"
     "Charlie, since when does your father care about what I
think. Shit, a couple of months ago he wanted to shoot me?"
     "Hairy please. You are American. You know how they think.
Mommy wants to get your impressions, too."
     "If the guy's such a bigwig at the Sands Hotel and his
game is such a good idea, why would he need to find outside
investors? Wouldn't the hotel be more interested in keeping the
financing in-house? Or even bank financing has to be cheaper
than taking on a partner. Sounds fishy. And don't say it's
because he considers your father a friend. That is the biggest
BS line there is. Nobody is your friend when it comes to money.
With your father over here and him over there who's to say what
he does with the profits. Unless you can be there to watch over
the game twenty-four-seven, I think it's a bad idea...Just my     
opinion."
     Ta translated.
     Her parents listened.
     Released from the emotionless void of silence by Khun M.'s
sudden familiar giggle and playful touch, igniting in Khun P.      ***123
an uncharacteristic laugh as he leaned back in his chair,
talking about jobs and how LA was only four-hours drive away, I
almost dared not ask. "Okay, Charlie, what's really going on?"
     "I just got accepted at Cal State LA in the fall to pursue
an MBA in botany."
     "Okay... but that's nine months from now."                       
     "Except mommy wants me to start cosmetology school in
Hollywood first so when I come home for semester breaks I can
teach the massage girls about cutting hair and applying
makeup."                                                         
     "And what do your parents think I am going to be doing all    
that time?"
     "Get a job. Look after me. Does it matter? We can be
together. Seems like my father is even trying to make friends
and maybe recruit you for the Vegas job," she said, her eyes
begging me to trust her.
     "So what's the schedule?" I sighed, leaning back on the
sofa, more relieved than excited. And botany...unless she's
thinking of turning part of the parking lot into a tropical
garden, living in the city, she might as well have decided to
take animal husbandry. I'll have to wait until I can get her
alone to find out what caused this sudden change of heart.
     Ta shuffled in her seat and exchanged glances with her
mom. "Since my two brothers are going back to school in New
Hampshire, they'll be joining us for the first part of the
trip." The thought of having to share a hotel room with them
was already making me apprehensive. Both of them hadn't been
shy about expressing their opinions when it came to how they
felt about my relationship with their sister. "First we fly to
Paris and then to London, spending a few days in each to do
some shopping." She glanced back at her mom, pointing to their
handbags as they both started to giggle and comment about some
almost forgotten, out-of-the-way shop they'd found quite by
accident. "But while we're in England, if you want to take the
train down to Arundel to see your frat brothers doing their
last year at the NEC affiliate school there, we have time."
     "You want to come?"
     "Hairy, I have to look after mommy."
     "Right..."
     "Then my brothers fly out to Boston and we fly to Las
Vegas. After about a week there we travel on to LA while daddy
flies home. Don't worry mommy only wants to stay in LA long     ***124
enough to see some old friends before she goes back, too."
     It was all starting to make sense. Ta's father had always
wanted Ta to marry Joey, but by a cruel twist of fate he was    
now in the hospital, fighting for his life. Even if he
survived, there would be months, maybe years of physical
therapy to undergo before determining whether he had physically
and mentally returned to normal. So putting his dreams of a
political and financial union temporarily on hold, Khun P.      
could afford to let his adamant composure slip and succumb to
the tradeoff of a week in Las Vegas in exchange for Khun M.'s
fulfilling her old graduation promise of letting Ta go back to
work on her MBA. I guess he just thought it was easier to wait
and see. Get what he wanted while he could. Look like the good
guy. Get the upper hand. Not object, and in the end, Ta would
at last come to her senses, getting over the novelty of me.
     Even on the ten-hour firstclass Thai Airways flight from
Bangkok to Paris, he didn't object to our sitting alone
upstairs together. Giving into the magic fingers, hot facial
compresses, and foot massages of his carry-on masseuse, he
didn't even object to Khun M. sneaking a sleeping pill or his
sons pestering the stewardess for more salmon slivers and
lobster tails. It was only when we got to separate rooms in a
Paris hotel...      
     "What are your intentions with our sister?" Cornered,
red-eyed, jet-lagged, my stomach churning from caviar and
champagne, just out of the shower, my two roommates, Ta's two
younger brothers, suddenly came to life.
     Looking up and wiping the mirror, still brushing my
teeth, I watched the steam from the bath soften the fierce eyes
of the short round body, standing firm and the other tall and
slender one, arching nervously behind, both with long shagged
hair, sixteen and eighteen, the older one almost my size, the
younger one taller. I spit into the sink and gargled some
mouthwash before spending a long time flossing and combing my
hair. Surprised by how they waited so patiently for an answer,
I grabbed a face cloth, wiped my mouth, creased my eyebrows,
tickled my ears, hung it up, and turned around. "I'm going to
marry her."
     They looked at each other with widening eyes of shock,
before convulsing into fits of laughter, and almost knocked
each other down, stumbling back into the bedroom. "Good luck
with that," was all Tod said. I didn't know if they were just   ***125
young and stupid or else knew something I didn't. Either way,
they lost interest in challenging me again.
     Paris and London were otherwise just a flurry of designer   
handbags, name-brand shoes, Tiffany jewelry, Chapard watches,
and expensive clothes. Ta bought. I carried. Arundel was a
bust. All my friends had gone skiing around Europe during
January. Chalet parties and fresh Austrian powder were much
sexier alternatives than foggy stone beaches. There was one        
thing about Paris though and it wasn't the escargot, frog legs,
or mustard rabbit. While Ta was shopping in Lido, I saw this
jacket. It was a waist-length chocolate-colored leather wrap
with a hampster-skin lining and bear-skin collar. She caught me
staring at it while she waited to sign a credit-card receipt in
a nearby store, boasting that if I liked it she would buy it
for me. But I just pushed her on, saying I was hungry. Alone,
I went back to try it on. It was a mens small. It was a little
big. But, it was awesome. Warm and soft, I had to have it. Only
exchange rates weren't my thing. A missed decimal point, my
purchase exquisitely packaged, the bill rung up, and the
cashier waiting, I apologised, saying my hotel room and extra
cash were just around the corner. Except I didn't go back. I
didn't have enough money left. Instead, settling for the
distraction of a sidewalk cafe, I cursed the upbringing that 
wouldn't let me just swallow my pride and give Ta the pleasure
of making me happy.
     I had no idea she and her mom...
     Patiently waiting for the boarding and commotion of the
London-New York-Las Vegas flight, they put on a show like a
couple of school-girl friends, feigning an argument over who
was going to get to use my overhead storage bin. Then oops!
Right on cue. They  dropped it in my lap. "Mommy doesn't want
you to get cold," was all she had time to say before, reaching
for Khun M., I tickled her neck with my nose and the bear-skin
collar. They must have guessed. They must have noticed. They
knew I would never have asked for it.
     But that jacket wasn't really mine. It would take years
for it to find its true home. Because it would take that long   
before I really did go home to brothers I hardly knew, to a
sister I could only remember as a kid, to a mom and dad I only
remembered as voices on the phone, to a place I felt secure. I
was only there because I didn't know if I would ever see Ta or
Thailand again. I needed to think. I needed to be someplace      ***126
where every trip to the market didn't remind me all at once we
had been there together. I needed to forget. I needed...I don't
know what I needed. I was ready to fetally wrap up in my        
despair until I saw my brother Don's pain and then I regained
perspective. Epileptic and doing cocaine and giving everyone
the evil eye and talking Manson gibberish and mom not wanting
him in the house and preferring to sleep nights in the
snow-covered woods and having a chemical imbalance and everyone      
knowing it wasn't his fault and his still breaking everyones'
heart and I being new and his trying his antics on me and I     
only smiling and taking off my jacket and saying something       
about it being too hot to wear in Thailand and would he look
after it for me and it fitting him just right and he giving me
a weird smile and mysteriously starting to speak and act
normally and our becoming instant friends, he came back to us.
It was like, for a short time, I had brought home a miracle
coat and it had come directly from Lourdes.
     At least with a stopover in New York, I got a chance to
try it on. But we were there just long enough to do some
shopping in the diamond district. A pair of eight-carat diamond
tear-drop earrings for Khun M., a lavish meal in Chinatown, and
we shuffled off on the red-eye to Las Vegas.                                                          
    
     "Hairy that's not the way you play roulette. You don't
just put down chips on one number. You have to play the
intersections." Ta was having a good time with her stack of
two-dollar chips placing them all over the board in intricately
thought-out patterns. "See even if your number loses you can
still win."
     What did I know, except that, even with all these
exaggerated strategies she had calculated all over the board,
our stack of chips wasn't getting any bigger. But it wasn't
shrinking either. Now starting to feel hunger pangs after what
had been a huge dinner hours ago, I couldn't believe we were
still only breaking even.
     And then....
     Khun P. walked over, laughing, taking a break from a good
run on the bacara table. Not even bothering to take a seat, he
placed a stack of one-thousand-dollar chips on the red. He won.
He let it ride. He won again. He moved them to black. He
couldn't lose. Scooping up his now ten-thousand-dollar bars, he
seemed to be relishing in our frustration more than winning,      ***127
rubbing it in with sympathetic pats on the backs before walking
away with that annoying laugh.
     "Screw this. Let's go get married."                           
     Ta just looked at me smiling, scooped up her chips, and
nodded.                                                            
     We had flown into Las Vegas on the 10:15PM flight and were   
met by a limousine and Khun P.'s friend, the pit boss at the    
Sands Hotel. A few phone calls later and we were special guests
at one of his favorite steak-house restaurants. With all our
bags forwarded to the hotel and placed in our rooms and our
key-cards issued to us before the first course, skipping
dessert, Khun P. and Khun M. rushed off to their own private
bacara table, making it easy for us to now be eyeing a chapel
sign across the street.
     In her long pink silk bathrobe and bunny slippers, holding
a squirming pug in her left arm, and curlers in her hair, the
owner yawned, asking us if we needed witnesses. Without fanfare,
in the next few minutes, we were married. A quick kiss and a
bouquet of roses, a half an hour later, we were back at the
roulette table.                        
     For eight years her parents wouldn't have a clue. We had
followed our hearts, what we had snuck out and done that night.
But those eight unforeseen twist and turn years, none content
to just take tortuous pleasure in pulling us apart and teasing
us with passing moments together, trying to break our code of
silence, mocked us further with every twist of the knife as
they forced us to watch her sister and brothers love, get
married, and do whatever they wanted. But it was a promise I
wouldn't break. Not until Ta was ready would anyone know what
we had done. I had no idea how precious the short time that
we had left to look forward to in LA, alone together, really
was.
 
     Three hours before our flight to LA, we were huddled with
Khun M. around our luggage in front of the reception counter,
waiting for Khun P. who finally emerged from his private bacara
room, looking a bit haggered, his hair tousled, having played
straight through for almost eighteen hours. He didn't let on
about how much he'd lost. But in the hotel lobby on his way to
rejoining us after packing his bag and taking a quick shower,
he was approached by an apologetic floor manager, leading an
entourage, who insisted on comping our penthouse suite and        ***128
upgrading our airline tickets as a goodwill gesture for a
valued customer. That only made Khun P. laugh as he flashed his
American Express gold card at the cashier who seemed to be
waiting anxiously for her boss's cue.                                                        
     After going through the motions of punching in the numbers
and reading the screen, she picked up the phone, nodded, looked
up at Khun P., and nodded again before hanging up and calling
another number; all the time sorting receipts spitting out from
the printer. Except this time, putting down the phone and
looking up, she had news for Khun P. he didn't expect. "Sir, I
cannot accept your card."
     Khun P. didn't say anything. He just stared at her with
dominating eyes like she was one of his servants, cowering in
front of his office desk.
     She faltered a little but kept her composure as she passed
over his marked-paid invoices. "Sir, I cannot accept any
payment from you. My boss says have a safe trip home and he
hopes to see you again soon after you've had time to weigh the
merits of his gaming idea."
     Still growling about getting comped like a junket tourist,
he joined us in the complimentary limosine for the ride to the
airport, never to this day having confided in me how much he
ended up dropping that week.                                                       
                                                                   
     Having said goodbye to Khun P. after a two-hour wait in 
front of the international terminal, we hailed a taxi for our
first stop out of the LAX airport. "Driver take us to the
nearest Toyota dealership," Ta said, helping her mom into the
backseat as I loaded up the trunk.
     Midmorning, Saturday, the signature smog cloaked in a
temperate drizzle, we were just getting comfortable in the
unusually light traffic when came the greeting overhead of
dancing multicolored streamers, laced with whistling red
spinners, waving to the lines of cars - twelve rows deep-
extending down the block to the next cross street.
     As if owning a car was the pinch of reality that meant her
escape from home wasn't a dream, Ta jumped out and was already
exploring the showroom before I could help Khun M. from the
car, pay the fare, and assist the taxi driver unload the bags
onto the curb.                                                            
     "You sure you don't want me to wait?" he asked, giving me
a smile and a nod when I didn't ask for change.
     "We'll be fine." Ta was already running around, opening     ***129
doors, and checking interiors with a salesman following behind,
trying to keep up.                                                 
     Khun M. offered me one of her Dunhill cigarettes content
to watch her through the glass from a benched overhang outside
until a couple of salesmen came out to take charge of our       
luggage, another politely helping her up by the elbow anxious
to escort her into the air-conditioned lounge with its
fresh-brewed coffee, hot-breakfast roll, and stuffed-leather
seat comforts.
     Before I could put out my smoke, Ta found a four-speed
white Corolla coupe she liked and was already in a cubicle
negotiating a price, not even flinching when they brought in a
closer. I looked at Khun M. and shook my head. She nodded in
protest, motioning with her fingers that she would put up a
thousand-to-one in favor of Ta getting the upper hand. I
sheepishly rolled a penny across the coffee table; a feeble
reply that only made her laugh.
     Then she said the strangest thing. It was colloquial Thai.
I don't think I was supposed to understand. She reached in her
handbag for a wad of hundreds. "Go help your mia." Mia is slang
for wife.
     I walked up to the cubicle. "Mommy's tired." I looked at
the invoice. "A tank of gas and insurance can we get out of
here?"
     "I'm sorry." the closer said. "That's below cost."
     "Charlie, come on. Lets go look at Hondas."
     "You'll take the car today?" he asked.
     "I'll come back and buy you lunch if we have a deal and I
can get some sleep."
     He looked out the window and pinched his nose as he slowly
rose, shook his head, and picked up the phone. He had seen the
cash. The rain meant few customers that day. The car would take
an hour to detail. First sale of the morning. No credit
hassles. We were done.
     Waiting for the car, Ta and her mom chatted over sips of
steaming coffee and chain-smoked cigarettes as the soft fur of
my new jacket mingled with the recliner leather, bringing on
another-world dream flight that took another salesman's nudge
to reanimate me back to earth. It might as well have been real,
so much was the difference between here and Thailand. He just
wanted to alert me to a boarding of a different kind.
     Ta had jumped in, anxious to get a feel for her new ride       ***130
around town, paying special close attention to the salesman's
gadgetry explanations as Khun M. allowed the closer to politely     
adjust her passenger-side seat, both directing the detail
mechanic, loading the luggage, whether it needed to go in the
back or would be fine in the trunk. They were like two kids
anxious to go exploring. Walking up yawning, I hadn't expected
that the door would be locked. Khun M., remembering our bet,
wouldn't give up; she wanted her penny first.

     Ta pounded the gears until they screamed, manuevering down 
and negotiating through the southern LA avenues and boulevards,
taking her new toy through its paces and having fun, like she
was first off the light in a Bangkok suburb. Khun M. didn't
seem to mind, sitting peacefully and enjoying the view. But in
my tangled mess, wrestling with bouncing backseat luggage that
had my legs pinned numb, it was all I could do to not let out a 
scream of my own, wondering when the torture would end.
     It was only after Ta took a left turn and all I could hear
was the hum of first gear - two minutes, three minutes, just a
steady hum. Slow and easy, sometimes grinding - that I got any
relief. "Charlie are we almost there? Is something wrong with
the car? Why are we going so slow?"
     "Hairy, this is the most famous and expensive street in
the world. This is Rodeo Drive. We're in Beverly Hills."
     Cartier, Bulgari, Fred's, Van Cleef's, and Harry Winston
international jewelers...Versace, Armani, Christian Dior, and
Pierre Cardin fashion designers...Bally, Testoni, Prada,
Aigner, and Gucci leather crafters. All iconic names, I wasn't
familiar with any of them.
     But the cars...
     Porsches, Lotuses, Lambourginis, Ferraris, and Mazerratis
parading by with their tough-car growls past stretch limosines,
Bentleys, Rolls Royces, and BMWs, lining the curbs like maple
trees down a village main street, now that, to me, was iconic.
     "So where are the cowboys?"
     "Hairy, it's pronounced ro-day-oo not ro-dee-oo."
     "Okay, then that's not a Mazerra-tea. It's a mazerra-tay,
right?" Ta just turned around and looked me up and down with a
smirk as she shook her head.
                                                               
     After another almost-bearable forty-five minutes, we took  
one last turn onto Hollywood Boulevard. "Charlie, isn't there    ***131
supposed to be a Chinese theatre here with stars of famous         
actors engraved in the sidewalks?"
     "Hairy, we are in North Hollywood in the Hollywood Hills.
Where you're talking about is a few miles from here. You don't
want to go there."
     "Why not? I thought everyone who came to LA visited
Hollywood Boulevard."
     "Okay, you have all the Japanese and other tourists with
their cameras hanging around the Chinese theatre and searching
the sidewalks for famous star imprints. But you also have all
the gays, walking down the street in their bra-length tank
tops, exposing what they can with suggestive holes carved out
in their high-cut jeans. And they're not shy about not wearing
any underwear to flaunt what they've got."
     "No way." That image alone turned me off to visiting the
tourist mecca. It was traumatic enough just having to subject
myself to refits by her gay Bangkok tailor.
     "Then there are all the dirty runaway teenagers and
sidewalk derelict drunks, following you around, begging for
money."
     "Well, that sounds familiar."
     "If you get past them you still have the crazies dressed
in robes with long beards, holding bibles, trying to convert
you to their religion before the end of the world. And don't
forget the homeless, pushing around shopping carts full of
their belongings, eating out of garbage cans, and looking for
the next cardboard box to hold up in for the night. Hairy, it's
worse than Bangkok. It's scary."
     "Maybe some time we can take a drive by in the car. You
know, just keep the windows up..."
     And then, there it was, Vista View, a security apartment
of three floors and thirty units all facing a courtyard heated
swimming pool. Her mom's friend, who lived there for a while
when she first came to LA, had seen to all the preliminary
arrangements. Ta's one-bedroom furnished apartment was ready
for her to move into right away. She had even taken pains to
outfit the bedroom, bathroom, and kitchen, with special care
given to stocking the frig full of hard-to-find imported Thai
cuisine. Not only that, as Ta turned the key, her nose perked.
Her aunt Pat was already inside, cooking a welcome Thai
roast-duck dinner, ignoring her husband, Boonthai, sprawled out  
on the floor, eating Thai buffalo chips and watching tv. The     ***132
last thing they bought with the rest of Khun M.'s money.            
                                                                                                                                 
     After a few days of getting reacquainted with milk shakes,
french fries, onion rings, bacon cheeseburgers, and pepperoni
pizzas, watching late-night movies, Ta started school, Khun M.
visited friends, and I went out looking for that elusive first
job. Except first, I needed to find a cheap nearby fallback
apartment to keep the bulk of my things in. A retreat to fall
back on, during those rare unannounced family visits - her
parents on their way to Las Vegas - was the reassurance they
needed that we weren't living together.
     For Ta it was easy. Hop in the car, little traffic, and
take the fifteen-minute drive down La Brea Avenue to the
intersection of Wilshire Boulevard. There in a strip mall,
with easy parking, was the Marinello Cosmetology Institute, 
just a walk across the street from the farmers market.
     But where she wanted to spend her time. What she was
really interested in. What allured her with memories of home.
It was the end of the day. Away from the hair. Away from the
chemicals. Away from the rumbling dryers and gossiping
students. Her heart longed to be bathed in the aroma of her
culinary imagination. A ritual walk across the street before
driving back and stopping off at Canter's, a Jewish deli,
knowing I craved their beefy cold-cut sandwiches and Khun M.
enjoyed their rich creamy desserts, she needed to get lost in
the smells of the market and arrive home, not only with our
coveted snacks, but her market booty for the day, as well.
Still in her white uniform, she'd turn the kitchen into a
swirling scented melting pot of salivating flavors and perky
spices. I was going to enjoy her idea of homework.
     For me, without a car, new to my surroundings, unfamiliar
with where anything was, having no idea where I was going, not
even owning a suit, comfortable in my tailor-made dress shirt,
Calvin Klein designer jeans, Cartier watch, and Puma sneakers,
thumbing the last three-hundred bucks in my pocket, options
were much more up in the air as I walked down the hill trying
to get my bearings.
     It was still early. The yawning sun barely made an
impression, casting long shadows through the trees as if I was
walking through and could just make out the end of a tunnel. 
Even the birds seemed unusually quiet. Maybe over here the smog ***133
screwed with their vocal chords. The air was definitely thick.  
I didn't even want a cigarette.
     Half way down the hill, looking off down a side street, I
got distracted. It was the candy-apple red 1965 356-c Porsche   
roadster convertible with deep-dish silver centerline mags and  
individual chrome roll bars behind each seat, staring back that
caught my attention. It was the last year they made that
classic. The top was down and it invited me closer with the
distinctive aroma of Corinthian leather. It wasn't a car you
touch. It was a car you admire.
     "You have good taste." He was a tall heavyset African
American with a goutee, sunglasses, a white t-shirt, khaki
shorts, and flip flops, in his mid-thirties, bending over to
tie his kids shoelaces. One boy. One girl. Both with matching
backpacks. They couldn't have been more than five or six. I
figured he didn't want to entrust the school bus with his two
young treasures anymore than he wanted to leave his other
pride-and-joy unattended there exposed on the curb.
     "And you have cute kids," I said.
     "I have a couple more still in diapers. Can I help you
with something?" he asked, grabbing his lower back as he
stretched to stand up.
     "I'm looking for a cheap studio apartment around here. Any
ideas?"
     "Yeah. I own this building," he said, just as the
neighborhood carpool pulled up to escort his kids. 
     I hadn't yet bothered to look up from the Porsche or past
him to see the apartment logo, peeking out from behind the
desert deco of cactii, framing the front gate. "I need
something furnished and today."
     He held out his hand. "Bill."
     Craning my neck, I extended mine. "Tom."
                                                               
     Having never before rented an apartment or experienced
Southern California hospitality, I was taken aback by the
familial atmosphere. The more we talked about his Porsche and
the more he asked about Thailand, the more it felt like two
long-time friends, catching up. Even his petite Mexican wife
Tina in cutoff jeans and an orange tank top with gold-streaked
long coke-colored hair got into the act. Offering coffee and
Sara Lee, she entrusted one of her six-month-old twins to my     ***134
arms as if I was a long-lost uncle. Only, wasting little time,
the squirmish imp, not recognizing the family resemblance,
burped oatmeal and peaches all over my last pressed shirt.       
     Tina had seen the eruption coming. But with a pot of
coffee in one hand and a dish of Danish in the other, she
didn't stand a chance of bailing me out in time.
     Embarrassed.
     Mortified.
     Apologizing profusely.
     She grabbed up her daughter for a quick change, cursing
past her blind-sided husband who was totally unaware of what
just happened, having only a moment ago come out from the back
room with the rental agreement, an LA map, and today's LA Times
classified section, after checking up on their other sleeping
twin. 
     Walking back out, this time cradling both babies in her
arms, as we were finishing up the paperwork, Tina was still
beside herself with guilt. "Tom, I'm so sorry. I know you were
planning to go out looking for a job today. I'll have that
dry-cleaned for you. I tried looking through all of Bill's
shirts but I think the smallest one would probably come down
to your knees. This one, from when I was eight months pregnant,
I think it will fit you for now."
     "'Momma Knows Best' and it's forest green. My favorite
color. I love it. Perfect t-shirt for a new-car-sales job
interview," I said, trying it on.
     "You found something?" Tina asked.
     "Yeah. Six bills a month. A car. And it's a short walk
from here," I said, sniffing the scent of her fabric softener.
     "You're going to go dressed like that?" she asked,
reshuffling her kids in her arms.
     "Hell yeah. Your kid burped on me. That definitely has to
be good luck," I said, glad her shirt lacked a pregnancy bump.
     Bill nodded to his wife. He grabbed his keys. The least he
could do was give me a lift.

     After a ten-minute fish-tail glide, Bill pulled into the
used-car lot of the Buick dealership, right up to the showroom
entrance. Hopping into a decked-out Riviera, I gave him a final
salute. He waved back before throttling off.
     "It gets twenty-three miles to a gallon," the salesman
said. "But this is the general manager's car. We have..."
     "I saw in the paper you guys are looking for a salesman.   ***135
Who should I talk to about that?"                              
     "That would be..."                                          
     "Wait. My name is Tom. What's your's?                        
     "Leon."                                                       
     "Glad to meet you. Have you had lunch yet?"
     "Well, no. But..."
     "Come on, I'm buying. I need to find out some information
about this place first before I decide if I want to work here
or not."
     He looked around, grabbing his obvious gut. "My choice?
I can get away for half-an-hour or so."
     "Perfect. You have a car right? Let's go."
     Leon in his familiar salesman attire of white shoes, white
belt, red pants, yellow shirt, red tie, and plaid jacket held
up a finger for me to wait there. This had to look like he was
taking out a potential customer on a demo ride.
     And in typical fast-talking car-salesman fashion, it
didn't take long, over burritos and margaritas, to find out
everything I needed to know about everyone working there.

     "You ready?" Leon asked, one hand strumming a toothpick,
the other massaging his gut.
     "Piece of cake. What's his name again?"
     "Roy. Roy Gulbro."
     Roy was an old guy, about sixty, with glasses, about my
size, the general manager. What he lost in stature, he made up
for in arrogance and intimidation. Sitting in the center office
facing all the salesman cubicles, he dared anyone to approach
him without a profit-making proposition.
     "Tom, in that t-shirt, if you get the job, the next lunch
is on me," Leon said confidently.
     "Bro, if I get the job, you are going to have to start
following some of my fashion tips," I said, poking him in the
arm as I went into Roy's office, sat down, and started to work
on the LA Times crossword puzzle.
     He didn't even notice. Chain-smoking, lighting another
before the first one was finished, he continued to yell into
the phone at the parts department, before barking into another
extension at the leasing office, on and on, working his way
down the lit call buttons. Three cigarettes later, still on the
phone and now signing invoices, he didn't even look up when I    ***136
grabbed his empty coffee mug. I knew. Black with three sugars.  
     Then that curious stare from the young guy, working the  
other desk of the two-man office, as I replaced the mug. A bit    
older than me, tall, heavyset, corporate haircut, latent acne
scars, and preppy dressed, he had to be wondering who was this
kid. I knew he wondered. But I sat there too confident for him   
to ask. Like maybe he should have known and didn't want to
embarrass himself. I know you Murphy. Sales manager. Twenty-six
and single. Still living with your foxy older sister.
     Finally, wheezing and cursing, Roy put down the phone, lit
another cigarette, leaned back, and stared at me.
     Not even raising my head from the newspaper, "Do you know
a seven-letter word for enigma?"                         
     He didn't respond.
     It was now or never. "Seems you could use a few extra
salesmen around here."
     "Why do you think that?" he asked, taking off his glasses
to rub his eyes.
     "Because I'm sitting here and noone asked me if I wanted
to buy a car," I said, confident he hadn't seen me walking
around the lot with Leon.
     "And why do you even think I would consider hiring you?
You aren't even wearing a suit and I don't see a resume," he
snarled.
     "Just graduated. Just got back from Thailand. Just got
married. And just have enough money till the end of the month.
Buying suits and typing resumes were kind of a low priority.
But I know you just got a letter from your daughter. She's in
Austria now, skiing, right? And her boyfriend Pete, you never
liked him. And you're still wondering when Murphy there is
going to get his own place. And your wife's birthday last week,
was it a ruby or sapphire ring you bought her? And...well, you
know. How else do you sell cars if you don't know your
clientele first. It was three sugars and no milk, right?"
pointing to his fresh cup of coffee. "No resume. But I did my
homework. And the shirt...well...it was the best I could do on
such short notice. Babies don't seem to care whether its
Thai-tailored silk you're wearing and your last clean one when
they have to go, if you know what I mean. And no, I don't have
any of my own; it was my landlord's kid."
     "Murphy, come here. Take this kid to see Charlie. I've got
work to do," Roy said, lighting up another cigarette as he        ***137
grabbed the phone to fill in his boss on what to expect.         
     Charlie Speight, the owner, with balding white hair and an
impressive gut, in a tailor-made light-grey silk suit, linen
white shirt, and green-striped tie, balancing half-moon reading
glasses on the lower ridge of his nose, had the air and accent
of a smooth-talking southern politician on the phone behind his
desk. Murphy went to stand by his side and whisper something in
his ear when he hung up. He had overheard me in the office with
Roy and was curious to see what was coming next.
     "Son," he started, in an almost fatherly tone after
rubbing his forehead and taking off his glasses. "That was
damned entertaining how you pissed off my general manager. I
like a balsy son-of-a bitch. But I'm here to sell cars and have
my salesmen make me money. God knows college tuitions for..."
     "Your daughters Cathy and Sandy at USC?" I guessed.
     He hesitated, looking up at Murphy who put a fisted hand
to his mouth to keep from laughing. "Right...Damned boy, I have
applications up the ying yang, guys wanting to work here. Why
should I waste my time hiring you?"
     "Just like you should buy that summer house for you wife
up on Crescent Heights instead of the one down along Malibu
Drive, you want a good return on your investment. And goddamn
it," standing up and leaning over his desk. "I'll be the best
salesman you ever had."
     Mr. Speight picked up the phone. "Roy, you were right. Get
this young man a demo and an advance for some clothes. I want
him to start tomorrow. And you Murphy," cradling the phone as
if we weren't supposed to hear what he said next. "He is your
responsibility. You can get him started on the cold-call
prospect sheets. I'm sure with your guidance he'll be
productive in a week. Now get out of here and close the door
behind you. Damned place is starting to sound like Grand
Central Station."
     Murphy escorted me into the hallway but I couldn't help
thinking about one thing in particular...
     A burping baby and a lucky t-shirt, requiring a novel
approach to a job interview, Tina couldn't have planned it any
better, proving the old adage "Momma Knows Best."
     
                                                                
     "Roy, I need a new demo."  Leaning over his desk and
paperwork with my dangling tie blocking his view, I thought was         (Line 4 w/2 space section gap is ***138)
my best shot at getting his attention.                                                                          
     "If there's something wrong with your Buick Regal coupe,
take it into the service department." Not even looking up, he  
lit another cigarette and continued signing the now shifted
invoices from the leasing department for another hundred cars
that were getting shipped out to the Hertz rental company the
following week.
     "It's not that. It's an old folks car. Can I have one of
the Opels?" I asked, sitting down and leaning my chin on the
crossed fingers of my propped up arms.
     Roy put down his pen and looked up with a sarcastic smile,
shaking his head at Evan, his balding lease-car manager,
standing there waiting for the documentation. And as if only
then, realizing what I was asking, choked and started caughing,
putting out his cigarette and rolling back in his chair. "You
want a what?"
     "Come on..." Jeez, it wasn't like I was trying to give the
old man a coronary. All the salesmen drove Regals. He drove a
Riviera. Charlie drove an Electra. It was just a suggestion.
Noone drove an Opel demo. "You have three hundred of them...
two-door sedans, sport coupes, and wagons with none of them
detailed for test drives. This is the last year Buick is
importing them as a loss-leader from Germany. You're not
getting any more. And this year they have fuel-injection. Next
year they're coming from Japan equiped with sloppy, dogged
four-cylinder engines, made by Isuzu. We both know Japanese
cars are tin-cans, but Isuzu cars are the tinniest." I knew Roy
couldn't care less about any foreign car. As far as he was
concerned, if they weren't made in America, they were all
worthless junk, especially since they came with such small
profit margins.
     "And you know this because?" Roy asked, taking a sip of
coffee and lighting up another cigarette.
     "I read Road & Track and Motor Trend magazines. Why do you
think my office is wallpapered in charts? This year's Opel is
way more technically advanced than any of its rivals," I said,
laughing to myself that I was trying to sell him like a
prospect out on the lot.
     "Sorry, I can't give you one as a demo," he said, picking
up and reviewing another invoice.
     "Then I'll buy one," I said, staring at him until he put
it down.
     Roy rolled around in his chair, looking back up at Evan.    ***139
"Do you believe this?" Evan smiled and shook his head but
didn't seem to be in such a hurry now to get back to work,
crossing his arms and leaning back on the file cabinet, waiting
to see how this all played out.
     "Sell it to me at cost and I'll use it as my demo," I
said, now more determined than ever that I wasn't going to
leave his office without getting one.
     Roy had only one question. "Why?" It didn't make sense to
him that I would give up the comforts of a mid-size car with
its velour interior, power windows, and power seats, that I
could drive for free, in exchange for, monthly car payments and
a bumby ride that didn't even include such basics as a stereo
or air-conditioning. 
     "The new car show at the LA Convention Center next month,"
I said, wondering if I could have the car ready by then.
     Roy and Evan looked at each other puzzled.
     I didn't know if they could relate to my vision. "This car
looks like a BMW 2002. If I put racing mirrors over the front
wheel wells; blacked out all the chrome and rear tail light
sections; bypassed the catalytic converter via dual Monza
exhausts; cut the springs and added Koni shocks; included a
blaupunc stereo with six-way Bose speakers; put in Recaro
racing seats; popped in a walnut, black-slotted racing steering
wheel; fitted it with fourteen-inch chrome mags and low series
one-ninty-five Yokohama racing tires; walnuted the dash and
designed a console including sexy gauges; topped it off with a
moon-roof and you let me display it at the show, I could sell
the stock models like..."  
     "Like what?" Roy seemed interested to hear the rest of my
pitch.
     "Like full pop, no discount, I know we could clear out a
lot of stock if customers saw the car's potential," I said,
confident that in seeing my determination, he wouldn't object
to my being the sole salesman at the Opel exhibit.
     "You have money for this?" Roy asked.
     "Bank of America next door just gave me my first Master
Card. I'll be fine. I have cash for the downpayment on the car
and before the bill comes in at the beginning of the month for
everything else, my commissions will have been processed.
Charlie only gave me the first two month's as salary before
switching me to a hundred bucks a pop. I sold eighteen cars
last month. I'll do way more with the show, for sure," I said,   ***140
calculating in my head if I really had enough.
     "Okay kid. Go pick a car. You know how to write it up,"   
Roy said, turning to get back to his invoices.
     "I already have, a white four-speed sedan with a red
interior. I already pulled it up from the back lot. It's
sitting outside in the detail line." But laying a check for
the downpayment, the sales agreement, and the car jacket on his
desk, I made one mistake as I called back after walking out of
his office. "Do I get credit for a sale on the board, too?"
     That just prompted a loud wheezing coughing growl, echoing
out into the hall, turning prospective customer and salesman
heads. Something about getting a kick in the ass if I bothered
him any more that day.

     It was hard to believe, looking back, that I had been here
and lasted almost four months. Those first days of mid-January
1975, in LA, on Santa Monica Boulevard between Highland and La
Brea Avenues, a couple miles north of the farmers market, had
been drearily cold and wet with the only rays of sunshine and
warmth, coming from the decaled vending machine, stamped with a
beach scene, where I stood huddled drinking steaming-hot coffee
or piping-hot soup when I wasn't shivering on the lot or in an
office that looked like Johnny Cochrain's, in eight-by-ten
miniature, being prepared, in ernest, for the O.J. Simpson
trial.
     Color-coded charts wallpapered the lower walls forcefully
advocating our products in lieu of the competition. Cold-call
prospect books, indexed by year, covered the desk, waiting to
be redialed, in between reading underlined chapters of Buick
product manuals, piled up by model on borrowed customer chairs.
Car magazines, littering the floor, highlighted with yellow
post-it notes, next to poster paper, rulers, and colored pens,
reminded me I had yet to make my Opel, Toyota, Honda, Mazda,
Audi comparisons. Sales agreement documents, ownership transfer
pads, credit acceptance applications, prospect information
sheets, and trade-in assessment forms under a blue-book
paperweight foretold what I could only learn by doing, further
fueling my initial confusion.
    
     Then there was that first day after I got the job, a car,
and an advance, and raced back home to change my shirt before
going out to find a suit and unexpectedly ran into khun M. and   ***141
her friends, she politely sipping tea and they ill-mannerly     
asking to borrow money. Seeing my car keys and guessing my      
success, she somehow convinced them to drop everything. I was
taking them for a ride. She said something about Beverly Hills
and a Hermes scarf.
     But what she whispered next - Pat and Boonthai getting
confortable in the back - as I leaned over adjusting her
seatbelt and powerseat, was just a taste of how I would come
to know her over the years. Broken English, "TJ...son...
money...car box...no tell Ta...look after her...I go home
soon." It was her way of hinting that she was on our side and
didn't object to our being together, what she squirrelled away
in the glove compartment.
 
     Diagonally parking, grabbing the last spot in front of an
upscale fashion boutique, I had a tight squeeze helping Khun M.
out of the front seat. But the true pinch was who we had the
misfortune of parking next to. Fortyish, arrogant, outspoken,
in a tennis-sweater neck wrap, taking his eyes off grooming
himself in the mirror of his top-down Bently only long enough
to make loud snide remarks to his backseat friends about
slant-eyed foreigners wearing sandals being low class, he was,
at first, just an annoyance to ignore, confident that my guests
didn't understand a word of English. But when he persisted, as
I held the seat for Pat and Boonthai to get out, carrying on
about how they were all boat-people, who he'd caught many times
rummaging through his garbage and stealing food from his dog's
dish, I lost it, flashing him back the bird, almost ready to
head for the trunk and a crowbar if he wanted to make something
of it.
     But what he did next, I hadn't expected. Starting his car,
he screeched back in reverse, annoyed that his friends were now
all laughing and hounding him. Turning around, I saw what had
caused the sudden change of heart. Six raised middle fingers
and three stone-cold faces, staring back from the curb, they
knew from my reaction what he had said, backing me up, not with
a crowbar, but a Thai sledgehammer, instead.
     My face melted as I teared up laughing. Here were the
three oriental musketeers of intimidation, their epees drawn,
ready for battle.
     "TJ, we'll be back in about half an hour. Is that okay?
Since you're about my husband's size, to the rear of Pierre        ***142
Cardin fashions you'll find all the teenage sizes. He bought a    
suit there once. They're about a third of the men's-size
price," Pat said as they each grabbed one of Khun M.'s arms,
leading her into the adjacent shop. There was something about
these two the way they fussed over her, cuuing and fondling. It
was as if they couldn't be trusted. I was sure they were
scamming.
     The medieval oak doors buzzed a welcome but didn't attract
a salesperson as I walked in. Not even after strolling down the
rows past size ten, past size twelve, past size fourteen, past
size sixteen, and finally to size eighteen had anyone noticed.
But at seventy bucks for a three-piece suit, sixteen for a
dress shirt, and twelve for a tie, I did. Still undisturbed by
any looming staff, I was trying to sort out the right color
combinations when guess who showed up.
     "TJ, you like mommy's scarf?" Pat asked, stroking it and    
carressing Khun M.'s tied-back hair.                           
     "Mommy doesn't need a scarf to look hot," I said as
Boonthai translated and mommy reached over, giggling, to give
me a finger-pinching kiss on the cheek.
     "So did you find something you like?" Pat asked pawing at
Khun M.'s shoulder and glancing down at her own shopping bag.
     "Can't decide. Light-blue, cream-beige, or forest-green
suit. Three of these six ties I could get by with. Four or five
of these twelve shirts I like... Can I have a minute?" I asked,
still alone without a sales rep having noticed, wondering about
the best combination.                   
     Pat translated to Khun M. before saying, "Okay we're
done."
     "What do you mean, we're done?" I asked, a bit annoyed
when she coaxed out Khun M.'s credit card.
     "Mommy's tired and needs a nap. While we take care of this
why don't you go warm up the car. Don't worry, this entire
wardrobe is a going-away present from her," she said, having
already taken advantage, Boonthai holding two other bags of her
name-brand purchases.
     Add in the cordovan-stained leather Bally boots bought,
shopping Paris; the matching crocodile belt and wallet picked
up, touring Bangkok; and the Cartier watch and Pilot pen
gifted, weekending Hong Kong; my closet full, I was ready for
business, not unlike the first day of class. Well, not college,
that first day was a hayride up a mountain with a couple kegs   ***143
of beer, more like the first day of high school. Except,
instead of notebooks, pens, pencils, and erasers, my next stop
would be a newsstand for current and back issues of car
magazines.
     There was just one thing missing. And it wasn't the
tingling, I was feeling, sitting there waiting, knowing I was
getting that much closer to being Khun M.'s son. It was my
inability to mimic their steely stare, void of emotion, that
caused me to give in to Pat and walk out, knowing that if I
stayed there much longer, there would have been a sullen
confrontation.
     I didn't like it that this couple had the nerve to take
advantage of Khun M. But because of her, I didn't want to
embarrass anyone. It was an art she would never quite be able
to teach me. Not until she passed away many years later, when
not caring anymore, did it become second nature. But only after
the concerted consequences of everything else that happened
came to a head, would I be numbed enough to actually embrace
it.
                       
     For now, that was non. Alone with Ta again and getting
into a new job, I was looking forward to discovering where our
futures were heading together. Besides her chicken-salad
sandwiches every day for a brown-bagged lunch... 
     Angie, red hair and pushing fifty, a chatty Hollywood
native, I got to know first. Running the switchboard just
inside the front door, behind the brochure display, next to the
customer lounge, she got the cold-customer calls and shouted
out for a salesman to pick up. So, bringing her Thai cookies
and free nail-polish samples from Ta's school seemed like the
easiest way to get on her good side. Spiced up with some
personal gossip, just personal enough to make her blush and
conspire with whispered advice, pleased to see me listen so
attentively, I hoped to solidify a bond, a phone-ringing edge,
a head's up before anyone else.
     Studying, calling, charting, keeping an eye on the lot,
and thumbing the phone everytime the switchboard lit up, I was
pretty much on my own, with only her to chat with, until I ran
into Leon again. On the open-air showroom floor, butting the
Santa Monica Boulevard curb, spraying and wiping and pulling
off the plastic seat covers of a custom fully-loaded Buick
Riviera, getting it ready for a potential customer to inspect,   ***144
he accidently sprayed my window with a thunderous jet of water,
the impact almost knocking me out of my chair. That was okay. I
needed a break. Walking outside, I asked if he needed some
help.
     At forty-two, all he wanted was someone to confide in
about his wife, looking to divorce him, take full custody of
their ten and twelve-year-old boys and stick him with alimony.
He didn't think that it was fair that she could cheat on him,
ask for a divorce, and then expect him to take care of her.
     For a guy that wore the same thing every day, only
changing his tie, trying to comb his hair up the sides and from
the back to hide his balding spot, I didn't know what to say or
do except let him talk. Losing his hair and his family was
nightmare enough. He didn't need my opinion to make himself
feel worse.
     "So what are you girls flirting about. Getting ready to
take that car out for a ride and a rumble in the back seat? My
you do make a cute couple," a burly voice from behind us shouted
out.
     My first taste of Barney humor. He was everyone's friend.
Tipping six-feet-six and three-hundred pounds plus, in his
mid-thirties, dressed all in black with a white-silk tie, he
seemed amused that, craning from the bulging belt-buckle level,
I had to strain to meet his gaze. Always joking around, it
wouldn't take a week before, trying to impress a girl in the
service line, he lifted me up and stuck me on the overhanging
roof of the entrance to the parts department. Delighted that in
my suit I couldn't get down, he hadn't expected to run into Roy,
driving back from lunch, eyes flaring like he was ready to
knee-cap him. But somehow, even with that, he managed to get
away unscathed. It was his infectious laugh. Most effectively
employed when a customer tried to get a low-ball price, his
good-natured outbursts could shake the glass cubicle partitions
like a sonic blast. As much fun as he was, I couldn't help but
feel sorry for him, being in the same boat as Leon, having lost
his pretty young wife who had taken off with a Redondo Beach
surfer only a few months ago.
     "What are you fellas having a picnic? I just got a classic
65 Riviera in trade. Why aren't you all on the phones trying to
sell it for me?" asked Ed Boyd, the used-car sales manager and
closer, who was always patrolling the lot, looking for salesmen
with too much free time on their hands.                              ***145
     Soft-spoken, tall and trim, impeccably dressed but never
wearing a suit jacket, preferring to let his ruby cufflinks and
diamond-studded pinky ring accent his fondness for gesturing
and reassuring with the well-practiced hands of a fatherly
figure, he had literally written the book - not for outside
publication - on selling cars that I had almost memorized -all
three-hundred-and-two pages - cover to cover. Field-tested and
effectiveness-proven, it made selling under him not just an
art, but an insane tug-of-war exhibition. Even after fighting
for an hour to agree on a price that would close the deal, I'd
have to put up with the humiliation of getting sent back for
another two-hundred dollars. Then it would rage personal,
turning into a battle between me and him, until the customer,
like an innocent bystander, was begging to caugh up the
difference just to wiggle free of us. All too often, before
that happened, the exchanges grew so heated that Roy had no
choice except to get involved, ordering a timeout in his office
and arbitrating a compromise. I almost quit so many times. But
Ed did, as a mentor, make me the best. Being the only kid, not
tainted by former bad sales habits, I was the only one he could
mold with the assurance of not getting decked.                        
     "Fucked up again boys...Ba-bush-ka...Yes, how are you
folks? Glad to see you again...Why didn't you call me first? I
would have sent out for coffee and doughnuts...now I'll have to
wait until you have the car of your dreams before we can toast
with caviar and champagne." It was Bo. Like a derringer,
undetected and concealed, he exploded from between the showroom
models, racing right past us, to greet a customer and his wife
just walking onto the lot.
     Opting for a vest, rolled up sleeves, and a loosened tie,
the youngest of the bunch, he was my stiffest competition when
it came to walk-in traffic. Not even above wearing sneakers to
get the jump on everyone else, he would have been the first if
Roy sanctioned warm-up suits. But he had a strategy uniquely
more refined than that; one he had perfected well before then
to his advantage.
     Standing a vigil outside, waiting for a customer to roll
in, was no guarantee. I learned that the hard way. Coming out
with stories of the old country, his wife, and a new restaurant
they tried last night, Bo, with his gyrating arms, had a knack
for getting you turned around and looking in the other
direction just as a customer pulled up. A pat on the shoulder,       ***146
a push, and a run, he was greeting them with open arms like
long lost friends before you realized what just happened.
Slippery as a Romanian gypsy, born in Yugoslavia, he was the
most conniving good-natured manipulator I had ever met.
                                                              
     How our rivalry progressed from there had more to do with
Roy's next promotional idea than any juvenile scheming we could
have thought up ourselves; one he had stumbled on the day
before the car show, that morning brain-storming with Charlie.
     Singled out and marched as if in secret through the parts
department, past the service lift-bays, and onto the back lot,
we came face-to-face with the unveiling of what could only be
described as a practical joke. But when Roy tossed us the keys
to what looked like two zinc-oxide noseguards for tanning Mount
Rushmore presidents and said we could have the rest of the
afternoon to get them across town, even with his sarcastic
cigarette-plumed smirk, we knew he was serious. A marketing
ploy, if CHIPs didn't pull us over for a DUI spot-inspection
just for driving one, they were meant to generate interest in
the upcoming event.
     He mumbled something about they had been Charlie's idea...
his future son-in-law was involved...electric cars...the next
wave...three-thousand-plus bucks for a glorified golf cart...
new age crap...an embarrassment...do your best to get rid of
them...before reassuring us that with a forty-mile range and
top speed of thirty-five mph, they'd be a breeze to drive the
eighteen miles to the convention center in no time. We'd be
back at work in a couple of hours.
     Roy had relied on the manual but underestimated us. The
sun shining and heading west, for the first twelve miles down
Santa Monica and Sunset Boulevards, we were like high-speed
bumper cars, neck-and-neck, with motorist horns blaring,
cheering us on. I only regretted having forgotten to bring my
sunglasses along. Then that last hill in front of the USC
campus before the Santa Monica Freeway underpass. We both hit
it barreling along at a thirty-five-mph clip, fading to
twenty-five, struggling at fifteen, melting to ten...five feet
from a gravity push, Bo coasted out of sight over the top. The
accelerator still to the floor, slowing, stopped, and now
rolling backwards with impatient car horns screaming at me to
get out of the way, I pumped the brakes and rolled into the
curb. My ride exhausted of juice, I lit a cigarette, and          ***147 
hopped out, waving the cars on to sympathetic honks until Bo        
showed up, rapping his chest like he had just won the Indy 500.
But all I cared about by then was that he had coasted into a      
gas station and called back for a tow. Both of us stranded, we
started laughing. It had been a climactic afternoon.

     The first call from the show back to the dealership, Roy,
in his wildest dreams, never expected. With his finest new
Buicks, fully loaded, offering every option, on display at
bargain prices, it was sure to be a question concerning a
trade-in or a different stereo system since noone would dare
match his "below invoice" trumped up prices. Or even with my
Opel, showcased above the rest, trimmed in German-Alpina racing
gear, an inquiry about that lot was an outside possibility. But
to be regarding two exhausted electric gocarts and a geriatric
invalid couple's bid, that was almost too bizarre and beyond
comprehension.
     Jeffery and Ester Clemmons, he with his walker, she with
her cane, seemed joined at the hip and shuffled in-step as they
made their way over, snails-pace and wavering. He ran his hand
down the plastic shell of the strangely-shaped craft paying
special close attention to the removable side windows while she
fumbled in her purse for his reading glasses. Still curious and
starting to shake, he leaned on me for support as I opened the
door. Settled in, he encouraged his wife to join him in the
cramped two-seater but she would have nothing to do with it.
Instead, pointing at its twin, she was determined to try one
out all on her own. Gripping the steering wheels, playing with
the gadgets, and looking at each other like they were waiting
for a green light, the keys turned and the engines quiet, they
jerked together an unexpected start.
     Both startled, an armed anthem to their chests, fearing
they would get claustrophobic or worse, I decided to get them
out before having to call the pharmetics. Turns out it was an
occasion to provide a bit of impromptu marriage counseling.
Jeffery was tired of having to accompany Ester on the bus
everytime she wanted to go have her hair done, afraid as she
was to travel alone. And she was tired of waiting for him to
get dressed so they could get to bingo before the first round.
A near-end-of-life crisis or something, writing a check for six
grand seemed less a struggle for Jeffery than trying to
unentangle himself into the office chair now that there was a    
way around what they had been fussing about. Nodding, coaxing     ***148
Ester to give me a kiss on the cheek when I hesitated, he
pushed over the phone, confident that in biding his time, they
would end up with approval for a senior-citizen one-shot
discount.                    
     "Roy, those electric cars, six grand for both? I have a
check in full and signed paperwork."
     "Who in their right mind...Call the bank and make sure
it's good. We'll detail those crates for tomorrow before these
global-warming types have a chance to come to their senses.
What's going on with my Opels?"
     "Jeez, Roy. Give me a break. The show only opened up
forty-five minutes ago."
     If only he had been able to foresee the chain reaction
waiting to be set in motion by his having endorsed my flow of
imagination into that dream-ride, he might have thought twice
about who was left to man the phones, before eagerly giving
into asking that question.
     A tricked-out ride without a price sticker, that was the
bait. Personally owned by a salesman, that ensured the first
nibble. But coming from the heart and not sounding like a sales
pitch, that set the hook. Just a couple of guys who ran into
each other on a street corner, comparing notes and interest
building with every exaggerated BMW comparison, the result was
enough  to piss Roy off as I kept him buzy on the phone the
rest of the week, scouting color and transmission options, and
setting up delivery dates. The biggest commission bonus of all,
my Opel was now mine, free and clear.
   
     Spending all my free time driving, exploring the mountain
foothill curves and desert offroad tracts, I was anxious to
further stretch my legs, when after six months of cosmetology
school, Ta decided to move closer to the university, having
found an apartment forty-five minutes southeast of LA, off of
Interstate 101, fifteen minutes from CSLA, in Monterey Park,
near the crossroads feeding the Pomona Freeway, the gateway to
the largest shopping center in Southern California, San
Bernadino Mall, a bliss ride for me to an uptown office.
     What had appeared, at first, to be a mirage, a silloutte
cutting through the orange fog of the LA basin desert smog,
turned out to be an oasis of parks, lakes, tennis courts, and
fountains, supporting one main street, barely hinting, no, not     ***149    
wanting to let on, about the residential community she had      
tucked away in her rolling hills. With their manicured lawns,
backyard swimming pools, driveway car washes, and weekend
barbecues, they were a diverse and rich culture of Oriental, 
Mexican, and Californian descent.                       
     On Atlantic Avenue where the hills were too steep for
houses, apartment complexes were the urgent norm, an ever
rising, always-under-construction array of building blocks,
reaching for the summits like an outgrowth of well-watered
fertilized ivy determined to cover and turn a shack into a
national heritage site. Ta's two-bedroom furnished loft was
among the many on an anthill of terraced stairs and tucked away
parking lots, perched up so high that on a clear day you could
make out the faint outline of the city and the distinct shadows
of the surrounding mountains.
     As if that wasn't change enough, an unexpected featured
furnishing, Ta's sixteen-year-old niece, Nat, was about to join
us. A further unexplained complication, now I could look
forward to the duality of the Bobbsey twins.                             
     She had come to America like Ta, her parents having sent
her over at fourteen to attend school and learn English. But
while Ta had the benefit of a private girl's academy, Nat had
to adjust to a public-school enviorment, boarding with Pat and
Boonthai, in Alhambra, the next town over. Only the invisible
bond between the families led her to us. The pitch, she could
cook and clean house, freeing up Ta's time for more serious
study, and at her age, needed a more appropriate role model,
guaranteed Khun M. couldn't say no and Ta had to say yes. And
with Pat already holding it over Ta's head that we were living
together, failure to mention why parting with her niece had
been her plan all along just underscored the class rivalry to
take advantage. It was Nat's involvement with an American
boyfriend, a relationship she felt unable to squelch, watching
helplessly as it spiralled out of control, she was determined
to finally distance herself from.
     And within a week, Mexican-Native American Eric rang the
doorbell with a house-warming gift: a blender, a bunch of
bananas, a bottle of rum, some limes, a bottle of banana
liquer, and a bag of ice. "Banana Daquiris?" he asked, a bit
out-of-breath, having run up the stairs with the urgency of a
just-in-time pizza delivery.
     "How old are you?" I asked, still in my shorts, stepping   ***150
away from the door, just on my way out to do some laundry.                           
     "I'm eighteen. But it's cool. I'm diabetic. I don't drink.
My dad bought this for me to give to you," he said, eyes fixed
on mine, as Nat ran up to give him a protective hug.             
     Barely tall enough to reach his shoulder-length hair, she
didn't mind that he was kind of gawky, feminine-gesturing, or
tried in vain to squirm out of her puppy-love grasp, not sure
yet how I would react to his being there.
     "I have no idea how to make banana daquiris. Wouldn't mind
trying one. Let's just get one thing straight first." He froze
up like I was about to read him the riot act. "You and Nat.
That's your business. Now get out of the way so I can go do my
laundry and get my car washed."
     Eric took that as his cue and went in search of the
barstooled kitchen. With a quick waay, Nat went running after
him. I didn't wait for the peeling, slicing, pouring, grinding,
blending, and giggling. Ta would be back from class in about
fifteen minutes.
     Never underestimate an old soul in a young body. If there
was ever a charisma strong enough to pull you out of your own
comfort zone, he was the embodiment. Complimenting everyone
continuously on the most mundane things, outgoing to the
point of making you feel self-conscious, he didn't let up when
we first went jogging together. Detouring out into the street
at a stop light to open and close a car door because there were
kids in the backseat and it was ajar, opening, closing, and
jogging on without looking back, he gave me a thumbs-up when we
both heard a thankful honk. Then at the DMV, he outdid himself.
With a day left to renew my driver's license, the queue long,
late for work, still in our sweats after a six-mile run, he
faked a pay-phone call and ran back shouting that my wife was
going into labor at the hospital down the street, prompting not
only a VIP reshuffling to the front spot but carte-blanche
treatment during the application process. Who does that? No
wonder Pat with Nat never stood a chance. The game was always
rigged but not in her favor.                                            
     My first taste of a born-and-bred Californian, into
new-age religion, speed reading, total-recall memory, and chess,
but running like a girl too clumsy to play tennis, with a
father who was an instructor at the enlightenment institute, as
well as a condo developer, and two older realtor brothers, plus
a mom eager to introduce me to Mexican cooking, I made friends,   ***151
not just with him, but his entire family.
     That was the other side of Monterey Park, a wave of new
high-end condo sub-divisions, each trying to outdo the other in
a race to tempt Chinese investment. The yellow brick road to an
elusive green card, investors were gobbling them up, relying on
the dreams of desperate mainland friends to secure huge resale
profits. Even the Chamber of Commerce welcoming sign, the city
council by now mostly rich Chinese, had turned into a Buddhist
temple good-luck-red and gold-trim arc as if to signify the
promised land, with the Alpha Beta supermarket following suit,
opting for Shao Lin slanted-red roofs. The only frill missing
was a passport, visa, and customs-control armed barricade to
confirm the impression of having strayed over an invisible line
into another counry.

     Our first encounter, a daquiri buzz, Eric, by now, was
growing on us, having earned a familiar overnight foothold
crashed out on the living-room couch. A heavy sleeper, there
was no need to tiptoe around after fumbling to get dressed
under the random rays of first light as everyone else slept.
Neither the aroma of simmering fresh-brewed coffee nor the
chorus of trumpeting deep-throated songbirds, cheering on a
sandy-eyed sun as it chased away reluctant muted-hill shadows,
could stir his snoring Van Winkle slumber. But straddling the
couch spread-eagle one morning, propped up by pillows, mouth
agape, twitching, enthralled in a subconscious encounter -
 whether fighting hellish demons or fondling Polynesean virgins
didn't matter - he was a target for a kick too tempting to
resist. Bucked off, a mouthful of smelling-salt sock to bring
him back, he thrashed around molesting the shag rug instead.
     "What the...who," he yawned, rubbing the last remnants of
a forgotten dream from his eyes. Focusing, he sat up. "TTTJJJ,
what happened bro? Is something wrong?"
     "Want to take a ride into LA?"
     An exaggerated aerobic stretch and he was following me out
the door. That was Eric, never complaining, always ready to go
along without questioning. I really needed time to think but
for some reason having him tag along made figuring things out
seem easier. My jacket thrown in the back, I tucked in my tie.
He always liked the Ferrari hum of the dual Monza exhaust as I
shifted through the gears.
     Hitting the highway ramp, tach at 7,500 rpm's, second gear, ***152
65 mph, I was surprised when he slipped in a cassette of his
own, something new-age with a Mexican beat, and leaned back     
donning sunglasses, mentioning something about fixing up his
Honda Civic. Motor Trend magazine was advertising a fiberglass
flare and spoiler kit. Just money for new rims and tires was
lacking.
     Maybe his father would be willing to chip in, ever
persisting, always encouraging him to get involved in a
friend's outside interests. Having seen the bonding over cars,
the vigilant chaperoning with Nat, and his son failing to get
in any recent trouble, he might, like his condos, consider it
a good investment.
     For Eric, it was peer-pressure payback, remembering when,
all telltale signs removed, he got so frustrated, trying to
figure out what I was driving, wanting something to be equally
proud of. Never mind since then it had acquired rubber Alpina
hood-wind dividers, German flag door-panel decals, and
special-order front-rear spoilers to further confuse passing
motorists, he was looking for an identity, something that was
his alone. 
     With my head still throbbing from his mockup imaginary
obsessive chatter about racing cams, deep-dish mags, low-series
tires, body shops, and Koni shocks, but not having found an
opening by the time we reached the dealership to weigh the
pros-and-cons of nearby Honda and Toyota dealerships and their
unheard of thirty-cars-per-month selling potential, I was left
brooding over the idea of whether moving on and working closer
to home was a viable option or not as he jumped to catch my
over-the-hood keys. "Pick me up at six will you?"
     He didn't move.
     "Shit, forgot. Here's ten bucks for gas."
     He still didn't move.
     "Now what's the problem?"
     "TJ you're letting me drive your car?"
     "How the fuck else are you supposed to get home? You want
to take the bus? Look take it by your dad's office. How else
would he understand your idea. Take him for a ride. Let him get
a feel. Just don't you dare boost over 4000 rpm's. When you
come back bring Nat. We can get a pizza next door and play
Packman before we head home."
     "But you're letting me drive your car."
     "Eric, it's a car. It's insured. You crack it up, die, I     ***153
get another one for free."
     "You sure?"                                                
     "You want your dad to help you out with the Honda or not?"
     "Yeah."                                                     
     "Well then go scare the shit out of him in the foothills.
You know how it corners. Shit, your dad drives a Porsche, he'll
love the feel of this suspension."
     "You sure?"                                                 
     "No Eric. Fuck you, let him drive."
     "Okay bro, six. Nat and I will be here."
 
     The rally-art ride evolving, a neglected Nat sulking,
every other week Eric showing up with an engine enhancement,
suspension extension, or bodywork addition, left little doubt
his show-and-tell pitch had met with the desired effect. Now if
I could just get these rear speakers working again, we would
both have something to look forward to.
     Upside down in the trunk, a maglite between my teeth,
sweating, getting roasted medium-rare under the late morning
sun, following a trail of multicolored wires, spotting one
shorting out on the frame, I reached for a piece of electrical
tape. The resulting blast of bass in a confined space, having
left the volume turned up, shock-waved through my ears, driving
my head into the trunk lid, before rolling me out stunned into
the used-car lot.  
     "Shit." That was like being stuffed in a trash can with an
exploding M-80.
     "Are you okay? What a cute car," she said.
     "What?" I asked, still staggering, wiping myself off, and
my ears ringing.
     "Your car. I've never seen one quite like it," she tried
again. Beautiful, long legs, and almost six-feet tall in beach
sandals, cutoff jeans, and a tank top, with high cheek bones,
green eyes, and long blonde hair, I couldn't take my eyes off
of her.
     "Hey, aren't you married? That's Tommy. Don't bother him,"
he said.
     Still looking at her, "Yeah, married, but not dead." And
taking a minute to think as I rolled up my tool bag, "Who are
you guys, anyway?"            
     "I'm your new boss, Frank. This is my wife, Theresa. Roy
told me what you did at the show. You are a piece of work."       ***154
     In his mid-thirties, definitely Brooklyn-Italian pumped up
in Testoni loafers, a silk tie, and an oversized Armani suit,   
he was just too lanky to ever have any hope of pulling off a
convincing gangster act.                                         
     "Don't get your hopes up. I'm thinking about leaving."
     He just nodded and pulled on Theresa's arm, there was
still the matter of colors, interiors, and his new Buick
Riviera demo to look into before blowing off the afternoon and  
driving her home.                                                  
     "Cool car," he said.
     "Yeah what is it?" another voice added.
     My ears still ringing, it was as if I was hearing things,
admiring Theresa walk away and turning back to close the trunk,
instead of two guys, standing there, who had just walked in
off the street.
     Mike and Bobby were my age. Mike's father, a retired Air
Force pilot, lived in Riverside, but Mike, blonde, blue-eyed,
tan, tall, with a beach-boy look, wanted to be closer to the
action, finding something to do while breaking into acting. Not
unlike Bobby, a retired English childhood actor just off the
boat with his older sister, a former cabaret dancer, hungry for
the dream of reclaiming his fame.
     Then looking back and forth as if watching a ping-pong
match, Mike finally came out with it. The bump on the head from
pile-driving into the trunk lid wasn't playing tricks with my
vision. He couldn't get over how Bobby and I looked like twins.
And just like that we all became instant friends. Finding out
they didn't have a place to stay, I told them about my bachelor
apartment, splitting the rent, and having it to themselves
unless my in-laws were in town.
     A new apartment...in-laws...married...Thailand...without a
break to catch my breath, it wasn't until Frank walked out with
Bo to discover he had a couple of new recruits, and took over,
that I got around to closing the trunk. His turn, half an hour
later, a nervous Leon walked up not wanting to be left out of
the loop. If Barney hadn't taken the day off it would have been
a full house. That did it. Murphy came running. Roy was cussing
and screaming, demanding to know, why noone was around to
answer the phones.
     "So Tommy, if I give these guys a job you're going to stay
on?" Frank asked.                                                 
     "Shit yeah. But hey. Get your wife a job here and I'd be   
tempted to stay, too."                                            ***155
     Frank tugged up on his pants, joking with Mike and Bobby    
as he motioned them towards the office that it was their last
chance to run before facing the music. Roy had no time to
waste, especially with the mood he was in. So, barring any
second-thoughts, it would be in their best interest to act
totally professional.   
     Having them both take a seat, as if two-on-one somehow
made it fair, Roy lit another cigarette and growled at Murphy
to refill his coffee mug. Bobby, firing up a strong cockney
accent, dove into a spirited monologue, with Mike, the aspiring
actor, sensing his cue, joining in to pick up the slack. Like a
well-rehearsted summer-theatre comedy duet, they caught him off
guard, bringing out a louder and friendier side than I'd ever
encountered. But after spiralling into a fit of laughing,
swearing, caughing, and choking with tears in his eyes, Roy
regained his composure and got serious all of a sudden. Leaning
forward with his shoulders crunched up over the desk, resting
on his elbows, he gave them a long cold stare before looking up
at Frank. "You want these clowns?"
     Frank nodded, knowing along with them, he would get me to
forget about leaving.

     That bit of slap-stick, though entertaining, left a
question still remaining; one that was about to be answered in
a most unorthodox fashion.    
     "Tina, here's next month's rent and finally your t-shirt.
Sorry, it took so long. Quarter laundries are mostly my thing,
I don't get much around to the dry cleaners."
     "TJ, it's a t-shirt. Just because I sent yours out and put
it in your closet plastic-wrapped doesn't mean you had to go
through so much trouble."
     "Yeah well, I kind of figured it was your favorite. And
who knew if you were planning any more babies."
     "TJ, you're sweet, but it a six-dollar rag. Don't worry
about it."
     "TJ, enough?" Bobby asked.
     "I don't know. I was really waiting for her to ask you in
for Sara Lee and to burp the kids," I said, pulling off the
wall with Mike, laughing over my shoulder.
     "Tommy, who is this?" Tina asked almost in shock.
     "Oh Bobby? He's my long lost twin brother. We got            ***156
seperated at birth after he got kidnapped by my father to
England and I got stuck with our mom here in the states. Would
it be okay if he and his friend Mike here helped split the rent
and stayed in the apartment?"
     "As long as you don't have any other twin brothers to
tease me with and he takes Bill and I out for some real fish
and chips. I love that accent. My God it's amazing how you look
alike. I thought with the accent you were practicing for a bit   
part. He's not really your brother..."
         
     Staying or leaving the dealership had never really been
about money or how far away it was from home. Having given up
everything to be with Ta, I'd never had much of a chance to
make any long-lasting friendships. But now, thanks to Bobby,
Mike, and Eric, I had finally found a like-minded bunch, just
in time, considering what happened next.

5. A Betrayal of Trust
                                                               
Never let overtime cut into quality time was a fitting mantra
that should have been posted over the bathroom mirror as a
reminder of why I was so determined to keep up this gruelling
pace. Bloodshot eyes and a groggy head were, by now, familiar
medals of valour; but to not be running late merited the silver
star, if you took into account our regular nightly routine,
where just opening the apartment door tripped a booby-trapped
explosion of sensual delight potent enough to satiate the most
discerning palate. A perked up twitching nose and put on alert
drooling tongue were the siren-aromatic embrace of Ta's spicy
multi-dish Thai cooking, making it hard to think about anything
else except maybe her welcome-home kiss. Ignoring Nat in her
room skilled at feigning a bout of homework hysteria with Eric
looking over her shoulder ready to tickle at the first wrong
answer, I'd be heading for the shower and a change of clothes,
knowing by then, Ta would have dimmed the living-room lights
and filled the coffee table with specialty dishes just for two,
making sure the TV was pretuned for a cozy late-night Johnny
Carson snack. Nothing gone to waste, those peppered appetizers
and a rumbling stomach had conspired for once to overtake the
alarm clock. It was just by chance Nat had the day off, Ta
didn't have a class, and the bathroom was free. Two toasted
chicken-salad sandwiches for lunch and I was out the door and
in my car before the early-morning dew was gone.
     Having wrapped my jacket around the driver's seat and
hopped in throwing a tie over the shoulder, I buckled up with
the door still open and the engine running. There was nothing
left to do while the defroster cleared the windows except thumb
through cassettes as the idle throttled down, unless sucking in
the crisp morning air, trying to clear away a fog of my own
maybe qualified as having some benefit. Here we go, Rolling
Stones and "Brown Sugar", if nothing else, as good as any
caffeine rush.
     Traffic inched along at a constipated pace; this early, no
way, there must be an accident up ahead. Who am I in such a
hurry to see today, anyway; noone comes to mind. Even floor
traffic has been slow lately like we are in the middle of a
depression or the weather has just been too perfect, sending
everyone to the beach. Lucky I managed four referrals last week       ***158
or Frank would really be on my case. Except knowing his "Yeah,
but what have you sold for me today" routine, I'd better not
drop the ball or a list of cold-call customer numbers will end
up in my lap. Screw him. I'm on commission, not salary. He
can pick on the new guys, Mike and Bobby, with his busy work.                                       

     "Hey Jack. Can you check the timing on my injectors? They
seem to be spitting a bit," I yelled from two-cars back in the   
service line, just having pulled in from the rush-hour freeway.
     Beer-belly Jack, the head of the maintenance department,
always wearing those cheap sunglasses under a Dodger's cap, had
a bad taste for salesman demos and mine was no exception as he  
turned his back and picked up the phone.
     "Jack. This is my car. It's under warranty. Don't ignore
me you prick." Without looking back, he yelled into the shop
for someone to come get my keys. But I wasn't finished. "Jack
get it done before noon and I'll buy you a pizza for lunch."
Finally a thumbs up. Salesmen and service department mechanics
were always trashing each other. But just like Angie with the
phones, treat them right and they always make a special effort
to look after your clients and feed you back customers.
                                                               
     Too bad they didn't have any for me now. It getting dark,
noone had seen a customer all day. Barney, frustrated, had
disappeared across the street to the illegal massage parlor an
hour ago. Everyone knew it wasn't straight. Why else when a guy
walked in or out did he have to look both ways like crossing
the street and park his car in an inconspicuous spot. Barney
always denied having been anywhere near the place. But with a
clear view from the office, he was hard to mistake. At least
watching Bobby picking up girls walking down the boulevard in
front of the showroom was entertaining. Must be the accent. His
idea of the American dream was a different one every night,
treating them like disposable pleasures rather than worthy
pursuits.
     "Tommy, you have a call on line two. I think it's your
wife," Angie said, as she prepared to close up the switchboard
and head home for the night.
     "What's up babe?"
     "Hairy, my parents are here. They just dropped in and want
me to go to Las Vegas with them after a few days of shopping
in LA. Can you stay with your new friends for a couple of        ***159
weeks?  I'll call you when I get back. Don't worry about Nat.   
Pat and Boonthai are coming to stay with her. You know they're
suspicious about us living together so it might be a good         
idea that they don't see you coming around. I'll have Nat pack
up your clothes and Eric can keep them for you at his house."   
     "Okay, have fun."  But it was clear from her voice there
was something else going on. Something she couldn't get into on
the phone. It had been hesitant and choppy and our conversation
unusually terse. There was definitely something wrong. It's how
she'd spoken before when she couldn't or was too afraid to tell
me the truth. But I trusted her. I needed to. Whatever was
going on she would fill me in later.

     Two weeks dragged by, taking their time counting to three,
but still no word. Nat might know. Four phone calls no answer,
on the fifth she finally dared to pick up.
     "Nat when is Ta coming back from Vegas?"
     She started to cry, "Ta never go Las Vegas. She run away
Thailand week ago."
     A sudden cold sweat surged up, its venom stabbing my legs 
numb until I was forced to sit down. "Nat what happened?"
     "A bad man."
     "What bad man?"
     "He Thai. He know you and Ta marry. He follow she home
school and tie her bed, hit she again and again. Ta afraid call
you more times. Man not like normal Thai. He big. He from
Chinese-Thai. He bad man. Kill man Thailand use umbrella. Ta
not want you get hurt. She get loose. Take taxi airport. Man
angry, he try catch her. But she already on airplane, I think,
because they not come back here. TJ I sorry. Ta not let me tell
you. Man only let she use phone one time call you. Make sure
you not come here. Him say you come he kill you."
     "It's okay. Who's taking care of you?"
     "I alone. I scare."
     "Don't worry. I'll be back tonight. You have food to eat?
You want me to call Eric?"
     "I okay. I scare."
                                                               
     For two agonizing months there was no news. For two
agonizing months neither her family nor the police searching
for clues had any idea what became of her. Not until her captor
started to torment and taunt the family, sending pictures, did    ***160
they find out she was still alive. See here, disobedience got         
her a head-smashing against a sink, so much color, no need for
makeup. See here, daring to talk back earned her a black eye.
Maybe just so they match, I'll give her another one. You want
your precious bitch daughter back so she can return to being an
American's whore? Not until I'm done amusing myself. These
arrogant rich debutantes who think they are better than their
own kind, insubordinate to the point of delusionally thinking
they can address men as equals, are the ones that need to be
taken down a notch by learning the hard way. Just because they
got educated abroad doesn't mean they can flaunt their
disregard for our sacred traditions by ignoring our respected
customs. Now this one knows her place, scrubbing my floors and
washing my clothes, barefoot and dressed in rags. Maybe when
she's well-trained you can have the wench back after showing me
your appreciation for having set her straight and I'll go find
myself another one that needs to be taught these valuable
lessons.                                                    
     Her family and all their close connections swore they
never found her, telling me and everyone else, she had somehow
gotten loose and escaped on her own. Her captor? Noone was      
talking. But I knew if she was coming back to the states,
someone had made sure, he was dead and buried somewhere in an
unmarked grave.

     When she walked out of LAX customs with Khun M. by her
side in mid-January 1976, fresh off the Northwest Orient
late-morning flight twelve out of Japan, after spending only a
week in the hospital, the nightmare of viciously being stalked,
kidnapped, beaten, and molested must have been haunting, barely
having had time to fade. But after the warm reunion of a longed
for hug and fond felt kiss, both relieved the bond between us
hadn't been broken, its hellish grip became a bitter memory
tucked away never to be spoken of again. Even the letter she
sent with a "Do Not Bend" sticker like an email-virus warning,
to this day, has never been opened. Those survival photos would
have been too intense an indelible brain imprint to cope with
and only served to hinder any attempt at picking up from where
we left off and putting the ordeal in the rearview mirror.
Thinking and acting like it was only yesterday that we were
together was the only way to dull the pain and get on with
living.                                                           ***161
     To make the transition as smooth as possible and provide a  
comfortable chauffeur-driven ride home, Mike had been willing
to switch cars for a while; so willing, in fact, that any
question of how much gas was left in the tank or when we         
needed to switch back never came up. He got the screeching ride   
around town of a street racer with Recaro seats while I settled
for the mushy comfort of a Buick Regal with velour interior: a
front bench seat for Ta to snuggle up close; a comfortable back
seat for Knun M. to relax and stretch out; a sprawling trunk to  
handle their luggage.
     As I steered out of the parking lot and headed for the
tangle of freeways, Ta was squeezing my hand so tightly in hers
that the tips of my fingers were starting to turn white and      
Khun M. with a tap on the shoulder mentioned something about my
having lost weight. Without a free hand, an accusing head roll      
was all she saw. "When I lost my cook, I lost my appetite."
     For three months, the only release available to keep from
going out of my mind, thinking the worst, had been to fall back
on what I knew best; everything evolved into eat and sleep
work. Even the fully-loaded Riviera, special-ordered by an
Arabian-prince student, that had been sitting on the lot
unclaimed for months was not immune to my frustration, having
succumbed to my one-track quest only a week ago. But only
because Bobby and Mike both knew the situation, liked Ta, and
could sympathize with what I was up against did that devotion
see me through. Never letting me head home after work without
first joining them next door for pizza, beer, and a round of
packman or inviting me over to spend the night, drinking wine
and cooking up steaks on an outside grill, they managed to keep
my spirits up.

     "Hairy, you just missed the exit."
     "No I didn't." I flipped on the turn signal and cruised
down the 180 degree arc of the next parallel Garfield Avenue
exit. "You don't live there anymore."
     Ta let go of her emotional-support grip and grabbed the
dash with both hands instead as I took a quick right up into
the parking lot of an apartment complex, coming to a stop in
my reserved spot.
     "Nice?"
     Ta looked around wide-eyed before leaning back to get her
mom's reaction.                                                      ***162             
     "Two-bedroom apartment, swimming pool, sauna, laundry room,
just three floors and twenty-seven units, good security and you
have your own parking space, no more settling for the street."
     "Hairy. I live here now?"                                   
     "No. I live here. Bobby and Mike moved out into a condo
north of Hollywood and I moved out of my old apartment. Of
course you live here."
     "What about my old apartment. My things?"
     "Bobby, Mike, and Eric helped me move over all that stuff  
last month. Shit, I can't believe all the junk you had stowed    
in your kitchen."                                                      
     "What about Nat?"
     "I had Eric drive her back to her relatives. He was up for 
the job since that was the only way to be sure of where to find
her again. She doesn't know about this place and isn't going to
find out about it either. It's safer if we just keep that
little detail to ourselves."
     I knew Ta was anxious to pick up from where we left off
and the last thing she needed now was to revisit old memories
where only traumatic reminders of her ordeal still endured. The
final touch to cover our tracks insured a fresh start, secure
in new surroundings and among new friends.
     "Hairy, could you help mommy. I think she's stuck." It
looked more like Ta was fumbling with the seat lock and
wrestling with the shoulder strap than Khun M. being in any
distress. "Can you grab my purse, too."
     I hopped out and went around. Two handbags over the
shoulder later - one an oversized Gucci loaded with inflight-
survival gear, the other, Khun M.'s, with a gold-antique
etched-fob watch, dangling from a strap - she came bouncing out
on her own, giggling as usual. In the afternoon sun, she looked
a bit drawn from maternal worry while Ta, in a blouse that hung
too big, was reminiscent of a repatriated POW starved into
submission, her makeup skills not quite enough to hide the
black-and-blue still blistering through.
     As we walked down the hill to the office, "Charlie, Ethel,
the manager's wife, I've got to warn you, is a real busy body.
She's already confided in me about the single guy in 106 who
she swears is gay. The Phillipino family in 204, she's thinking
about turning into the INS, something about their trying to
secure fake green cards. And the two Mexican girls in 307,
she's still trying to set up with Mike and Bobby. Too bad I      ***163
haven't been around long enough to get her take on any other     
tenants. But she is definitely a piece of work. Afternoons she
is always on a wine buzz and will talk your ear off if you
don't find an excuse to walk away. Her husband Jack is a
big-rig truck driver and loves his off-time beer except he's
more the quiet type. An added bonus, between his always-loaded
shotgun collection and her never-miss-a-thing nose, strangers
around here are the least of your worries. And never mind their
being almost twice our age, they don't act like it. Oh yeah, I
only told them you were of royal blood, we're secretly married,
and you're going to school. If you want to play patty-cake with
Ethel and tell her anything else, that's up to you."    
     Before Ta had a chance to respond, we reached the office
steps where Jack had his daughter's pickup elevated with two
wheels off the ground, digging into the raised enbankment, as
oil drained into a bucket underneath. A new air filter tucked
between his knees, he juggled jiggling the carburetor butterfly
and sizing up a spark-plug gap while trying to mouth and light
another cigarette. "Jack I told you. Bring that relic in and
I'll give you a good deal on a new GMC truck. Just think of the
quality time you could spend with your daughter if you didn't
have to spend your day off fixing her ride."
     "Yeah, but then there wouldn't be an excuse for her to
stop by and I'd never have any idea of what she was up to. It's
a bitch of a trade off." Jack scooted out from under the hood,
his t-shirt, khaki pants, and hands heaped in grease, and was
just about to search for his beer. "Damned Tom, you weren't
kidding. She's a beauty."
     But Ta was too jet-lagged to muster a blush, especially
when Ethel appeared out of nowhere from behind the picket-pool
fence. Bored with scolding her daughter Gail about a boyfriend
in a black Camero who kept dumping beer cans in the tenant
trash, she perked up from her poolside table anxious to meet
her new guest, at last. A native Californian with short-brown
earlobe-length hair accented by silver-turquise earrings that
matched her two-piece swim suit and brown eyes the same hue as
her tan, she slurred in a raspy voice, "You must be Ta."
     "And this is her mom. She's really tired from the long
flight. We need to get her upstairs." An excuse as we hurried
by that hopefully would temper her curiousity, Ta lowered her
head and bit her lip while Khun M. nodded and smiled. Just out
of earshot, Ta heard a whisper in her ear, "Next time you're    ***164
on your own."                                                  
     A red door and the gold numbers 308, the first urgent
order of Khun M. business as she entered the apartment was
to drop everything and search for a phone. These were fresh
omens for her fortune teller to decipher and possible clues to   
winning lottery picks. That was cause for a smile, at least one
thing hadn't changed.
    But Ta lingered as if oblivious to her mom's anxious
predisposition, taking her time to touch my pain, my loss, my
hurt, my heartache, my solidary confinement, in everything
handmade around the living room. My reflections of the heart
betrayed what my eyes tried so hard not to show. She knew. She
hesitated. "These hanging plants, this intricate knotting, it's
beautiful. Where did you buy it?"
     "Didn't." Sleepless nights and blistered fingers, the
memory of her went into my art. Alone and uncertain with only
our past left to hold onto, just another thing I did to get by,
a reminder of what there was to look forward to. "Made it
hoping when you finally got home you might like it."
     "Hairy, these must have taken you hours to make."
     "Screw hours, there's an entire-wall piece on the veranda
behind you that took me more than a week to tie together."
     Opening the squeaky sliding-glass doors to the plant-rich
balcony, she squinted through the distraction of the sun's
afternoon reflection to take in a view of Garfield Avenue
through the juniper and buckeye trees. From our vantage point
on the hill, the street lights looked like stilted breadcrumbs
in the manicured shrubs that lined the sidewalk, a popular bike
route, disappearing into a nearby park. Across the way, a
teenager and his bikini-clad girlfriend splashed and washed his
Ford Mustang in the driveway of a curbside ranch house as a
metro bus pulled up to the corner stop. But it was the
flowering cactus, sunning on the sill, next to my vigilant and
eveready camera set for an elusive fantasy shot via cable
release, that finally caught her undivided attention.
     "Hummingbirds, they like the nectar and make for some
great close-up shots. Now if they would just use it to build a
nest in, everything would be perfect."
     "You bought a camera, too?"
     "Yeah, I finally figured out what 35mm meant. Its an added
mountain-hiking distraction that keeps Eric busy carrying the
rest of my gear. There are some great waterfall pictures I can     ***165
show you later."                                                   
     "Hairy, this cactus only blooms once every five years."
     "No shit?" Like I didn't think she'd notice being a botany
major or wouldn't go out of my way to find something unique 
just to surprise her.                                              
     She smiled and looked closer at the stump carved in a
spiralling terrace of rare cacti just underneath.
     "The wood seem to provide enough moisture so there's no
need to water them."
     "Harry where did you find these? Didn't anyone warn you
they are protected species?"
     "Protected? That was a desert trip. I just saw the flowers
growing wild and figured it would be cheaper to dig them up
than buy in a shop."
     "Well don't do it again. You could get arrested, fined,
and thrown in jail. I can't believe your friend Eric didn't say
something."
     "You want me to take them back?"                              
     "No way. I love you. I can't believe you knew how to pick
the rarest species."
     "What do I know. I just dug up the ones with flowers."
     "These flowers, the only time they come out in bloom is
every few years."                                                         
     "So these are the babies of that big one?"
     "No dumby. These are the other rare types. Where were you
anyway? These aren't California desert cacti."
     "That must have been the day I almost ran out of gas and
got a flat tire on the way to Tucson. Eric talked me into a
race-across-the-desert road trip and we ended up losing half a
day, waiting for a spare."
     "So what? You just walked out in the desert with a
shovel?"
     "Pretty much. The garage attendant didn't say anything was
wrong with doing it. He even rented us dirt bikes to make the
job easier."
     "So this is the wall handiwork you were talking about."
A look over my shoulder was all she needed to finally notice
the macrame tapestry, moving in closer to get a hands-on touch.
"Harry, how did you ever figure out this stitching? Never mind, 
we can talk about that later. For now, let's go explore the
rest of your apartment." But then she lingered as if the piece
had a secret to whisper...We're all here for you as gentle      ***166
reminders of a happier handicrafting time together when life      
was whole and full of promise. Our knots are binding. It will
be that way again...But only after she had walked back inside
and realized there was a walnut-framed sixy-gallon fish tank
staring from behind the couch did that knotted configuration
snap her out of its impromptu trance. "Harry?"                                                       
     "They lull me to sleep in front of the air conditioner
when it's too hot to crash in the back bedroom."                           
     "Fish?"
     "Not just any fish, they're special like your flowering
cacti, from salt water, most harvested in the Philippines. Just
watch. See the orange clown fish massage in the tenacles of the
sea anemone? If any other kind tried to do that they would get
stung to death and sucked in as lunch. Those black danmsels are
a street-corner gang always looking for a fight. That green
parrot fish is always digging into the sand as if a nervous
witness to an alley mugging, in a hurry to pull down the shades
to avoid getting involved. It's the fish I've had the longest.
When the PH got screwed up, promoting a virus, all the other
fish died and I was going to empty the tank and start all over
again, except this sucker burrowed in the sand, didn't eat for
a week, but survived all the same. And that candy-cane striped
shrimp is always trying to climb the highest coral to snag a
fish which of course never happens. Kind of reminds me of a
go-go dancer, arms flailing, dressed to kill, dancing on the
bar." Ta just gave the tank a momentary glance, stroked my
cheek, and strolled into the dining room, leading to the
kitchen.                                                   
     But by now that room was in her afternoon mood, embracing
the sun through a bay window filled with multi-colored shelved
bottles, dispersing light in every direction. The witching
hour, Ta never saw it coming. She started laughing, held out
her hands, and spun around. Was she finally finding her way
home? Everything in that apartment was there to help her reopen
her heart. She coasted into a stool dizzy and noticed all the
boxes under the kitchen bar. "Hairy what's this?"
     "It's your chemistry set. You're the only one who knows
how to cook with those witch's-brew spices."
     She stroked my cheek again and walked into the bedroom to
check up on Khun M., leaving me to turn on the stereo after
looking through my albums and deciding on some Bolero. It was
about time to feed the fish when I remembered all the luggage    ***167
in the trunk.                                                   
     By the time I had wrestled it all up the stairs and into
the apartment, Ta was back unpacking the kitchen boxes. Never
mind it had been a move from a furnished apartment, her fedish
for cooking guaranteed Mike, Bobby, Eric, and I each two trips.
But even with that much to sort through it didn't take long
before a disapproving shout. "Hairy."
     Sheepishly walking into the kitchen, I half expected it to
be about something else and she hadn't noticed. But the frown,
the hand on the hip, the tapping foot, and holding an empty
pint-size glass spice jar meant she'd found what I'd hoped she
wouldn't miss.
     "It was Bobby. I tried to tell him you used it to make a
yellow-potato curry with beef but he wouldn't believe me. I
mean besides baking it into brownies, who cooks with pot?"
     "I do. My mother does. And my grandmother used to. Now
where am I supposed to find some more?" Betraying a smile and
putting the jar aside, she grabbed my hand "come on", and slid
me down to my knees on the wall-to-wall green-shag living-room
carpet in front of her suitcases. "I went shopping for you."
There was a struggle to undo the extended zipper of the
super-sized nylon bag and pull out the wedged-in first piece.
"There's this." It was a milk-chocolate colored two-piece
brushed-cotton suit. "Feel it. It's really soft."
     "To tell you the truth, I'm more interested in feeling
you; that kind of softness I could really get into."
     "Harry." She feigned a dissatisfied shove before leaning 
in to whisper in my ear. "Tonight after mommy goes to sleep.
But you have to be quiet."
     "Quiet? You're the one that sounds like the orient
express."
     "Okay, we can both be quiet. Do you like these?" Laying
out an assortment of long-sleeve dress shirts, she giggled.
"Your gay boyfriend made these for you."
     "What are you talking about? He's your tailor."
     "He told me the last time I brought you in to get fitted
you were flirting with him." She started laughing, beginning
to have fun. "He says he likes you and wants to know when you
are coming to Thailand again."
     "I was just trying to make sure he wasn't going to stick
me in the balls with a safety pin or something. The little
shit. Now that all my measurements have been taken, remind me ***168
never to gain any weight."                                         
     "I have some ties for you, too. They're made from Thai
silk."
     "These patterns are outrageous. I'm going to need
sunglasses just to look in a mirror."                           
     "And on a stopover in Hong Kong, these two sweaters caught
my eye. It's too hot for them now but remembering how you were
jumping around to keep warm a while ago, I thought they might
eventually come in handy." She put one across my shouders and
nodded, assenting to her sense of style.
     Ta had a knack for picking out clothes, always buying for
me what she liked, knowing no matter my opinion, I'd wear them
anyway just to please her. Next thing you know, a stranger
would come up on the street and compliment my good taste. No
wonder I remained mystified by her expertise. So, as usual,
when in doubt, "Yeah, these are really nice."
     "Now for something special." Up on her knees, rummaging
through the bag, she came up with and placed in my hands a silk
jewelry box before leaning back apprehensive like an anxious
school girl. "Open it."
     I squinted in the glint. "There must be fifty rings in
here."
     "Forty-seven. The other three are on my fingers. See?" It
was as if her fingers had been dipped in a rainbow swirl of
rock candy.      
     "These women's cocktail rings and men's pinky rings, all
made of gold, rubies, opals, and different colored sapphires,
what am I supposed to do with them?"
     "Sell them. My friend has a factory and wants to explore
new markets so in exchange for my helping her these samples
came cheap. See this cluster ring, it only cost fifty dollars.
That man's pinky ring with the ruby cabachon is the most
expensive at one hundred-fifty. And these star-sapphire rings
were seventy-five each. You can double my investment easy since
they were all priced at wholesale."
     "Okay, as long as there's no big rush, they shouldn't be
too much of a problem to unload for you."
     "No... I want you to sell them for you to buy some more
exotic fish, some new camera lenses, or some new racing
parts; whatever you like. Just if there is any money left over
maybe you might consider finishing my garden on the balcony.
I'd like that."                                                    ***169                                                      
     That was Ta being Ta. After months of constantly being     
reminded of her everywhere I went, by everything we used to do
there together - picking over vegetables in our local
supermarket, sharing each other's lunch in the farmers market,
shopping sales in the San Bernadino mall - it was a reprieve
from lonliness to finally see that side of her again.
     "Oh, Hairy, one other thing. When you went down to get the
luggage, I went in to talk to mommy. We agreed that since this
apartment has two bedrooms it would feel much safer if you
stayed here with us."
     "Oh really. That's rich, considering this is my apartment.
What other aspect of your modified translation would you like
to let me in on and be privy to? After all that's happened I
thought by now you'd be more than ready to tell her about us."                                            
     "Hairy, I can't. If she were to all of a sudden find out
now we had snuck off to get married behind her back there's no
way of telling how she might react. She's been through so much
already. I can't burden her with bringing that up, too. Can't
it just be enough we are together again?"
      "Well, if you're going to put it like that then there's
nothing more to discuss. We just pick up from where we left
off, business as usual. How long does your mom plan to stay
with us?"
     "Maybe a month. With school starting next week, Pat and
Boonthai will probably be over tomorrow to make plans for
keeping her busy. Do you have to get back to work any time
soon?"
     "No rush. I was thinking Chinese take-out, cuddling on the
couch, a bottle of wine, some late-night tv, falling asleep
in your arms..."
     "And telling Bobby he owes me."
     "Monyana my little lotus blossom. First thing's first.
Like getting my butt in gear before catching a bout of your
jet lag. I'll be back by the time you're unpacked."
     "Don't get mad at me if I fall asleep instead." Ta yawned
in an exaggerated stretch.
     "No problem, maybe I'll join you." Leaning in for a kiss,
"You know it means everything to me to finally have you back."
     "Don't worry Hairy. I'm yours for keeps."                  (4 lines short of 170)
                                                                    

     The bedroom-window slits venting out from the ceiling on 
to the terraced walkway, overlooking the swimming pool, were           ***(line 4 is 170)
usually a gentle nudging conduit of early-morning activity. But
prone to amplifying the minutest echo, they hadn't expected the
chatty overload, trumpeting Pat and Boonthai's crack-of-dawn
arrival. A random shrill from the boisterous interaction, my
pillow deafening the blow with a coaxed yawn and sandy-eyed
rollover, forewarned any chance to parlay a wet dream, diving
atoll hidden reefs, into an afterglow, driving Porsche Indy
racers, was about to vanish as soon as Ta opened the front door
and let the rambling escalate to the next sonic-octave level.
The tortuous chatter at the pitch of screaming meemees gone
berserk like a vibrating midtown LA intersection wasn't an
ordeal to look forward to especially since it had the potential
of burgeoning into an out-of-hand morning ritual as long as
Khun M. was here to impress.
     Still shell-shocked from the first sound wave, but as if
guided by divine intervention, I managed a bleary-eyed stumble,
yawning and scratching, into the frig, rummaging past leftover
takeout, wine bottles, onion dip, and moldy cheese for that
first lifegiving caffeine-coke buzz, a jolt that kicked in the
survival instinct. Forget about catering to adrenaline-charged
guests, sitting backs straight on the sofa like a couple of
in-heat chirping-caged parakeets, trying to monopolize the
conversation with their visions of grandeur. There was left but
only one desperate avenue of escape and a small window of
opportunity to take advantage of it. An immediate frontal
assault, accompanied by a respectful waay, right past them, to
the solitude of the pool was remedy enough to discourage a
too-much-Thai hangover headache. A short-lived reprieve, Ethel
showed up with the pretext of skimming leaves, except crowding
my lounge chair so early only made it obvious, she preferred
the skimmed cream of intimate details.
     Not in the mood, I burped the empty coke can into the
trash, blew her a kiss, and opted for the dew-chilled water,
instead. Finally alone, left with only an elevated heartbeat to
echo in my ears and an irritating chlorine sting to blur a
bottom sun-ray ballet, another less arduous withdrawal than a
submarine sabbatical sprang to mind. But the sauna turned out
to be a damp cell and would have required an hour to warm up.
Beaten, I deserted the cedar sanctuary, still dripping wet,
pulling up my trunks. With nowhere else to run, Ethel took a
nonchalant pool stance, confident she had won.
     "Ethel, can I bum one of your Virginia Slims? I forgot my
smokes in the apartment."                                         ***171
     She pulled her pack out from her bathing-suit top and gave   
me a light, not venturing to say anything, just waiting for me   
to take that first long drag and hopefully start the ball        
rolling myself.
     "Okay, I've gotta be at work in a couple of hours, so make
it fast, what do you want to know?"                                   
     Ethel reached out with her catch and snagged some more     
leaves, littering the pool, flicking them off with a tap on the
picket fence. "No hurry, I can wait. Looks like things are just
getting started anyway. We're having a barbecue this weekend,
maybe you can invite Ta and her mom to come join us. Her new
friends are welcome, too."
     "Sounds like a plan." Let off the hook easy, I nodded,
waved, and headed back upstairs resigned that, surrounded on
all sides, it was as good a day as any to get to work early.
    
     Settled in, the faint echo of nonstop Thai still ringing
in my ears, I picked up the phone and buzzed the switchboard.
"Angie, is Bobby working today?"
     "Yes, he's out on the lot."
     "Can you page him for me?"                                
     "Sure... Bobby to the showroom floor please."
     Bobby walked in looking around, primming his tie and
expecting a customer until Angie pointed him in my direction.
     "What's up bro? I didn't expect to see you back so soon.
Thought maybe you and Ta would be trying for a second
honeymoon."
     "No chance of that happening with her mom staying for the
duration. And if you include their yappy friends being around
all the time, I'd rather be at work." Bobby took that as a cue
to sit down and stretch out with a yawn and an eye on the
lot as I unravelled a bag on the desk. "Pick one."
     "A tie?"
     "They're Thai silk. Ta brought them back for you guys. And
she's pissed at you. I told you not to roll joints out of that
spice jar."
     "Is she really?"
     "Just find her some more. She cooks with that shit. Now
pick a tie."
     Bobby picked a maroon one with a silver and black flowing
design.
     "Do me a favor and take the rest of these around to the      ***172
sales crew will you. Oh yeah, I have something else. Check      
these out." I rolled open my top draw and flipped the lid on     
the box of rings.
     "Is she giving these away, too?"
     "No, you moron. But I'm selling them wholesale."           
     Bobby picked around in the box. "This ruby-cabachon pinky
ring is awesome. How much?"                                      
     "Wow, you really know your stones. That's the most
expensive one in there. It's like four-hundred bucks, bro."
     Bobby tried on the diamond-studded piece, maneuvering his
hand around to catch different reflections in the morning light
reminiscent of a Cartier model, perfecting a photo-shoot shot,
destined to become a billboard icon plastered on the side of
city-wide buses. But when it turned into a full-body routine of
prancing and contorting to get a unique view, "Bobby cool it.
Roy is watching."
     "TJ sales call," Angie announced.
     With a timely interruption to take advantage of, Bobby
knotted his new tie, asked if it was straight, and walked
out into the lobby, his hand a makeshift-ruby tie clip for
anyone to admire, before I could object, stuck on the line
with an annoying low-ball call. Not until some time later
while massaging my temples after just hanging up from the
marathon nuisance exchange did he stroll back in, laughing
about his sudden good fortune.
     "Here's your money. I just sold it for an extra hundred.
What else do you have in there? I'm on a roll. The girls in
accounting and some customers in the service line. Shit, we
can make a killing."
     "Bobby slow down. You know if you didn't take off on me
like that, I could have given you another hundred off."
     "You mean...so why did you quote me such a high price? I
thought we were friends."
     "Jeez, Bobby. Look around. We're in the bargaining
business. But you just rushed off like a preening peacock and
didn't give me a chance to say anything else. Serves you right.
By the way, who'd you sell it to?"  
     "Jack. The head of the service department. So what?"
     "Bobby, we need to let the mystique of where it came from
seep through, first. Then with your flair for exaggeration
everyone will be wondering what other treasures Ta smuggled out
with her life from some exotic place. If they know right away I   ***173
have fifty of them there'll be no way to get rid of them at a   
good price. Unless of course you want to do a chippendale show  
through the accounting department decked out in cocktail rings.    
Didn't you tell me the girls in there like your butt?"
     "Yeah, I can use this new tie as a head band."
     "Bobby, I was kidding."                                     
     "Tommy, Mr. Speight wants to see you in his office and
wants you to bring that jewelry box, too," Angie called out
from behind the switchboard.
     "Shit. See? Now look what you got me into." Bobby just
held up his hands and tried to melt with a smile my annoyed
stare before following along and stopping short at the doorway
to Charlie Speight's office, suddenly preoccupied with the
boss's two coed daughters, sitting on the sofa who had come for
a visit.                                                        
     "Tommy, have a seat. How's your wife and her mom doing?"
     "Good sir."
     "You know, after everything you've both been through, if
there is anything I can do to help out don't hesitate to ask.
We're family. I want you to remember that."
     "Thank you sir. We're fine."
     "I understand that your wife gave you a box of jewelry to
sell. May I see it?"
     I looked back at Bobby standing in the doorway, mouthing
something to Charlie's girls, making them laugh. "It's nothing
sir. Just something between me and Ta."
     "Well, I wish Bobby could be so eloquently creative when
it came to selling cars for me. Did he tell you what he told my
shop foreman to convince him to buy that ring?"
     "No sir. We didn't have a chance to talk about it."
     Charlie shuffled around in his chair somewhat amused. "It
turns out your wife snuck into Burma and that piece was stolen
from an exhumed prince's grave."
     "No, it was from his son's."
     "You mean the story's true?"
     "No. I mean there's a sucker born every day."
     Charlie broke out into an almost uncontrolable teared-up
laugh. But figuring noone before had ever gotten the better of
him, I slid over the box. After studying the pieces for a long
time with a louped consultant, verifying the results with a
caculator tape-roll, he called over his daughters to get a
second opinion.                                                       ***174
     "Tommy, I'm relieved your wife came back to you safe. It's
unimaginble the anguish you had to endure during those trying    
months when she was away but somehow found the strength to keep
working for me. I'm buying your whole box." He wrote and slid   
over a check.                                                     
     "Mr. Speight, this is too much."
     He just rolled back in his chair, slid open his top draw,
and tossed in his checkbook, before commenting sarcastically,
"Well, I can't have you and your buddy there running around
disrupting my service, sales, accounting, and leasing
departments, selling jewelry all day long when your job here
is to sell cars, now can I? Besides, my Beverly Hills jeweler
friend here assures me that we will both do well. So, unless
there is something else...Bobby, quit licking your lips at my
daughters...get out of here and go sell something."
     "Well, sir there is one other thing. It's Ta. I really
need to find this cactus, a flowering one. Actually, as many
of them as I can. It's a welcome-home thing. Don't ask me to
explain." I layed a hummingbird-swarming photo on his desk.
     "My wife Beth likes these. Nice touch with the birds."
He grunted, picking up the phone, as if willing us to leave.
But before a second coffee cup filled from the nearby vending
machine to the beat of Bobby bitching about all the jewelry
commissions he was losing, a rant egged on by the tease of my
constant check fondling, Charlie called us back in.
     "Take one of the pickup demos. Here's the address. The
price is wholesale. Maybe you can talk Bobby into tagging along
to lend a hand. He seems useless today, anyway."
                                                              
     Seventeen knee-high cacti blocked the apartment front
door, showing off seventeen scarlet flowers that bloomed only
once every five years. Placed there to create the most
dramatic effect, we retired to our ringside seats, sunning on
poolside lounge chairs, just waiting to see how Ta would react,
coming home to find with what her way had been blocked. 
     "This should get you off the hook for stealing her
spices," I said, lighting us both a cigarette.
     "Screw the pot. I'm keeping my eyes peeled for that wacky
landlord of yours who keeps trying to pinch my butt and stick a
tongue in my ear." Bobby took off his sunglasses, stood up, and
made a full terrain scan. There was no way he was going to be
taken by surprise and caught from behind.                            ***175
     "Relax. Jack is at work today. When did that happen? And
since when did you become a switch-hitter?"                       
     "Ethel you idiot. She was all over me in the sauna."        
     "You were with Ethel in the sauna? That's balsy. Where was   
Jack?"
     "I was by myself when she just walked in carrying a bucket
and a mop, then made up some lame excuse to ditch them and sat
down to join me."
     "Can't leave you alone for a minute and you're trying to
screw my landlord." I took off my shirt and wrapped it around
the chair. "Better watch out. Jack will kick your ass."                                                              
     "Fuck Ethel. Fuck Jack."
     "Maybe you should just let her give you a blow job and
she'll leave you alone. You know how these old women like
childhood actors with English accents."
     "TJ?"
     "What?"                                                           
     "Fuck you, too."
     "Only if you're going to buy me dinner and throw in a
movie first." I thought of flashing him a moon just to bust
his balls but then if Ethel ever saw...
     "Hey, Ethel's daughter is nice. What is she about twenty?"
Bobby patted his forehead with his new tie and decided, taking
off his shirt, too, was a good idea.
     "Bobby, her Mexican boyfriend is a captain in a drug
cartel. You mess with her and you'll end up a unic. Didn't
Ethel try to set you and Mike up with those Mexican girls
upstairs?"
     "Yeah. They were good for a night."
     "A night? Those girls are beautiful."
     "TJ..."                                                            
     "Never mind. I get it. You're an impersonal uncaring prick
and only chase after girls where there's no hassle or chance of
commitment. Bet Ethel would get it, too, if you gave her a
chance..."
    Just then Ta walked up the third-floor landing from the
parking-lot overpass, carrying school books in one arm and a
bag of groceries in the other, laughing and bobbing along with
her first-semester lab-partner Jenny in tow. A Chinese-American
grad student, our age, single, and a fierce tennis rival, with
shoulder-length brown hair, and a slim petite figure, she
always wore these signature wide-rimmed glasses that looked       ***176
like, at any moment, they were about to tip her over.
     Their lively banter, in constant recoil, fed on the          
energy, pulsating between them, until the ricocheting back and
forth reverberated both right past us without either having
noticed. Only a backyard roadblock stumbled upon, assembled
with what they held rare and dear, could stifle and throw into     
shock such riotous gaiety. Bending down and closing their eyes
as if in prayer, they carressed and smelled each one until the
homage paid tempted back their gaze to feast on a vibrant array
of color. Rewarded with botany heaven, they both seemed quite
contented.                                                        
     "Hey, when are you going to quit screwing around and make
us a snack so we can get back to work? We already wasted half a
day waiting for you to come home," I shouted, ribbing Bobby.
     He waved. "I want some of your yellow-potato curry with
beef. You know, the one with the special herbs and spices."
     "Asshole. Don't push it. Piss her off and I'll never hear
the end of it."
     Ta looked over the rail. "TJ? Bobby? Did you bring me
these flowers?"
     "Yeah, Bobby lent me a hand. But he's here mostly to beg
for forgiveness. What's the Thai penalty for stealing?  Isn't
it getting tied down bareback and spreadeagle for forty lashes
with a glass-inlaid whip."
     "Hairy, don't be mean. Letting him clean the toilet should
be punishment enough. Hi Bobby."                                                             
     "Hi Ta. When am I going to meet your sister?"
     "In your dreams."
     "Actually, Bobby bought those flowers for you. He bought
one of your ruby cabachon rings for almost three times what it
was worth."
     Bobby's eyes lit up.
     "Hairy. Bobby's your friend. Give him half that money
back."
     "I can't. He already sold it for a ridiculous profit."
     "You got that much for one of my rings? Did you sell any
of the other ones?"
     I looked at Bobby and we both started laughing, "Yep."
     "Hi TJ," Jenny chimed in a melodic hum.
     "Hey, Jen. When are we going to play another round of
tennis? My game's starting to get a bit rusty."
     "After that last beating you took, are you sure you want    ***177
to play again?"                                                  
     I glanced at Bobby. "Yeah, she kicked my ass. The bitch
has a wicked serve." I looked back up at Jen. "Yeah, we can get
Eric to shag balls. Might as well get beaten by a cute oriental
chick in a tight uniform who give me pointers than an arrogant
sweaty towny with an ego who gives me the finger."
     Jenny leaned over to whisper to Ta. "He hasn't changed."
     Ta smiled, but then all of a sudden perked up, jabbing her
finger frantically in the direction of the office.
     Time to run.
     Ethel liked leaving her front door, butting the pool, wide
open to hear every little thing that was going on outside. Over
the picket-pool fence Ta could see her walking out with a glass
of red wine in one hand, a cigarette in the other. We were
caught in her radar.
     I eyed Bobby. "Ethel's coming."
     Before she got around the corner to the pool entrance,
Bobby went running by her and up the stairs, two steps at a
time, holding his buns with both hands, screaming like someone
who had just been goosed with a cattle prod. I walked, bit my
lip, looked up the stairs, shook my head, and glanced back at
Ethel. "Damned, I think he got stung by a bee."
     Bobby was waiting for me at the top of the steps still out
of breath, caughing, and laughing. "That was close. Hey that
Chinese chick isn't bad looking, except for those Mr. Magoo
glasses."
     "They have Mr. Magoo in England?"
     "And paper bags, too."
     "What's that supposed to mean?" It was more of what I
didn't understand about the British mentality.
     "Well you know. If they wear glasses like that and take
them off, they can't see, right? So you don't know who they
were fantasizing about being with. Just a bit of penciled-in
fun for when they put their specs back on."
     "And this is coming from someone who if he scores doesn't
want to go out on a second date? Don't bust my balls."
     After listening to a bit more of Bobby's tried-and-true
womanizing philosopy, I was more convinced than ever he was in
a league of his own by the time we reached the front door of
the apartment. Ta and Jenny had already moved the cacti onto
the balcony and were still there comparing notes on where to
place each one to get the proper amount of sunlight so we        ***178
picked up their books and groceries and followed behind,
dropping it all on the dining room table before heading for the
stereo where Bobby got sidetracked, baiting my fish with a wad
of chewed gum.
     "Bobby, its not easy to keep the PH in that tank neutral.
I swear, if you dare drop anything in there I am going to go
get one of Ta's kinsa knives in the kitchen and cut your
fingers off. The fish in that tank are worth more than your    
damned ring."                                                    
     "No shit." Bobby bent down to see what all the fuss was
about.
     Satisfied their flowering treasures were positioned just
right, Ta and Jenny walked back in, grabbed the grocery bags,
and headed for the kitchen. That seemed like a good idea to
Bobby, too. He took a seat at the kitchen bar and snagged an
apple out of the fruit basket on the counter while I caught up
to the frig, grabbed a couple of cokes, and loaded them down
with ice. Slurping and munching with nothing better to do, we
watched the girls prepare to cook.
     "So Hairy, what else did you sell?" Ta asked as she pulled
out a wood cutting board, washed a knife, and prepared to cut
up some onions.
     "Everything."
     "He even sold the box," Bobby added.
     Still holding the knife, Ta turned around, "Everything?"
     Bobby and I looked at each other and in unison replied,
"Everything."
     Ta swallowed, lowered her voice, strained her neck, and
stared. "How much?"
     I glanced at Bobby and put a finger to my lips. He just
stirred and took another bite of his apple before looking away
sipping his coke. Jenny didn't know what was going on and so
just kept washing leafy greens in the sink. Squinting my nose
and scratching my head...
     "Hairy?" Ta was getting impatient.
     I slid off the stool and pulled out my wallet, starting to
lay singles and fives on the bar before dropping my wallet on
the counter and starting to search through my pockets. Bobby
was laughing in his coke.
     Ta couldn't stand it. She pushed me out of the kitchen and
onto the couch. "How much?"
     "Oh, now I remember. I put it in your purse." She bounced    ***179
off like I was a trampoline.                                           
     "Hairy where is it. I don't see anything." By now the
secrets of her bag covered what was left of space on the
dining-room table with a few curious items, rolling and dancing
their way onto the rug.
     "Check the zipper pocket," I said, lighting up a
cigarette.
     "No way. Who?" And then seeing the signature, "Mr.
Speight?" She collapsed back onto the couch and looked around
as if in disbelief. "Does he want more?"
     "Babe, Mr Speight doesn't care about jewelry. He only
cares about us getting back to normal. Don't you see? It's his
way of giving us a fresh start. He's just going to pawn it all
off on a Rodeo-Drive jeweler friend without losing any money,
most likely break even, maybe some profit, after fitting out
his girls for a couple of birthdays and choosing a keepsake for
his wife. I'm worth more to him, selling his cars. Bobby, well,
that might be a different story the way he flirts with Mr.
Speight's daughters."                                         
     "Jewelers on Rodeo Drive will pay that much?" she said in
a whisper. A whisper that over time and years would grow.
     "Hey Bobby go check and see if Ethel has retreated to her
cave yet. We have to get back to work."                          
     "Hairy? You can't stay to eat? Mommy will be home with Pat   
and Boonthai soon. I'm making something special you like."
     "What?" If it meant running into those two again, I'd
rather settle for leftovers.
     She started, looking through her pockets for the answer.
"I know it's here somewhere. Nope. You'll just have to wait to
get home to find out."
     "TJ. She's gone. Let's go," Bobby said, eyeing Jenny one
last time.
     With the stealth of a marine-incountry recon unit we made
it to the truck undetected after a protracted evasive runaround
of cat and mouse. Ethel was the terminator everywhere, those
androidlike ears tuned to a door-opening pitch. We even ended
up on the sticky-tar roof trying to avoid her. The woman
obviously had an unhealthy obsession with him but he seemed to
relish in the retreat. It was only when she finally needed a
refill that we scooted down a tree and buckled up, Bobby,
howling out the window as he started the engine.
     "Hey Bobby. I heard Ethel is throwing a barbecue this       ***180
weekend. Wanna come?"
     "What a shame we both have to work."
     Jenny completing our circle of friends, it looked like now
things could finally get back to normal. Not even an Ethel, Pat,
or Boonthai could put a damper on that.
                                                               
 
     "Match point, TJ. Don't choke," Jenny teased from her own
baseline, swaying back and forth in anticipation, ready to make
mincemeat of my next desperate serve and crush any chance of a
momentous first win with one cruel commanding return.
     What started out as a playful challenge, had developed
into a three-times-a-week habit by the end of the semester and
this was the culminating moment. The product of Khun M.
extending her stay, not having found an urgent reason to return
home, with Pat and Boonthai showing up at the apartment every
morning as if still family employees conscripted by first-job
gratitude and stamped-in loyalty, it was less a test of keeping
my composure than learning Ta was going to escort her mom home
for two weeks.
     "Come on bro. It's your time. Piece of cake," Eric cheered
from the sideline bench. Leaning one hand on the net post and
bouncing an extra tennis ball in the other with our towels
draped over each shoulder, he stood as attentive as an
upscale-hotel bathroom porter, ready to not only shag
stragglers between serves but assist a timely sweat wipe, as
well. All that running back and forth in the dry humidity under
a crusted cloudless sun, it wasn't only Jenny and I who were
getting a two-hour mid-morning workout.
     "Eric," Jenny exclaimed, feigning a hurt disappointed
stare as she took an akimbo stance to impress her betrayal.
     "Jenny come on. You know you're gonna win. TJ needs all
the encouragement he can get." Eric, chewing a wad of gum,
gave me a nod.
     On any other day he might have been right. With my
blistered thumb consoled by a third round of tape, my second
Byorn Borg shirt soaked through, laboring me down with its
clinging weight, a wristband too perspired to absorb any more
sweat, making the grip on my gut-strung Wilson aluminum tennis
racket hard to cement, and eyes stinging from the overflow of
my brow, it was unlikely that I'd get this last ball past her      ***(minus 5-line 36 plus 2 spaces ends pg 181)
or be able to regroup if it didn't; except the frustration of      
coping with Ta heading home for what she claimed was only two
weeks was an overpowering impulse that needed an outlet; here
and now, it was concentrated in one last serve, one last
volley.
     "Hey, you ready?" Jenny answered with a high-five of her
racket.
     A toss in the air, lost in the sun, a one-two count
stretch and pile-drive slice, I felt the ball inhale as it
vibrated through my elbow, stiffened my wrist, and popped in my
ear, ready-cocked to steam over the net lost to a lopsided
spin. Jenny was poised and ready for a forearm cross-court
return, but when the green demon bounced it danced a wicked
curve that sideswiped her opposite cheek with the collateral
damage of knocking her off balance and flinging her glasses. A
surprise to us both, my ongoing losing streak had finally
ended.
     "Jen, you okay?" I shouted, running over to help her up
while Eric retrieved her glasses. She had taught me to serve
but never like that.
     "I'm fine," she said, brushing off her pride. "Thank you,
Eric." It took a minute to readjust her glasses. "Where?...
How?..."
     "I have no idea. Just don't ask me to do it again. So how
about I buy us all some breakfast."
     "Denny's sound good," Eric suggested.
     "TJ, you must be kidding. All sweaty like this, I'd be too
embarrassed. Remind Ta we're meeting up after class. It's our
last chance to go shopping together before she heads home,"
Jenny said as she walked over to pack up her gear.
     "Home? Not again," Eric said quite taken aback.
     "Yeah, for a couple of weeks," I sighed. "Seems like with
her mom, she has never quite been able to cut the umbilical
cord."
     "So bro. Go spend some time with her. We can do breakfast
anytime. Can't believe the way you aced Jenny. That's one for
the books."
     "You're right. I've got the day off anyway. Now if I can
just pry her away from those clinging relatives." That had been
the problem since she'd been back. Never left alone, she hadn't
found the need to depend just on me. Forever under her mother's   ***182
wing, there was always tomorrow.     

     Two nights before that ill-fated flight, unexpected, Pat  
and Boonthai showed up with three Thai guests, looking forward
to a potluck dinner. Lured off the couch by Ta's list for an
unscheduled grocery run, I hunted down my keys as she scrambled
to the kitchen in a pot-and-pan chopping-board frenzy.
     Not feeling like it had been an imposition, satiated and
content, they said goodbye to their friends and returned to
relax, talking with Ta and Khun M. late into the night.
     It was only after I had dozed off in my room, watching an
old-movie rerun that Ta tiptoed in, under the pretense of
looking for extra pillows. Stirred by a stroke on the cheek, a
kiss on the lips, and the harmony of an echo "Good night
darling," I rolled over just in time to caress her hand before
she slid free, stroking my hair, and turned off the tv, leaving
the hum of a vibrating air conditioner and the gurgle of
fish-tank pumps to lullaby a dream, sure that their sunrise
Thai chatter would wake me long before any alarm clock had a
chance to compete.
     They all slept out on the living-room shag rug that night,
except Khun M. who opted for the couch, turning curtain-drawn
dawn darkness into an obstacle course with possible minefield
ramifications for anyone that half-expected to stumble and slip
by through to the front door undetected. But after all Jenny's
extensive coaching, with her recent defeat still stroking my
ego, the tightrope challenge was a risk worth taking since it
held the prospect to experience a similar thrill. This was
another milestone match I was anxious to play, being at the
top of my game, and so dared not miss.
     Only Pat and Boonthai had already left, a slight that even
for them seemed a bit out of character since foregoing the
ritual social courtesy of shared morning coffee followed by a
customary respectful waay before departing would be considered
impolite conduct. Not fully aware of how suspicious the flight
was in essence, there didn't appear any urgent need to disturb
anyone else. After all, they would disappear when Khun M. left
anyway and not be a bother once Ta got back.
     Forgetting about what became of them, I surrendered to
Hank's power serve in three short sets. He was nothing like
playing Jenny. I'd barely broken a sweat. If not the high
school tennis coach on the courts we were playing who needed a   ***183
ride home one day when it started raining, he might not have    
been so keen to play on a regular basis. But we were both early
risers with just that time slot available to practise. 
     "TJ don't look so down. You're getting better. I like that  
curve you're working into your serve," he said as he wiped down 
his racket to my brooding on the bench.
     "Yeah, but yours. Everytime I hit one, it feels like my
arm is getting yanked out of the socket. Everything from the
shoulder on is still vibrating."                                
     "It helps being over six foot. But hey you're getting        
there. Don't forget I've been going to tennis camps since I was   
a kid. So same time next week?" he asked, digging out his
bike-lock key.
     "For sure."                                                  
     Throwing my gear into the trunk as Hank waved and pedaled
off, I drooled over the prospect of nursing my arm back to
health with a greasy-spoon Denny's breakfast special, the one
including a cheese-mushroom omlette, bacon, sausage, buttery
toast, and grill-fried hash browns smothered in sauteed onions.
But as soon as I buckled up with the engine humming and the
stereo blaring, the fragile nature of my present situation came
to mind, ruining my appetite and sending my thoughts racing.
Only a drive through the hills could make sense of it. Only my
car through the curves was immune to it.
     Still handicapped by the fresh scars of our ordeal that
had not yet fully healed, brittle scabs of lonliness from being
apart for just two weeks could easily fester into an ulcerous
illusion where time seemed to be infected with a bout of slow
motion. A fever inflamed the more often I passed by familiar
places we shared, meant coming home via side-road detours to
ease the pain of a deserted apartment by then quiet and cold
with only her lingering Chanel scent as a reminder that she had
ever been there.
     And what of any secrets being kept from Khun M. during her
Bangkok absence? Family dramas trumped everything, especially
our relationship, since Ta had never owned up and told them the
truth about us. One crisis could send our union to the back
burner to simmer forgotten until it became convenient to take
up again, making us pawns in a game with limited moves. One
that Ta has been using to hedge her bets all along while I'm
left holding one roll of the dice.
     But with her everything has been a long-shot gamble from     ***184
the beginning, at first untouchable, at last in love. There's    
really no choice except to buckle down and see it through to     
the end, come what may.
     Distracted by a hawk that had buzzed my window like a lone
motorcycle cop trying to flag me over, while downshifting into
a hairpin mountain curve, I lost my train of thought, following
its line of flight to the pinnacled top of a dead tree trunk,
overlooking a roadside rest area. Curious, my camera within
reach, the moment was hard to resist, pulling in after the
endangered road-raged rounder lit, seeing what kind of a shot
there was to make of her. Only fifty feet away she bobbed her
head and flapped her wings but didn't budge, as if, this was
her favorite spot and I was her guest, looking out over the
juniper and connifer tree river valley.
     "You're a smart girl aren't you? How did you know I was
thinking too much and needed to slow down, relax, enjoy the
view, and breathe in some fresh mountain air?" Sitting on the
hood with the engine warming my buns, I lit up a cigarette,
closed my eyes, and listened to the silence as the wind blew
through my hair, tickling my ears.
     "Sqreeeek!" She looked down at me before pecking at her
talons. Must be some annoying tidbit of mouse stuck there like
popcorn between your teeth after a scary movie.
     "Oh, you approve do you?" I dared lift the camera for a
motordrive close-up of the one-foot antic but the multi-click
snapped her back to attention. Pumping up her chest and cocking
her head, a noble bird, a baroness, she looked out over her
inheritance. It was a fine estate, full of mice, chipmunks,
snakes, and squirrels; the streams were cool and sweet with
lots of frogs; with only one road leading up from the river
there was lots of privacy; untouched by brushfire, turtles
and lizards were a plenty; groves of trees and vibrant brush,
she could have her pick of mates. A few more shots and she
was gone, following the air currents down into the valley.
     I was about to light another cigarette, about to get back
to wandering within when she showed up again, same spot, just
pawing something beyond description. Women...this one in
particular, with so little effort, had mesmerized me like my
own. Now I knew how one could convince you to blindly give up
everything and tempt your fate where the only reward might be
grey hair and a life of regret. It was what you were willing to 
do to capture a free spirit.                                        ***185
     "Sqreeeek, sqreeeek!" It was as if, not to forget her
manners, whatever she had returned with was meant as a snack
for me to share.
     "Sorry, I like mine medium rare. Glad you decided to
come back though. So what will it be, eight-by-ten centerfold
glossies for all your boyfriends? That scooped up bit behind
your eyes with the red accent, that's got to be the clincher
look, very hawk couture."
     She scratched the sharpened finery into her talons as she
gnawed a lipsticked beak just in case there was going to be a
parting shot.
     "Thank you my lady for spiriting away my troubled heart
and cleansing my soul like a morning prayer. It has been an
honor to meet you; one I hope to have the pleasure of doing
again some time. Just I have a lady, too, that I have to get
back to. She's a free spirit like you. You know what that means
right? No, not high maintenance...just touches my heart."
     She called out three more times, bouncing up and down to
the repeated revs of the monza exhausts. Maybe it was in homage
to her, but I didn't turn on the radio all the way home.

     "Hairy. Where have you been?" Ta panted, running up as I
pulled into my parking spot.
     "Why? You missed me?" I asked, getting out and heading for
the trunk to gather up my gear.
     "Hairy. Mommy's diamond earrings are gone. She laid them
on the table next to the sofa lamp before she went to sleep
last night and now she can't find them."
     "Pat and Boonthai were gone by the time I got up. Why
don't you ask them?"
     "TJ. I'm serious."
     "So am I. What makes you think they wouldn't take them?"
     "TJ. They are a couple of my parents closest friends."
     "They worked for your parents. That doesn't make them
really your friends. Shit, call the cops. You know where they
live."
     "Hairy, we looked all over the house. Come help me look."
     "No."
     "What? Why not?"
     "Because it's a waste of precious time. You need to get
after them before they bolt. Why do you think they left before
I got up and didn't bother to say goodbye? Take the blinders     ***186
off. They know you're going home tomorrow. Jeez, if your mother  
didn't treat them to dinner every night and buy them stuff for
the past five months you think they would come around here
every day? They have been kiss-ass for months and you still
don't get it. I'm telling you. Call the damned cops before they
disappear for good. Why else do you think they conveniently
showed up unannounced last night like that? Their friends were
an excuse, just a diversion."                                                      
     Ta grabbed my hand in a rush to get back to the apartment,
anxious to tell Khun M. what I had said. But she, too, only
shook her head in disbelief. It would be too embarrassing  for
everyone concerned to accuse her friends.
     "Okay. If she's so convinced they're innocent, try calling
them. When there's no answer just remember I told you so." And
to think only a while ago I was feeling such serenity. Now we
would be parting under an even darker cloud, leaving the time
of her return even more in question.
     Khun M. motioned Ta to try the phone but after three ever
longer attempts there was still no answer. "Maybe, they just
haven't gotten home yet," Ta said, sitting back down on the
couch to console her mom.
     I started laughing at her rationale before catching
myself. "I'm sorry. You know where they live. Right?"
     Ta nodded.
     "Then let's go. I'll drive."  Khun M. and Ta looked at
each other before racing into the back bedroom to get dressed
while I sipped a coke and fed my fish.
                                                              
     "You sure this is the place?" Furnished apartments. Shit,
they can be packed up and gone in no time. "Khun M. what's their
apartment number?"
     Khun M. held up seven fingers.
     "Wait here. I'll go check."
     "Hairy. I'm coming with you."
     "What about your mom?"
     "She'll be fine. Just leave the doors locked and the air
conditioning on."
     The two-storey apartment complex, east of LA, butting the
101 freeway, in "Little Bangkok" where most of the Thais and
exchange students lived, was built in typical courtyard fashion
with all the tenants enjoying a view of the pool. But the left
to rundown neighborhood of second-hand shops, seedy-pool bars,    ***187
fast-food stalls, and boarded-up storefronts, conveniently        
doubling as afterhour cardboard condos and bag-lady boudoirs
including shopping-cart parking, betrayed an enviorment not to
be caught walking around in after dark. Even the security gate,
hanging by one hinge, was reminder enough to double bolt your
front door. And by the looks of the green sludge that had taken
over the pool undisturbed, sucking up water as it chewed on the
remains of discarded lounge chairs with nearby garbage laying
uncollected, blocking alleyways, it was advice well heeded day
and night. We'd have to make sure not to leave Khun M. alone at
the curb for very long.                                         
     I knocked on apartment seven. No answer. I knocked again,
leaning in listening. No one stirred. Only one thing left to
do, find the manager's apartment. "Have you seen the tenants in
apartment seven today? Do they still live here?"
     "They moved out early this morning," an old woman in a
bathrobe and curlers wheezed. "They were in such a rush they
didn't even want to wait around to see if they were going to
get any of their security deposit back. Strange lot those
Orientals. Friends of yours?"
     "Did they leave a forwarding address?" I asked as her
tabby came out, curling around my leg.
     "Not that I know of," she said, taking a long drag off her
cigarette. "They were just all excited, rambling on in that
language of theirs, every two minutes looking at their watches
like they were late for a train or something."
     I looked at Ta. "Let's go check with the post office."
     "Young man, you can use my phone if you like. I have their
lease agreement. Might help if the call is coming from their
previous apartment manager's office." She turned around and I
followed. Ta bent down to pet the tabby, signaling that she was
heading back to check on Khun M.
     Again no luck. "Shit. They must have been planning this
for months." I buckled my seatbelt, mulling over what to do
next.
     "Hairy. How did you know?"
     "Well, it wasn't me. So who else could it have been?"
     "Hairy. You look worried. What's wrong?"
     "Khun M. is going back to Thailand but you are going to be
staying here and I don't know how far Pat and Boonthai are
willing to go to protect themselves. Stealing two eight-carat
blue-white tear-drop diamonds mounted on two three-carat          ***188
solitaires is a felony and if they get caught they could be    
looking at some serious jail time, never mind the public
disgrace they'd endure in the Thai community. We have to tell
the police."
      "Hairy. No. Mommy would never allow that."
      "Then how am I supposed to look after you. I can't go
through another round of anything like what happened before.
Think about someone else's feelings besides your own for a
change. Who knows what those two would do if they ever felt
cornered. Did you ever think of that? Let the police help.
That's what they're here for. As long as you're here you're a
threat to them. Don't you get that simple fact?"                                                            
     Ta's eyes started to swell with tears.
     "The police can find them. Just let me ask for their help,
otherwise this is just going to hang over us and we'll be
looking over our shoulders, wondering how they're going to
react in their paranoia. It'll never be over."
     "I can't."
     "Then fuck you. Go home with your mother. At least you'll
be safe. I can't take this candy-ass shit anymore. Maybe the
money doesn't mean anything to you people. Maybe you don't care
that it is wrong. But always avoiding uncomfortable situations
where others know they can take advantage of cultural bullshit,
especially when it affects me, is getting to be too much. I'm
telling you. These people have different values now. They're
not like you anymore. If they could do this, they will do
anything to keep you from finding them. For them, now, it is a
matter of survival and, at all cost, avoiding shame."
     "Hairy. How can you talk this way to me?"
     "Remember that letter you sent to me with the do-not-fold
stamp? I never opened it. I couldn't bear to look at pictures
of you hurt. You never told me about that first problem. You
just said you were going to Las Vegas. Always you. I could have
prevented what happened but you never gave me a chance. You did
it your way and look how it hurt both of us. One of these days
you are going to have to admit I'm your husband and let me look
after you. Some day you are going to have to stop hedging who
you want to be. Right now all you do is hurt us both. Go home.
Grow up." I got out, threw her the keys, and walked away.
     "Hairy. Where are you going?" She sobbed, leaning over the
seat, reaching out the window.
     I flipped her the finger without turning back and before     ***189
she could figure out quite what to do next, hopped on a bus.
Being the first time I'd ever raised my voice to her, it was
time to be somewhere else.             
     It might have been because of the morning ride with my
thoughts, the chance encounter with the hawk, or the mountain
pass with its comforting breeze that I could get honest with
myself and finally admit to Ta the pent-up truth. But nothing
could explain boarding the wrong bus, especially the number
six, heading north back to Pasadena, the mountains, and more
birds. And then as I stepped off midtown in front of a sidewalk
cafe it was the earthbound variety sitting there, feeding each
other french fries, who first caught my eye. Mike and Bobby's
sister Clara were laughing and cooing as they enjoyed an early
intimate lunch.
     "TJ, where's your car? What are you doing on a bus way out
here?" Mike asked, stirring up a long-legged french fry in a
nylon of ketchup. "Have a seat. We've barely ordered yet if you
want to join us. This place makes great cheeseburgers, french
fries, and stuffed mushrooms."
     "Hi Clara, long time no see." I looked down to check my
watch before pulling up a chair. "Think there are any good
monasteries up here? I'm thinking about forgetting the Bangkok
connection and becoming a monk."
     "Rough morning TJ?" she asked, sipping her drink.
     "Shit happens. So tell me. If I became a monk and lived up
in these hills would you come give me lap dances on weekends?
Bobby told me you were quite the cabaret dancer back in
England and I'm sure Mike doesn't want you to get out of
practise."
     He choked wide-eyed on a french fry.
     "Mike, I think something is wrong with your buddy," Clara
said, rolling her eyes.
     "It's this English delirium that comes from hanging around
your brother too much. The stories he tells...Okay, gotta go
find the right bus." Stretching up from the chair, I looked
around for one heading south.
     "TJ. What's going on?" Mike asked, leaning back in his
chair. "Seriously."
     "Seriously? What number goes down to Monterey Park?"
     "Come on. Have lunch with us first. Spill it. And then
we'll give you a ride. Clara's been bugging me to take her down
to see the San Bernadino Mall anyway. We can drop you off and    ***190
make an afternoon of it." He reached under the table to hold    
her hand.                                                        
     Tall, boyish-cut hair, and dancer-trim, Clara was a couple
of years older than Mike, street-wise, loud, and sassy with a
cockney accented truck-driver vocabulary. And her sarcastic
slurping while Mike and I talked wasn't endearing her with any
etiquette points. But then she cleared her throat and redeemed
herself. "TJ, its time we took you home for a hug. The last
thing you want on that girl's mind as she goes home is how you
left it."
     Mike called for the check. I fumbled for the tip. Clara
leaned over to pick up her bag. We both bent over to admire her
tight...
    
     Walking down the terrace walkway to the apartment, Clara
lagging a bit behind as if she was thinking of the sun, a tan,
a swim, and a lounge chair, Mike whispered in my ear, "No
mention of the Mexican girls, okay?"
     "What Mexican girls?" I asked, turning back to smile at
her.
     "Right, what Mexican girls. They aren't home are they?
Shit, if they ever walked out now, especially the way Bobby
dumped them, it could get messy," Mike said, looking back to
make sure she couldn't hear us.
     "You knock," I said just short of the door.
     "Isn't this your apartment, too?" Mike asked somewhat
confused.
     "I need the element of surprise. With you guys here she
can't get pissed off. Of course those Mexican girls coming down
to exchange recipes, I don't know when that's supposed to
happen."
     "What?" Mike stopped short.
     "Duh?" I broke out laughing. "Shit bro, you'd think you
were married. Oh I get it. She can kick your ass, right? I
heard those East End girls are tough."
     "TJ go fuck yourself."
     "Thanks, but I think this morning I already did that." I
pointed at the door. "Please. I promise noone in there is going
to speak espanol."
     I leaned against the wall with folded arms as Clara caught
up and Ta opened the door. She invited them in and just looked
at me. I didn't move. Like a puppy she molded her nose into my   ***191
neck and pulled my arms apart and around her. The next day she   
and Khun M. were gone.
                                                                 
     For two weeks I worked double shifts, ate out, went to      
clubs with Mike and Bobby, and crashed on their living-room   
couch every night, waiting. But it wasn't a flight schedule I
finally got. It was a broken promise.
     There were eight open positions for the Helena Rubinstein
cosmetics, six-month, tour Europe, Thai-German advertising
campaign. Her sister Koi, anxious to apply but nervous about
the audition, had asked her to come along for support; only she
got rejected in favor of Ta.
     TV spots, promotional appearances, and magazine covers,
"Smooth As Silk" was a ruby-red-slipper opportunity, a click
away from an international modeling career. At least, Ta called
and asked me if she could. Knowing how I felt about the Pat and
Boonthai situation, she reasoned a cooling-off period would
ensure her safe return. Backed into a corner, agreeing with her
was just a formality. But looking back at what happened next, I
regretted having caved in so easily.

     "Would you lie down here and extend your right arm
please?" the nurse asked, turning away to prepare her wares.
     I swallowed hard and started to count ceiling tiles, after
folding my hands and crossing my feet.
     First came a squeaky rubber-wrap tied tight below my elbow.
Then the sterile stench of an alcohol-soaked cotton ball rubbed
cool against my skin. Finally, accompanying a raised syringe
that seemed at one point to blend into the downtown windowscape
as a miniature Empire State building with an aerial drip, those
deceptive words, "Hold still. It's just a pinch."
     The sudden warmth and my eyelids started to flutter as she
picked up my wrist to check my pulse. "Sixty-five. Perfect. Now
I'm going to help you get up. There's a room with soft music and
leather couches where you can relax. The doctor will be with
you shortly. You can take a nap if you like. I'll come wake you
when he's ready."
     Did that nurse just give me a lude...
     "Mr. Tom...Mr. Tom?" the nurse coaxed, softly shaking my
shoulder, trying to wake me up.
     Suddenly, remembering where I was, "Is the doctor ready
for me now?" Sitting up abruptly, I wasn't as successful when       ***192
it came time to stand up.                                          
     "Honey, hold on. Take it slow. You were finished half an
hour ago. I just brought you back in here to give the sedative
time to wear off."
     "Finished? I don't even remember..." And then I looked at
my watch. My appointment had been for ten that morning. It was
almost noon.
     "Honey here is your appoinment card for next week to get
your stitches out. Do you have someone waiting here to give you
a ride home?"
     "I...," looking over her shoulder, Mike slowly stood up,
lowering a newspaper. A pencil in his hand, he must not have
finished. "Yeah. My friend's here. Seems he was into one of his
crossword puzzles."
     Mike let go a long stretch and guarded yawn before he
walked over. "So, how was it? Did it hurt?"
     "I don't know. I can't remember."
     "Damned TJ. If I ever get my wisdom teeth taken out I'm
coming here. Did they take out all four?"
     "I hope so. Is my face still swollen?"
     "If you mean do you still look like a blood hound with
drooping jawls. Mmmmmmm, no. So how about some lunch. You
hungry?"
     "Know any place I can get a cheeseburger that I can sip
through a straw?" I asked as the nurse helped me into my jacket
and adjusted my tie.
     "A cheeseburger? No way. East LA and green burritos. It's
on me."
     "What's that?"
     "Come on TJ. You've lived in LA how long and you don't
know what a green burrito is?"
     "Mike. The closest I've ever gotten to Mexican food is
listening to Eric speak Spanish."
     "It's guacamole mixed with fried beef and rolled up in
peter bread. It's good. If you don't feel like chewing you can
just squeeze the guacamole out like squeezing toothpaste out of
a tube."
     "Guacamole. I thought that was a country in South
America."
     "That's Guadalope," Mike said, grabbing the door as he
tossed his paper on a vacant chair.
     "Guadalope is a town in Mexico. You must be thinking of      ***193
Guatamala."
     "TJ. Are you still high?"
     "Must be. Either that or I'm still jet lagged from
sleeping on that lumpy second-hand flea-market special in your
living room you dare to call a couch. Damned. What were you and
Clara doing last night? Even with the door closed, with all the
grunting and bouncing, you guys sounded like a couple of
orangutans in heat. At least Bobby was quiet."
     "Bobby never came home last night," Mike added as if that
was a defence.
     "I wonder if he went out with that Mexican girl again."
     "What Mexican girl? The one from your apartment building?"
     "No. This is a different one . You don't know her."
     "Okay. Listen. Because I'm only going to tell you this
once. Guacamole is avocado mixed with tomatoes and bacon with a
sprinkle of salt and pepper."
     "Oh, I had that before in potato-chip dip. It's good.
Yeah,  let's go try some of that."
     "And then," as Mike went into big hand gesturing mode, "We
can top them off with a couple of margaritas."
     "Mexican mosquitos?"
     "TJ. Get in. No more talking until I sober you up with a
couple of drinks."

     Avocado ecoli equalizer would have been a more accurate
culinary translation than green burrito. After three days of
shaking through cold sweats, hardly able to get out of bed with
my stomach boring, gnawing, and twisting, out of desperation
during a morning downpour, I managed a shower, clothes, keys,
and a search for relief.
     Private physicians with their two-week appoinment lags,
insurance card requirements, and unsympathetic walk-in
policies, thirty miles-per-hour on the freeway, I had driven
almost to the office before finding a free clinic. Full of
migrant workers, homeless drunks puking in corners, stary-eyed
addicts asking me for a buck, kids running around screaming,
and walls smelling like urine, the room started spinning.
Nowhere to sit, I leaned on a wall cursing Mike and the taco
stand while swearing off Mexican food altogether, especially
green burritos, including dip, hoping maybe they could give me
something so I could get back to work. Not leaving my car
outside unattended too long, was the last thing I remembered
thinking about before the nurse picked me up off the floor.       ***194
Good thing I had the credentials of a three-piece suit. The
reception desk was too far away to make it to on my own.
     "So doc. What, I..."
     "Nurse I need an ambulance STAT." He didn't have a chance
to finish writing his report, never mind put down the phone.
Seeing me go limp and start to faint, he reached over to catch
my fall. "Son, you have an acute appendicitis. We have to get
you to the hospital right away."
     "So it wasn't the green burrito?" I slurred.
     "Nurse," he yelled, rechecking my pulse and blood
pressure. "I need a gourney and that ambulance. Now."
     With the rain and the gourney and them rushing me out with
a blanket covering my head, everyone in that waiting room must
have thought I was dead. I would have laughed but it hurt. It
was a twenty-five minute ride to the USC medical center. The
ambulance made it in eight.
     Wheeled up to the emergency room admittance counter, I was
greeted by a huge, middle-aged African-American nurse. She
looked down at me over her glasses and impersonally asked, "Do
you have insurance?"
     I winced as I said, "Yes."
     "Member card," she said, still nonchalant as if I was
renting a video.
     "It's a new policy. My boss hasn't issued us membership
cards yet," I whined.
     She looked straight at me and took a deep breath, "Sir, do
you have a credit card?"
     The pain was getting almost unbearable and I lost it.
"Damn it lady. Check me in and you can have the pink slip to my
car." I pulled out my wallet and keys and threw them. Who
caught them was wedding-bouquet odds.
     She was professional. She didn't flinch. She just held out
her hand as another nurse handed her my wallet. I heard the
sound of velcro as she opened it. "He has a Master Charge
Card." Other nurses immediately took over control of my gourney
from the ambulance crew and wheeled me full speed into the
bowels of the hospital. What if I didn't have a credit card
were they going to give me a number and forget me down some
unused hallway?

     I woke up thirsty and dizzy, strangely feeling a
Mike-Bobby headache coming on. The one that comes from a who     ***195
owes who what for whatever we did last night, having to listen
to argument. Nurse Rachet, turns out you're a sweet old gal
after all. My wallet, my business cards, I'd have to remember
to thank her before getting discharged.
     "What are you girls fussing about?" I asked looking over
at Mike and Bobby, standing in the doorway, both sucking on
cherry lollipops.
     Mike walked over with what looked like a clown doll
stabbed foot to nose with the things. "This is from Mister
Speight. He says for you to take two weeks off and then get
your ass back to work."
     Bobby headed in the other direction. A hospital full of
nurses, I couldn't blame him.
     "The nurse at the counter told me you can go home
tomorrow. I'll come pick you up," Mike said, grabbing a couple
for the road.
     "Thanks bro. Can you call Bobby back in here. I need him
to drive my car back to the dealership. My keys are at the
front desk."
     Bobby walked back in with a cute blue-eyed blonde nurse in
tow. "This is Cindy. She's from Colorado. She's going to teach
me how to ski."
     "Cindy, could you go get my car keys from the front desk
and give them to Bobby, please?"
     She smiled, leaned into Bobby and walked away.
     "So where's your car at bro?" Bobby asked, looking back at
her, looking back at him as she left the room.
     "It's at the clinic, next to the gas station, next to the
car wash where you picked up that Mexican girl the night that
we went clubbing on Sunset Boulevard and Mike went home early."
     Mike looked at Bobby, "What Mexican girl?"
     Bobby shrugged his shoulders.
     "Come on Bobby. You didn't tell Mike about that one?  I
don't blame you. What was she, maybe 5'2", 150 pounds? That
girl sure liked her tacos and bean spread."
    Bobby gave me a cold hard stare. Mike crossed his arms and
waited to hear more.
    "Come on. It was late. We stopped to get gas. It was dark.
She was wearing black. We were a little drunk. I mean. I
thought you knew. When she stepped out of that '66 Impala low
rider, didn't you see it was her and not the air shocks that
made the car bounce? Then she was in your car and it could have   ***196
had air shocks the way you two were going at it."
     Bobby's eyes rolled and his mouth curled.
     Mike's arms suddenly went to his sides as he looked at
Bobby, "It's true?"                                                              
     Bobby smiled as he gave me the finger.
     "Mike remember when I stayed at your apartment so you
could drive me to the dentist the next morning and Bobby wasn't
home? Remember I mentioned about a Mexican girl? You've been
bumping cheeks with Clara too long bro and have been missing
history in the making. Bobby's been out with her three times.
The way he's picked up a fedish for rolly-pollies, he'll
probably have nurse Rachet on speed dial before I get out of
here tomorrow."
     Mike looked at Bobby.
     Cindy walked back in.

     From the vantage point of her poolside lounge chair, Ethel
got an eyeful, brimming with gossip potential, watching my
shuffled, limped, tightroped, terrace walk, hanging onto Mike's
shoulder for support. Careful not to seem too anxious to pry,
in case it was a sensitive situation, she bided her time and
waited, sure of a chance to accidently bump into Mike on his
way out. There, during a hurried no-man's-land walk back to his
car, he was fair game out in the open where she could chisel
away unimpeded until came the halting sound of electric door
locks. How skillful the ambush had been, I found out the
following morning.
     "TJ, you awake, bro? We heard what happened. You okay?"
Eric yelled as he opened my apartment door too early. "I have
Jenny with me. She brought you some food." He motioned to her,
hesitant to walk in. "It's okay. Come on. We can wake him up
together. He won't mind. Who else is going to warm up this care
package so he can regain his strength?"
     I'd heard them walking past my window, Eric bantering,
Jenny giggling, my alarm clock flashing an eight o'clock
warning. My first day to go comotose watching nonstop soap
operas and nibble on dangerously dated leftovers, early or not,
it was a relief to see them. Must have been Ta before she left,
who gave him the key in case of an emergency.
     "TJ, what are you doing sleeping on the floor? Come on. I
have a jug of Carlo Rossi rose wine, some Hawaiian punch mixer,
and my car bro, it's finished. There's even a built-in cooler
behind the back seats. It's a total class act now. We can        ***197
cruise up into the mountains, check out some waterfalls, take
some pictures, and have a picnic. I know you just got out of
the hospital so I'll drive and make sure to take it easy."
     "Is your car still that same ugly green-hornet lime-green
or did you fix that, too?"
     "Jenny come say hi to TJ."
     "Eric?"
     "Yeah, bro?"
     "Jenny cooked?"
     "Yeah bro. garlic spare ribs, fried chicken, and a soup
with coagulated duck blood, turtle eggs, and bamboo shoots."  
     "Ta used to make that. I know what I'm having for
breakfast." I winced a bit, rolling over to get up, not sure
where my lighter had disappeared to.
     "Okay bro. Well, my cooler. I'm going to walk down to the
corner to get some ice. We're a go for the mountains right?"
     "Eric wait." I reached for my wallet. "Buy me some
Kodachrome sixty-four slide film while you're there. And a
lighter and a couple packs of smokes, who knows when I'll be
able to make it down there on my own."
     I had three months left to go before Ta came back and Eric
was doing his best to make sure he, Jenny, pictures, tennis,
chess, his car, wine coolers, and the mountains were all I had
in my spare time to think about. But with one taste of Jenny's
cooking, I knew there was one more thing missing, needed to
make the list homesick proof.
     "So Jen, do you have a toll-free number for takeout orders
and free delivery?" I had already finished off the soup and was
trying to decide between the chicken and the ribs.
     She walked over, sat down, and took off her glasses to rub
her eyes. "Any time. When you're up to playing tennis again, I
have this Korean barbecue recipe I'm dying to try out on you
two."
     "Next week. It's a date."
     "Here you go bro," Eric said as he loaded up the ice in
the blender, licked his fingers, and tossed me the roll of
film, starting to kid Jenny about opening a restaurant. "Hey
bro, you okay? You're really starting to sweat. Maybe we should
put off going anywhere just yet?"
     "You think?"
     A couple of hours later I woke up on the couch. Eric was    ***198
playing a game of chess against himself. Jenny was watching tv,
thumbing through Ta's old fashion magazines. For three more
days it was a replay of the same until finally strong enough I
went back to work. There was the prospect of Korean barbecue to
look forward to.
                                                                 *  (minus 5 start of page 199)

     "Tommy, call on line two," Angie crunched from behind the
switchboard, enjoying a potato chip snack.
     "Hi, can I help you?" I mouthed an exaggerated chew and
flashed a bug-eyed look. She put her hand to her lips somewhat
embarrassed.
     "TTTJJJ, how are you bro? It's Mike. We haven't seen each
other since Bangkok."
     "Hey, where are you? Still flying with TWA, keeping your
thirty-thousand-feet membership current?"
     "Nah, I've got a stewardess girlfriend now. If I tried any
of those bathroom antics, her friends would have me branded and
skewered by the time we reached altitude."
     "Sounds serious. When am I going to meet her?" I lit a
smoke, watching Bobby and Bo run out onto the lot at almost the
same time, trying to outdo each other, snagging a customer.
Woops, false alarm. He drove in the wrong way, looking for the
service department.
     "Well that's one reason for the heads up. I'm not
stationed out of New York anymore. They've got me in a condo
now out here in Tucson. TJ, you wouldn't believe this place;
it's like spring break on South Beach every night. Thirty
degrees when it gets dark in the desert during December and
chicks are jumping in and out of the whirlpool topless right
below my second-floor balcony. It's biblical, manna from
heaven."
     "Sounds tough. I give you and your new girlfriend another
two weeks unless you both get the same time off, then I
figure she'll wise up the day after." There go Bobby and Bo
again. An old lady, God help her. Bo will probaly have her
asking him over for dinner after she pinches Bobby's ass,
declining a date.
     "No man, I'm hooked. She's the one. Listen. It's a few
weeks to Christmas. I fly back from Paris on the thirtieth. New
Years eve bro. Can you drive over and join me? You can meet my    ***199
girlfriend before she flies out to Rome that night. We can
party down like old times. Bring Ta. Wow, I'd really love to
see her again."
     "Yeah, about Ta..."
     "Bro what's wrong. You guys are still together, no? Shit,
nothing could pull you two apart."
     "Long story. She was supposed to be back fron Thailand a
couple of weeks ago. But for the past month, no phone call, no
letter. I don't know what's going on over there."
     "TJ, you know how her family works, always screwing with
her. It's the same old family politics. Trust me. I sent you a
letter with my new address, a map, and telephone numbers. It
should be there by tomorrow. So if you're free..."
     "Don't you fly for free, just pay tax or something? How
about a first-class round-trip ticket?"
     "Sorry TJ, that option is only good for family."
     "What frat brothers don't count?"
     "I wish. I'd fly out the whole house."
     "Okay, let me see what happens with Ta first. You're
definitely going to be there on New Year's eve right? If I go
spir-of-the-moment and you're not there I'll spend the next
month calling in phony TWA bomb scares and you'll never get off
the ground."
     "Yeah, right. With over a hundred flights out of here a
day I'd love to see that. SPD bro. I'll be here."
     "Okay bro. If I can't see Ta on New Year's, I'll settle
for my best friend."
     "TJ you're so sweet. If you were here I'd give you a
slobbering wet French kiss."
     "Only in your wet dreams asshole."
     "Oh, I love it when you talk dirty to me."
     "Mike?"
     "What?"
     "Later."
     I hung up still eyeing Angie crunching chips while Bobby
continued to make faces at Bo through the glass partition,
trying to distract his attention from the old lady, debating
with her purse about reaching for her checkbook. It seemed like
as good a time as any to call Eric and Jenny to ask them if
they wanted to go holiday shopping and help me buy and decorate
a tree. But Chrismas passed and still no Ta. The tree went over    ***200
the balcony into the brush with another promise missed. The
presents we'd bought together, hoping Ta would like, went onto
a shelf inside the closet, out of sight, not as cruel a
reminder. Now if only Eric would stop drooling over and talking
about his etched-ivory racing gearshift. At least, Jenny was
casual about her new Dior sunglasses. The patter of hooves on
the roof that I hoped was really suitcase runners outside my
window by the thirtieth of December still hadn't landed.
     "Tommy," Roy grunted, calling me into his office, spoiling
my stealth getaway out the side entrance, ten minutes before
closing. "I need you to work full shifts the next couple of
days."
     I nodded, thumbing my keys, wondering how he had ever
noticed my skipping out early, being on the phone with his back
exposed in a high-back chair. Must have been on high-sensory
alert. There weren't going to be any salesmen who wanted to get
stuck, working over the holiday.
     But since that whole week had already been a gauntlet of
twelve-hour shifts, after arriving home to a long hot shower,
some beef-and-broccoli Chinese leftover takeout, and grabbing
my leather-skin jacket to stay warm, I laced up my hiking
brushed-leather boots and headed back to the car. The lights on
the dash welcomed me into the cockpit again; Recaro seats
hugged me close like a long lost friend; and green buttons on
the stereo waited for my preflight delight while monza exhausts
rumbled in jealousy of the racing-cam hum. I rolled down the
window, looking forward to seven hours of desert driving, the
moonroof open for star-gazing bliss. Yeah, right Roy. I'm going
to blow off yearend highlights just because Speight Buick wants
a show of all hands on deck. Don't count on it, not this year
anyway.
     Through the mountains onto the desert floor, I opened it
up. Six-thousand RPM's, fourth gear, the racing cam and fuel
injection worked together to bury the speedometer at a hundred
and twenty. With a reassuring tach not even close to red line
and an engine humming like it had been waiting forever to show
me what she could do, air passed by screaming, drowning out the
better part of the six-speaker backup to Jackson Brown. Then
came the Tucson lights, flickering beacons calling out in the
yellow-purple haze just before dawn, ready to break the grip of
the desert's spell. After such an exhilarating dance with
isolation, it didn't much matter what happened next. Finding     ***201
the condo was easy enough but waking up Mike was anything but.
The half-naked girls in the whirlpool, it was all true. Just on
the ride back I slowed down, found a motel, and got some sleep.
Roy wasn't too happy when I rolled in to pick up my paycheck,
not saying much though after I asked how he spent the holidays,
except, not as my boss...
     "Tommy," he said as I walked out the door, still not
having gone home yet. "Don't worry kid. She'll be returning
soon."
     I turned around and nodded, fisting my hands, fighting off
the singe of tears. "Yeah, maybe. Whatever. I'll be back first      
shift tomorrow."
     Just one thing left to do. Walking up to the switchboard,
I wasn't surprised to be greeted by an empty inbox, affording
my impromptu trip small consolation in a constant nagging vigil
of anticipation where the restlessness from not knowing had
become more cancerous than the lonliness it replaced. One phone
call, one letter would have been antidote enough. Why was Ta
making it harder than it needed to be?
     "Angie, any calls for me?" Bobby asked, bumping my
shoulder.
     "Some girls called. I don't think they were customers. One
said you left your sunglasses at her house. Another said
something about a beach party next weekend. There was a Donna;
she said she would be back in Reno next week. Her parents are
away...Bobby I can't keep up with all these women if they won't
leave a number." Angie actually gave him a wornout look;
keeping tabs on his love interests wasn't part of her job
description.
     "Thanks m'love. How about you and me tonight? Moonlight
dancing, barefoot on the beach." He grabbed her hand in a
swinging shuffle. "Our own personal French chef, he'd cater our
every need, wine and escargot, candlelight cuisine. It would be
an honor to serve you on my knees if you would only agree to go
out with me. One chance at bliss and my heart would be yours
forever. I promise. Dreaming of you just isn't enough anymore.
There would no longer be any need for other women in my life.
The phone calls would stop."
     "Bobby stop it." She giggled and blushed. "I'm old enough
to be your mother. Besides I'm married."
     "Your red hair, your green eyes, I could never think of
sharing you. Sorry, your husband isn't invited." There was       ***202
Bobby still holding her hand across the counter down on one      
knee. Childhood acting had been replaced by reality tv.          
     I sighed, shaking my head, and headed for the showroom
door.
     "Yoooh. TJ. Wait up." Bobby hooked my arm just as Angie
sat back down. "So?"
     "So...what?"
     "What happened with Roy when you got back? By the second
day when you still hadn't shown up the guy turned all red and
went ballistic, getting so mad, I thought he was going to fire
everyone if he didn't drop dead from a coronary first. Did he
chew you out?"
     "Bobby, we work on commission. Who gives a shit?"                
     "So where'd you go? You missed some great clubbing
nights."                                                            
     "I was meditating in the desert."
     "TJ seriously."
     "Oh you never heard of the Tucson ashram?"
     "Really, you went to an ashram?"
     "And the holy waters of the whirlpool...very stimulating."
     "No fucking way."
     "Yes, way. Bobby, you are just going to have to study a
little party geography." I laughed as I hopped in my car and
rolled down the window.
     Bobby leaned in. "So you didn't hear yet?"
     "Hear what? Angie said yes? Good luck with that." I
started the engine and pushed in a cassette.
     "You won the district."
     I turned off the engine. "For the three days, two nights,
all expenses paid trip to Las Vegas?"
     "Yeah bro, you beat out some other guy in Culver City by
seven sales. You were Buick's top salesman this year."
     I mused, watching an old couple inspect their new car
delivery. "Bobby, tell you what. In Omini Patri Espiritu
Sancti," I chanted, blessing him with the sign of the cross.
"You can take it. Might as well let someone take advantage of
the opportunity who can make good use of the facilities."
     "Seriously?"
     "Bobby. You in Las Vegas? I'd buy you a camera just to see
the pictures."
     "A Nikon?"
     "Don't push your luck instamatic boy."                       ***203
     "No word from Ta, heh?"
     "Shit happens."                                             
     "TJ , international call line two," Angie announced over    
the loudspeaker.
     Bobby caught me off guard with an impromptu, instinctive,
hand-grabbing kiss on the lips and whispered in my ear, "Good
luck, give Ta my love," before walking off scratching his balls
to talk to a couple of girls walking down the sidewalk.
     Asshole. I got out and walked over, leaning against an old
Chevy trade-in, waiting to hear his opening line, not in the
mood to hear any bad news.
     "Tommy, did you hear me. International call, line 2,"
Angie said again.
     I grabbed the used-car attendant, posting incredible deals
on front-line windshields. "Do me a favor and go tell her to
take a message."
     Bobby forgot about the girls and walked over as if my
reluctance came from the first page of his playbook. "Don't
want to talk to her do you?"                                             
     "Want a smoke?" I lit us both one.
     "I get it," he said, taking a long drag, leaning against
the car, scratching his balls again, so the girls could see as
they walked by. "Buyers remorse. Maybe its time for an upgrade
to a more dependable American model. Either that or the
dealership would love be your faithful mistress."
     "Fuckin' A." I started to walk back to the office.
     "TJ where are you going?"
     Angie didn't leave the message in my inbox; this was too
important. She left it on my desk. I walked in. She pointed.
Everyone in the office looked as I picked it up, Northwest
Orient, flight twelve, arriving in two days at 11:10am, LAX
international terminal, gate seven. I bit my lip, raising my
head to close my eyes and breathe in deep. Shit, bare-ass
emotion, no way to keep it in. A 911 moment that prompted a
rash anonymous credit-card rush order call, pleading for a
stack of pizzas from next door, I snuck out free-and-clear in
the delivery confusion.
    But barely having started my next twelve-hour shift, at
Roy's insistence, I got kicked out of the office with three
extra days off, almost missing the phantom warning left on my
desk, accompanied by two leftover pizza slices. "Last chance
for real food, next stop back to toasted chicken-salad            ***204
sandwiches." They were signature Ta, brown-bagged fresh every    
morning, a familiar lunch to look forward to that needed        
special handling if they weren't going to end up as a Bobby
snack. A welcome reminder, there wasn't much time left to go
now before she'd be meeting me at the front door with them once
more.
    To a Santana solo, a Chicano crew working to the music, my
car rolled out of the carwash just as the sun rolled over the
hills, steaming white gold through shimmering water droplets 
alive with dancing rainbow prisms. In twist and spins they     
massaged behind her racing-mirror ears, teased her gauge
eyelids, and wiped down her Recaro seats. A few misty sprays
later, I layed down a five on the hood. "Muchas gracias guys,
I've gotta get moving."
     Barely having gotten any sleep the night before, feeling
too hyper to think about eating, and not wanting to get into a
chain-smoking frenzy, I succumbed to the siren call of pushing
my car to its limits around the hills of Mulholland Drive down  
onto the salt-scented curves of the Pacific Coast Highway,     
ending up, overlooking an ocean cliff to a Malibu beach, a
kill-time ride that had seemed to put my mind at ease.              
     A tribe of surfers, through a spectacle of gulls that      
seemed to float on currents of air like stringless kites, were
marking time to the pulse of the ocean, waiting for that
perfect curl in a breaking swell. The sound of the surf, the
smell of the sea, the carress of the wind, the warmth of the
sun, I took off my shoes and shirt for the treacherous walk
down their rock-strewn footpath.
     My toes, curled in the confectionary mischief of sand at
the water's edge, went numb, coldcocked by the sudden chill
sweeping up my legs. Wetsuits, my ass. Those guys are nuts. A  
moment longer, lingering in the crunch of shells and tickle of
seaweed, then struggling back up the sand-caked cliff, I felt
my heart beating faster, reaching the top. What morning
caffeine rush it had missed, that climb made up for in
adrenaline.
     Sandy and sweaty and having changed into a pair of tennis
shorts, my eyes still grainy from a night of counting ceiling
tiles, I headed for the surfer shower, planning to dry off in
the sun, watching the surfers and gulls from afar, after
rolling open all the windows and moonroof and cranking up the
six-speaker stereo.                                                ***205
     Barely having had time to lay out a towel over the hood   
and windshield after drying and combing my hair, I turned       
around to a soft touch on the shoulder.                        
     "Hey guy. Are you heading out soon? Maybe heading south?
I'm looking for a ride down to Venice Beach." Damned. Blonde,
blue-eyed, petite, and half out of her wet suit, showing off
pink-decaled fingertips, she definitely ranked made-to-order
Baywatch spec hot.
     I pointed at her board, not optimistic about what it would
do, chewing into my trunk.                                      
     "Come on guy. The waves suck here. It's a short board.
It'll fit easy through your moon roof. I promise. I won't let
it scratch anything."                                            
     "Are you here alone? I thought you surfers worked on the
buddy system."
     "I'm here with my girlfriend. But she's still down on the   
beach. See that's her down there." She pointed to a girl who
had just come out of the surf, dumped her board on the sand,
slipped out of the top of her wet suit, adjusted her top, and
was squeezing the water out of her hair. "She's going to wait
for another ride and meet me down there later."
     "I've got an adjustable roof rack in my trunk. If you want
to run down there and get her I'll give you both a ride. But
there is no way you are going to put that board throught my
moonroof."
     "Really?" she asked, folding her hands together.
     "Really. But hurry I have to be at the airport soon to
pick up a very precious cargo."
     "Watch my board, Okay? I'll be right back." She almost ran
down the cliff to give her friend the good news.
     By the time they got back I had the rack and her board
secure. Her chiquita friend who had raven hair down to her
waist, and seemed to be wearing waterproof green eye shadow,
accenting her big brown Spanish eyes, looked back at her friend
and asked, "Is this the guy?"
     Blondie nodded.
     "He looks like Bobby, doesn't he?" chiquita asked, taking
a moment to get a closer look.
     "Yeah," blondie said as I grabbed and secured the other
board.
     "Okay. One more thing. I don't give rides to anyone I
don't know. My name is TJ."                                        ***206
     "I'm Ginger. This is Chloe," blondie said.                    
     I had just pulled out from the carpark onto the Pacific    
Coast Highway when Chloe who was sitting in the front seat gave  
me a long hard look. She turned back to Ginger, "They look like
brothers."
     Ginger nodded as she tried to push her wind-blown hair
away from her face and redo her makeup, taking special care to
refit her looped pierced gold earrings.
     "TJ. How old are you?" Chloe asked, stroking her hair.
     "Twenty-four."                                               
     "Oh my God they are the same age. TJ do you have a twin
brother named Bobby?" Chloe asked, leaning in closer.
     "I work with a guy named Bobby."                              
     "Do you sell cars and does he have an English accent?"      
Chloe asked, her eyes intense.
     "Figures. Yeah."
     Chloe and Ginger started bouncing around, "No way. Are you
married? Do you know Bobby's telephone number? Would you like
to go out on a double date? I like your car? What's this music?
Where do you live? Is there a swimming pool?"                                                                   
     Jeez. Bobby has struck everywhere.
     Venice Beach was on the way to the airport, even though
braving midmorning Santa Monica freeway traffic meant just
getting there would be a stop-and-go nightmare. But what had
really eaten up time was the expanse of shoreline. Never mind
trying to find a place to pull over and unload the boards,
finding just the right waves with just the right amount of
space between surfers was more frustrating than if I had taken
the girls to a mall, given them my credit card, and told them
they could buy just one pair of shoes. No wonder I reached the
LAX international terminal with only minutes to spare.
     The car parked, the commuter bus boarded, the skycap
saluted, and the terminal doors breached, before I could get my
bearings, the loudspeaker echoed, "Northwest Orient, flight
twelve from Tokyo, has landed. All concerned parties please
proceed to gate seven to pick up arriving passengers. Thank
you."
     The secured double doors were a black Friday, after
Thanksgiving, mall entrance of anticipation with homecoming
well-wishers straining the dike railings, craning and vying for
the most visible viewing positions. A more subdued black-tie
chauffeur crowd, mannequin still, flashed their placards for a   ***207
MR. Jones or Mr. Smith from the end of the line. With the         
skylight beaming a spotlight of attention on the gallery floor,  
only a red carpet was missing to ensure an Oscar entrance, a
trivial overlooked detail once the doors opened, the cameras
started flashing, and families ran out to meet their loved ones
with the adoration of returning rock stars. A runway without
Versace dresses or Armani suits, just a weary wrinkled
cart-pushing lot, it was a heartwarming spectacle to watch
until everyone was gone, the doors closed, and I was left
standing there all alone.
     With nowhere to go, I sat down on the slate-rock border of
the rain-forest centerpiece to bask together in the skylight
sun, letting the sound of the waterfall console my despair,
while lighting a cigarette in no-smoking defiance. Then almost
an hour later those impregnable doors called, cracking open. A
slender woman in a blue customs uniform slipped through,
looking around, carrying a passport and photograph. Hesitating
a moment, she walked over.
     "Do you know this woman?" she asked, showing me the
passport after hen-pecking nods to make sure it was me in the
photo.
     "She's my wife," I said, standing up, suddenly attacked by
a bout of goose bumps.
     After glancing at my white-gold wedding ring, a token Ta
chose to wear around her neck instead, since anything but
diamonds, rubies, and sapphires would have raised suspicion,
she asked, "May I see your drivers license, please?" After
making a few notes, "Do you have a copy of your marriage
certificate with you?"
     "A copy of my marriage certificate? Who carries a copy of
their marriage certificate with them? What's going on? She's
on a student visa. I've never even filed for married status. So
why are we even talking about it?" She could see I was getting
annoyed but kept her cool, trying to be patient. There were
procedures to follow and only certain information that could be
shared.
     "She's being detained for reasons I am not permitted to
get into. If you want to see her I need to see a copy of your
marriage certificate; then she can be released in your custody
pending her court appearance. I'm sorry, that is the only
option available to you at this time." A glance at her watch
and she turned to walk back.                                     ***208
     "You want me to drive almost two hours to get home. Get
our marriage certificate and then drive back here? Come on.
Can't you at least give me a hint of what's going on?" I asked,
following her to the door.
     "I'm sorry sir. If you want your wife to be released in
your custody you'll need to provide a marriage certificate.
Please drive safely. I'll let her know she'll be seeing you
soon." She touched my shoulder, dialed in the code, and
disappeared back into the immigration fortress.
     Drive slow my ass, a little over two hour later, I was
banging on the customs door, having risked a sprint on the
two-passenger-minimum diamond lane, there and back.
     "I'm here to pick up my wife," I said, flashing our
marriage license in the face of the guard who finally opened
the door.
     "Please wait." He resecured the door, taking my copy to
his superiors.
     Another half hour to pace like a lone sentinel, the door
reopened and another man stepped out. "She's no longer here.
You have to go over to the Airport Hyatt Hotel. She is in room
2022. Show them your marriage license with my notarized note
and they will release her in your custody, pending a court
appearance two days hence," he explained.
     "Court appearance for what?" I asked, wondering since he
was a supervisor whether he might be a little bit more
forthcoming.
     "I'm not at liberty to say sir," he said, retreating like
the others to the buffer of those menacing doors.
     "Where are we in cold war Russia? Since when is someone
detained without cause. This is bullshit and you know it."                 
     "I'm sorry sir..."
     "Yeah, you're sorry and you can kiss my ass." But by then
the door had closed, defending his integrity.                
     One last door, one last knock, finally this one they would
have to let me in. But playing games again like this was part
of basic training, a Filipino woman coyly opened the door just
a crack, taking my papers through the chain-reinforced slit,
before quickly closing it again in my face.
     With the sun tiring in the west, the breeze cooling on the
open-air terrace, and my stomach starting to churn in its all
day fast, I heard the phone ring and then the door chain slide.
The woman opened the door and stepped back.
     "Yeah, you better open the door. Where's my wife? Why         ***209
is she being held like this? And since when do I have to spend   
all day running around to find our marriage certificate when     
her visa isn't even based on our being married? She has a
student visa. And since when do people get held without cause?
Can you tell me what's going on or are you like the rest of the
sheep at customs?"
     "Mr. Thomas, please come in." she said, bowing with a
polite inviting hand gesture. So frustrated, I almost didn't
noticed Ta walking out of the bathroom drying her hair after a
shower. "Would you like to talk to your wife first and then I
can explain to you what happened?"
     "No. I'm tired of the runaround and just want some
answers," I said, collapsing into a chair.
     "Your wife has been suspected of drug trafficing," she
said, referencing a file.
     "Did customs find any drugs in her possession?" I asked,
leaning forward, finally satisfied to be getting somewhere.
     "No. But..."
     "No. But what. Either she's carrying drugs or not. What
did someone make a phone call saying that she was going to be
carrying drugs?" I asked.
     "She was on a list sir," she said, holding her classified
chart close, blocking my view.
     "A list. I can tell you who put her on a list. It was
those traitorous relatives of hers who stole her mother's
diamond earrings and don't want to deal with her back in the
states. Lucky for us they don't know we're married. How about
if I tried to pick you up in a bar and you blew me off. And
just because I was an asshole and had a problem with rejection
and knew you didn't have an American passport, called up
immigration and said that I thought you were trafficking drugs
from the Phillipines? Would your bosses in customs believe
it without any credible evidence? Don't you people check out
the credibility of these people or is it just not worth your
time to bother? What the hell, the people they are reporting on
aren't citizens so who cares if you destroy their lives."
     "Mr. Thomas, I am leaving now. Your wife is in your
custody. These papers require that she be in court on the
specified day. I'm sure all of your questions will be answered
to your satisfaction then. Good luck sir." She put the relevant
documents on the desk, bowed slightly, and hurried out the
door. But then stopped and looked back. "And yes, in answer to    ***210
your question, even with my American passport, customs could    
make big problems for me, too, if someone reported that I was   
about to engage in a criminal act. There is no due process in
the customs area, only the officer's discretion. Now that your
wife made it into the country, if I were you, I'd do my best to
find out where the threat is coming from before it happens
again on her next visit home."
     I bowed slightly, not only in gratitude, but as an
apology. She closed her eyes, bowing in return; in that moment
we had gained each other's respect. Then her look, what are you
waiting for, I jumped up and closed the door.
     Ta tired from flying, I tired from driving, both hungry
from not having had a chance to eat all day, decided to take
advantage of the room, the pool, and the room service menu to
get reacquainted. Together again at last there didn't seem to
be a rush to be anywhere else. At least not until after, you
get your flavor, I get mine, we share banana splits, watching
late-night Johnny Carson, when the roads would be clear for a
Tucson-like deserted ride home. Sugar plums dancing in their
heads, noone would be the wiser, Rudolph arrived a couple of
weeks late. Ta unwrapped her presents, I unwrapped...
    
     Monday morning raining, nine o'clock sharp, the LA First
Street courthouse, fourth floor, Immigration Division, room
107, we were ten minutes early. I wore a suit, minus the
jacket, opting for a leather waist coat. Ta looked hot in a
summer chiffon but the Dior sunglasses, a finger across the
throat and she knew they had to go. I hadn't been this
apprehensive since Angie said international call line two. But
when the African-American woman, chubby as she was friendly,
walked out concerned that we hadn't yet had breakfast and
wanted to conduct the interview down in the building canteen,
it felt like we had just escaped from East Berlin. I thought
to myself. Yes mam, those scratches on my back came from
crawling over the wall, through the barbed wire, under fire,
last night.
     Over salads, coffees, and omlettes, she asked Ta a lot of
questions, noting in her file this was one of those black-list
cases that would automatically be deleted from her record in
the near future, and apologised, this was obviously a hail-Mary
vendetta, the likes of which, occurred much too often. But it    ***211
really didn't matter, surprise to me, we weren't going to be
staying in the states that much longer. Ta's father had taken a
mistress, deserted her mom, and gone crazy spending the family
fortune.                                                   
     Now I knew why she hadn't called; why there had been such
a news blackout and delay in coming home. With her brothers
still going to school in New Hampshire and her older adopted
sister Koi engaged to Sak, his parents owners of the four-star
Montien Hotel chain, thinking only of herself, there was noone
else left to look after her mom.
     And so Ta came back to say goodbye to friends and pick up
a few things before returning to Bangkok. Top of the list was
me.                                                             ***212

6. A Bout of Bangkok

"Ta, this Thai silk is beautiful," Charlie Speight exclaimed,
now standing proudly behind his new early-American mahogany
desk, having been caught off guard by her sudden visit, laden
down with homecoming gifts. Delighted by his reaction, she
removed the plastic, spreading out crisscrossing reams, an
enticement to carress their sheen and tease his fingers secret
imaginings. "My wife," he started, "is especially fond of pinks
and greens. How, on earth, did you know?"
     "In Roy's office is the rest of the selection from the
latest Jim Thompson collection that would squeeze into my
suitcase. Maybe between your wife and his, over lunch, they can
get together and have some fun, mixing and matching, to come up
with some cute outfits," she beamed. "I hope it won't be too
much trouble finding a qualified seamstress."
     Charlie cleared his throat, thinking of the competition
for the already bulging walk-in closets. "That I assure you
won't be a problem. But my two daughters coming up with their
own fashion ideas, that's a different story. Having three women
in the family who are all around the same size and always
borrowing from each other, I think the younger influence will
have my wife in vogue until she's at least eighty."
     He motioned for Ta to have a seat, picking up the phone to
order some coffee and Danish, before folding up the silk with
unprecedented reverence.
     "Hey Ta. Check it out. Nice fit, heh?" Bobby wasn't shy
about sashaying in, never mind interrupting, displaying his
hips in a runway pose to show off his new crocodile belt.
     Before she could comment or Charlie could complain, Roy
shouldered past him, carrying a stack of new invoice jackets
with an inch of cigarette ash balanced between his fingertips.
"Charlie that shipment of cars for Avis is here. I'm going to
have the boys run up a bunch of stock cars to Hollywood
Boulevard storage so we have enough room on the lot to get them
all detailed by next week, before Hank over there chaps my ass
anymore, wondering when his cars are going to get delivered,"
he wheezed, putting out his double-decker butt, and turning to
Ta. "You are going to have my wife in stitches literally with
all that material. It's a very thoughtful gift she is sure to
cherish. And my silver cigarette case, the workmanship, where    ***213
did you ever find such an exquisite piece?"
     "Oh, the case isn't from me, just the silk. I thought you   
knew. It's from Tom," she said. "He found that then rusty relic
in a weekend antique flea market on his first visit to Bangkok
and spent a long time, restoring the detail. Going through an
old work drawer, I came across the finished embossed piece not
knowing whether Tom had lost interest in or just forgotten
about what used to be his, don't bug me, morning indulgence.
But then seeing it again, he just smiled and said yeah Roy
would like that."
     He looked around surveying the showroom floor, eyes
squinting, seeming to be thinking, what's the catch. "Where is
that husband of yours, anyway? He coyly waits until my phone
rings to sit you down in my office and mention in passing about
returning overseas, then without giving me a chance to respond,
disappears, leaving you on your own to elaborate."
     "He said something about Opel mechanics, the parts
department, clearing out his banking account with a certified
check, buying two of everything for the next twenty-five
thousand miles, and filling his trunk with spare parts," she
said as Charlie offered her cream, sugar, and a napkin.
     "He's taking his Opel to Thailand?" Roy asked, lighting
another cigarette, before snapping closed his new cigarette
case with newfound fondness.
     "Are you kidding? He loves that car more than me," Ta
said, licking the spoon.
     Roy touched her shoulder, his hand shaking. "The work he
put into that car, the determination, the dedication, without
you here it was all he had left to see things through and give
life meaning. I'm going to miss his desperation. He's a hell of
a salesman."
     "Roy, I..."
     "Ta, you don't have to explain. I was young once. Korea, a
long time ago, it still haunts me. Wounded, an island fishing
village, jealous island boys, a girl whose father had taken me
into their home, a hurricane, a tea ritual alone with her as
the winds threatened, our hands touching, if I had any balls, I
would have gone back after the war. Tommy found you. He's never
going to let go."
     Ta and Roy seemed to be caught in a meditative Zen moment
as Charlie thumbed through his morning schedule, adjusted his
half-rimmed glasses, and massaged his pumped-up paunch,           ***214
wondering if it was time for lunch, when, knocking on the door,    
Mike smiled, walking in. "Hey Ta, this wallet, it's cool.
What's it made of?"                     
     She leaned over and kissed Roy on the cheek before standing
up. "Cobra, but this one has special powers, blessed by the
village monk. See how the diamond-shaped design cut is centered
from the gill extension of the head? It's how you find your
perfect love. Just be careful not to let it dry out or there
will be a problem with cracking, and it will lose its amorous
power, more a touch-of-class for that special night out than
for regular every-day use."
     "No shit," Murphy said, leaning over his shoulder. "Come
on you assholes. This is still a car dealership. Unless you're
flying out to Bangkok next week, time to go sell something. Hi    
Ta. Thanks for the ties."                                          
     "Blue suits you, that's why I bought you two. It brings
out your eyes..." She gave him a flirtatious, approving look,
distracting him from acknowledging Bobby's - he needs all the
help he can get - passing remark.
     "He wants to do what?" Charlie asked, after answering the
phone. "Wait a minute. Ta your husband wants to borrow a pickup
truck to transport thirty cases of Carlo Rossi rose wine to the
docks along with a crate of boxed-up cosmetics to replenish
your family-business stock for two-hundred massage girls?"
     She nodded. "If we mark the bill of lading as household
goods, maybe customs will turn a blind-eye so the shipment can
slip by without being subject to duty."
     "We've got three or four demos, just give him what he
needs," he said, hanging up the phone as he reached for Roy's
paperwork.
     "Well, I can see you're both very buzy. Tom is probably
looking for me by now, anyway. There is so much left to do
before our flight. Thank you for the coffee and Danish. It was
a pleasure to see you all again," Ta said, picking up her
purse, preparing to leave.
     Charlie and Roy both rose to shake her hand and exchange a
hug, enthusiastic about expressing their sentiments it wouldn't
be long before we all got together again. But driving home in
our Opel-pickup convoy to break the news to Jack and Ethel, I
had my doubts about that ever happening.

     "Hey TJ. Nice GMC. Did you just buy it?" Jack asked,           ***215
walking up into the parking lot, after spying an unfamiliar      
pickup just pull in.                                                 
     "Not exactly," I said as Ta pulled in next to me and         
proceeded to head for the apartment loaded down with a
morning's worth of discount bulk shopping. "The shit finally      
hit the fan and we're moving back to Thailand. Just have till   
the weekend to buy all the hard-to-find essentials, get them
all packed, and transport the whole mess down to the dock. Not    
exactly the back-to-normal homecoming I had been hoping for.
But..."        
     "Come on down to the office. I'll buy you a beer. You can
tell us all about it." Jack put his hand on my shoulder as we
walked down the hill. "At least your life isn't boring. And
this time you'll be together, helping each other."
     "Yeah, but together again on one side of a no-win family
dispute. Ta and her mom trying to keep the family business
running smoothly so the money keeps coming in under a
prospective looming divorce cloud where they're attempting to
transfer all the assets into the children's names to keep them
out of the father's reach while he runs around courting a
mistress isn't exactly a situation I'm looking forward to
getting mixed up with, especially when it could backfire,
putting me in her old man's crosshairs." Just admitting what
was at stake was making me nervous, conjuring up scenario
nightmares. The brewing scandal had the potential for a
no-holds-barred marital armageddom. Who had the advantage in
what looked to be gearing up for a drawn-out drama was anyone's
guess. Sure, Khun P. had the undeniable political muscle, but
Khun M. had the respectable family name. After all, her
grandfather had been the commander of the armed forces, a noble
lineage that would grease the palms of would-be allies. Still,
I wasn't yet considered part of the family and if involved
would stick out like a sore thumb, making for an easy target to
lash out at, a gamble with but one choice to take, considering
the alternative lonliness.
     By the time I got through candidly revealing what Ta had
selectively chosen to share, debated all of the speculative
outcomes possible, and gone over every last detail one more
time, the smoke-filled room, now littered with beer cans,
choked ashtrays, and an empty wine bottle, had relaxed its
interrogation-cell imperative, hoping one day to be privy to
the homecoming sequel. The episode had stirred the primeval       ***216
juices like the trailer to a blockbuster movie, one for which,   
Jack and Ethel would have liked nothing better than reserved     
front-row premiere seats.
     "Hon, remember that white, two-bedroom Cape Coder with the
blue shutters and swimming pool up on Glenville Avenue that we
looked at a couple of weeks ago? If I knew TJ's middle name, my
insurance agent friend could draw up a hellofa down-payment
life insurance policy..." Jack popped another beer.
     "Yeah go for it," I insisted, cork-screwing Ethel's next
wine bottle, my tongue out ready to grease the final tug.
     She made a baton-relay handoff, chain-smoking another
Virginia Slim. "Tommy, make sure, first thing, to check in with
the American embassy so they know where you'll be. And keep
your return-flight ticket and passport close by at all times.
The situation could head south all of a sudden and you might
not have a chance to grab anything else."
     "And get to know those embassy marines; drinking buddies
make great pals." Jack's long gulp translated into an even
longer burp. "Seriously though, if, or should I say, until
you eventually come back, since you kids don't have any
furniture, there's plenty of storage space adjacent to the
laundry room for whatever would be easier to leave behind. What
about Ta's car?"
     "I sold it. Hopefully, the guy's coming with a certified
check tomorrow."
     "And your fish, not much there to invite us over for a
seafood fry. Maybe Ta could dream up an Oriental stew or
something. With her many strange spices, it would be sure to
turn out exotic and tasty." Jack missed another crunched beer
can sitting hook shot from the centerline dining-room table,
past the defenses of the kitchen counter, to his garbage-can
basket.
     "Jeez Jack, that would be like cannibalizing my young," I
winced.
     "Okay, okay... just leave them. Including the tank, we'll
consider it last month's rent. Ethel and I could do with some
new bedroom decor," he said, heading for the frig.
     "New bedroom decor?" Ethel wasn't amused. "Just the sound
of the water and you'll be waking me up every fifteen minutes
to head for the bathroom."
     "It might stir every fifteen minutes but not because of
any aquarium," Jack said, after sitting back down and sliding      ***217
his hand between her legs.                                           
     Ethel blushed and playfully shrugged off his now searching         
lips, feigning school-girl embarrassment. But Jack's insistence
payed off when she started giggling, leaving me free to slip
away back upstairs, almost unnoticed, during the tickled
tangling.

     Only not until after the last receipt was rung up, the
last suitcase was packed, the last box was stored, and the last
crate was loaded, did they promote anything else except a party
atmosphere - a week-long going away barbecue get-together -
taking every opportunity to entertain our friends with beer and
wine induced, poolside banter. It was to their final toasts and
hugs, Eric nibbling a cheeseburger, Jenny looking on, that Mike
and Bobby hopped in their pick-ups, following our lead, ready
to head out for dock four of the Long Beach harbor loading
terminal.
     Already past noon, the blistering sun, calmed by a faint
salty ocean breeze, reflected fury off the curling waves in
blinding streaks as it shadowed burly-manned forklifts,
performing Atlas feats. Racing back and forth, in and out of
containers and wharehouses, transporting impossible burdens,
the workhorses showed off a youthful agility, trying to promote
a jealous response under the watchful gaze of stoic coworkers.
But as with all playground antics, the mammoth swaying cranes
ignored the ribbing, choosing, instead, to continue rousing
lap-watered ships with loads of legolike container cargo while
hard hats sprawled out in the shade, whistled the direction to
the office in between munches of a well-deserved lunch.
     Queues and counters, signatures and stamps, fees and
insurance, documents in triplicate, an inspector for cargo, an
inspector for cars, an assembly-line procedure from lot to
storage to waiting container, it wasn't until the late
afternoon shift-change whistle blew that our everything had
safely been stowed, ready for a two-month voyage. With our
in-flight bags still in the back of one of the pickups, all
the anticipation came down to a queue for change, a queue for
the phone, one last look at a readable telephone book, and
finally the call for an airport taxi.
     While Mike persisted with Ta one last time, curious about
the intricacies of monk-bestowed Thai love-potion lore not sure
if his cobra wallet was maybe endowed with some other hidden       ***218
power she forgot to tell him about, I pulled Bobby aside,
reminded of his own special variety of wizardly skills.           
     "I wasn't going to say anything but..." Sensing the         
hesitation and feeling a comforting hand on the shoulder, he
bowed his head and moved in closer. "Call Chloe and Ginger will
you?" whispered in his ear.
     He pulled away with a jerk. "Who?"
     "You know, blondie and chiquita, the Malibu surfer babes.
They were all over me, thinking I was you, begging for your
telephone number."
     "TJ, how did you...?" The sound of an approaching taxi
horn cut him off.

     With our flight leaving in another couple of hours, there
wasn't time left for anything else but a rushed goodbye, a
forced farewell that haunted me all the way across the Pacific.
Trying so hard to hold on to the love of my life, I was giving
up a lot that night, true friends who unselfishly shared my
pain, making it bearable, not asking anything in return for
having made this moment possible. Just the thought that we
might not have a chance to see one another again weighed heavy
like a betrayal, making ours a bittersweet reunion. Now at
thirty-thousand feet, holding hands, where we were going we had
no delusions. Sucked into a volatile situation infested with
deception, the last thing to look forward to was anyone who
might merit, being called a true friend. Considering the
emotional trauma Ta was about to endure, I hoped, more than as
a lover, being precisely that would be enough to see us both
safely through. So much on her part was wishful thinking; as
far as I was concerned, we were still flying blind. An annoying
tug-of-war in my head, reality interrupted over the intercom.
     "We'll be landing at our Bangkok destination in
approximately thirty-five minutes. Please make sure to check
all of your belongings and make sure your tray tables are in
the upright position and your seatbelts are fastened. The local
stormy temperature..."
     "TJ, you've hardly said two words this whole flight." Ta
squeezed my hand and leaned over with her head on my shoulder.
"Is everything okay? Are you sorry you made this trip with me?
Isn't it better we can be together?"
     "Don't think so much. It's nothing really. Being with you
is all I care about. Just...life's warped sense of humor, the    ***219
way it toys with us. On one hand, it sends you back to me but
only under the most dire-strait circumstances, in exchange for
the other, taking away all my friends who helped make the wait   
bearable. And who knows when we are going to be able to start a   
life of our own. Seems like all we do is get mixed up in
everyone else's problems."
     Ta didn't respond, only held me closer. What would have
been the point anyway; on that note we both agreed. Now without
friends and only her to rely on, the first order of business
was to put aside what might have been and on hold an impulse
for second-guessing, if I was going to adapt and survive
another round of living here.
     But just like a five-year-old, suddenly, without warning,
being thrown into the deep end of a pool to learn how to swim,
I didn't have a chance to assess the situation, before figuring
out how to readjust my thinking. No sooner than we walked out
onto the concourse, we were met by a sub-lieutenant Prakam who
prided himself on being quite cosmopolitan thanks to a
repertoire of the latest American movies where he unwittingly
came up with an English nickname popular in an old grade-school
classic. Guess he didn't get the memo, "Mr. Ed" was a talking
horse. But his obsession with trying to impress everyone with
his adopted western facade didn't stop with worn-out cliches,
borrowed quotes, quirky mannerisms, and 50's lingo. There was
that off-duty going for the James Dean vibe. The trouble with
motorcycle boots, cuffed jeans, and a white t-shirt, sporting
a Marlboro-packed sleeve - he didn't smoke - was you needed a
tattoo-bulked body to pull it off. Mr. Ed had neither, looking
more like a ninety-pound weakling caught out in the rain.
     Add to that his dedicated infatuation with all things
Elvis, strutting while he played his guitar, expecting everyone
to be mesmerized by his vocal capacity and I knew it would be
an egg-shell walk just to keep from bruising his ego. As if
there weren't already enough tripwires to avoid in this
minefield of family infighting, now the need to play along and
hope not to slip up with any mention of Woodstock.
     He very well could have been one of those police cadets
from my first trip to Bangkok who I used to see marching in
step down the street after class, two or three in file, eyes
always forward, never distracted, never talking. With their
boot-camp crewcuts and eyes barely visible under the visor of
regulation caps, they continued along in parade formation proud   ***220
of their top-secret black briefcases, insignia white shirts,
gold-lined green pants, and high-polished boots.
     They were the chosen elite of the Royal Thai Police          
Academy who looked down on, with distain, mere university          
students. Ed had been at the top of his class there. But cocky
bathed in his self-worth, he racked up demerits and reprimands
as if they were a collection of merit badges until graduation
to a couple of demotions for insubordination insured that being
captain of the tennis team would be as close as he ever got to
achieving that coveted rank.        
     Drilled with brainwashed privilege for four years to use
his uniform as a cloak of entitlement that would compensate for
any lack in size, reminded daily Thailand was a police state
and anyone not wearing the fraternal colors was to be looked at
with suspicion and controlled through intimidation, two minutes
after meeting him I knew, he wasn't anything more than an
arrogant bully. But one made even more venomous by what he
thought he knew of the outside world.
     He had already morphed into a creeping virus, looking for
an opportune foothold, as a result of Khun P.'s, now public,
indiscretions; a festering sore Ta had conveniently neglected
to mention in case his presence might have given me the wrong
impression and second thoughts about getting involved.
     Glued to his police radio, it didn't matter if he wasn't
on call or was on the other side of town that night. The mere
mention of the parties involved, prompted a beeline to offer
assistance, even though it was only a domestic disturbance and
over with before the police arrived.
     Actually, they hadn't originally been requested at the
scene. It was only after Khun P.'s mistress made a sobbing plea
to a four-star client, imploring him to have Ta arrested for
harassment, mortified over a broken fingernail, that any
chatter came over the frequency. Embarrassed during a dinner
party, his wife feigning ignorance under a cover of small talk,
the commander had no recourse except to deliver an all-points
reprimand. But that was as far as it went. The trailing squad
of police who finally showed up settled for a free massage.
None wanted to get involved in a mistress squabble. After all,
it had been Khun P.'s own fault, leaving her alone in the car
under the guise of tinted windows while he stopped off at the
office, heading for the safe like noone would notice.
     Ta did and grabbed his keys, ran out to his car, and          ***221
dragged the bitch out, both of them screaming. The thirtyish
actress and popular lounge singer who had an affection for
older rich men, offering her bed to the highest bidder, making
them feel special when their money was but they were not, was
no match for a daughter determined to break a siren spell and    
get her father back. This slut, Ta thought, as she yanked her   
hair and ripped her dress, not understanding why, in the
tramp's eyes, Khun P. thought he was special, will think twice
before daring to show her face around here again.
     Enter Ed, cap in hand, this was his chance for an emmy
performance. Aware that all the other policeman were upstairs,
he made a sympathetic pitch about truly caring and making it 
his sworn duty to stop by every day and check up on Khun M.
Trouble was he went out of his way to pamper her every need
until, satisfied that his services were becoming indispensable,
decided it was his right to come and go as he pleased. Having
conned everyone and relying on custom, where it would have been
an embarrassment to ask such a well-meaning guest to leave, he
kicked back, taking advantage, and settled in as part of the
family.
     Except the lip service he used to pay Ta when she drifted
off and fondly reminisced about our time together was now being
rewarded with a dose of reality, cramping his style. Before
when the past was safely tucked away in the states it didn't
matter. But now, no longer the center of attention and not able
to relate to what we were talking about, he felt left out,
resentful that I was cutting into his quality time.
     The not too subtle hazing, airing his frustration, began
like a two-year-old's tantrum. He'd raise his voice desperate 
to drown out any flirtatious giggling, interrupt to interest Ta
in something he was doing when we got too close, or at the
first sign of a conspiratory whisper, look at his watch and
insist there was something important and urgent they had to do
for her mother that required taking the car, leaving me behind,
and wasting an afternoon in endless traffic.
     By the dejected look on his face at every ploy, it was
obvious Ta had never before made fun of or scolded him until
now, throwing in a glare for good measure to impress undeniable
annoyance. Undeterred, he envisioned, just getting her alone,
she would come to her senses. But even the desperate resort to
snuggle up to Khun M., once a reliable antic, didn't work.
     Somehow he was going to have to bide his time and concoct    ***222
a plan to get rid of the very thing that was interfering with
his scheming. That much was clear, even to me. In his mind, I
was an insignificant outsider, undeserving of stealing back
what he imagined was now rightfully his.
     Not even the demands of work slowed down the all-consuming   
quest to keep us apart. Switching from the graveyard shift and  
getting transferred to a local patrol, he could rely on the     
cover of spot checks as an excuse to feign concern for her mom,
checking up on our every move. So was the extent of his
posturing all in the first week.
     As if there wasn't already enough to worry about, the bile
of his jealousy and ego had fermented into an unforeseen
consequence added to the mix; an infringement none of us had
bargained for; one I had to deal with personally to avoid
getting flanked myself. An escalating rivalry, with Ta and
Khun M. blinded by pressing problems, that could easily get
out of hand in a hurry if I took our relationship for granted
or let my guard down, underestimating just how far Ed would go
to get what he wanted.
     All those soap-opera highlights, especially the public
spectacle of Ta's whore intimidation, would have remained          
figments of the imagination, except for a pulitzer-ambitious
reporter's full-page snapped, morning-edition spread. If only
she and her mom still lived at home, their lives would have
been their own. But Khun P. was hold up there and just the
sight of him made them both nauseous. Better to barricade
against the advancing barbarian hordes of betrayal, desertion,
and treachery by turning Ta's two on-site retail shops into a
functioning living-quarters-office bunker. Business would run
smooth. Assets would be protected.
     Transformed into a communications hub, a beehive for an
endless procession of meetings - meetings with friends,
meetings with lawyers, meetings with bankers, meetings with
press, meetings with fortune tellers, meetings with staff,
meetings with police - the restless sanctuary was reason enough
to slip out just after dawn almost every morning with a lounge
chair, a pair of sunglasses, a bottle of tanning oil, a supply
of fruit, enough water and, if nothing else, a Time magazine,
determined as I was, to avoid getting involved. This situation
and how to react to its ever changing cast was way above my
pay-grade.                    
     But they were always there, watching from the shelter of     ***223
the shade on valet benches, eating, drinking, smoking, or
reading the Thai Rak newspaper while playing, coaching, or
spectating a Thai chess brain-tease on a scribble-drawn
board covered with bottle-cap warriors; the security detail
from the house, who usually worked nights at the massage          
parlor, anyway, were now loyal to Ta and her mom's beckon call
wherever they went. I, on the other hand, could only tip my      
glasses off my nose when dripping sweat needed a full-shirt      
wipe and give them a wink in a feeble attempt to communicate.
Nothing else seemed appropriate, taking into account, they were
from the north, speaking a strange dialect, and my level of
Thai, that ensured, if equipped with a map, a taxi driver         
wouldn't give up in total frustration, trying to figure out,
where to drop me off. It was a standoff for a few days until
they had to find out. Why would anyone intentionally sit out in
the sun, tanning their skin dark, like a common laborer?          
     The first burly one to dare to walk over, at first a bit    
shy, glancing back at his coworkers for encouragement, I had
met a few years earlier, my first day in Thailand, on the
driveway to Ta's house. He had been cowering under Khun P.'s
reprimand, making me wonder why he bowed and didn't stick up
for himself after not apparently having done anything wrong.
Strange after such a long time, his name was still bouncing      
around in my head; such are first impressions upon initiation
into a different culture.                                                                                      
     "Naam?" He bowed and offered me a bottle of cold water,
folding his hands to his forehead as he retreated, never
exposing his back, never fully standing up.                                               
     "What no straw?" He stood paralyzed, confused. I laughed.   
"Ja?" He edged in closer, bowing and reaching to massage my
arm, having heard his name, taking the better part of a week to
convinced me to join his entourage in the shade, a feat
accomplished without saying a word. As if my routine made him    
bolder, every day his massage further translated through body   
rushes and muscle tingling, ending up with him walking away
just as I was craving more. An aerobic heroin dealer, he had
given me a taste. But only out of the sun would there be a full
dose for my newfound addiction.
     We couldn't understand a word each other said, but the
knuckle crunches, the finger pulls, the wrist bends, the elbow
pushes, the shoulder drives, the neck rolls, the knee push       
outs, the screaming to let go, and the accomodating opponent,    ***224
turned out to be a language all its own. No longer was Thai
chess the group's only form of amusement. Only it wasn't until
Ja took me into Daeng's utility shed, the sometimes gym of the
resident mechanic and allround handyman, that I really
understood what the gyrations meant.                           
     A rude initiation to what would soon become a training     
stage for endless nights, my nose twitched in the graveyard      
dust of worn-out air condition units and industrial fumes from  
shelves of left ajar unmarked cans while my eyes squinted in
the rationed sunlight rays, spotlights of swirling toxic
particles, venting from left open ceiling slits, stingy with
breeze. The thrump of water pumps echoed on grudgingly,         
marshalling out the demands of a workout beat as the salty
taste of sweat rolled off my cheeks, encouraged by the lack of
fresh air in such a confined space. Sensing my apprehension, Ja
reassuringly touched my shoulder and ordered the others to
clear away boxes and tools, wipe down the greased floor, and
reach up with a wounded duct-taped punching bag for the lone
hook in the center of the room.
     This was the defining moment Ja had been working up to,
pulling me aside to give Daeng plenty of room. Cross-eyed to
distraction, after a regimen of leg extensions accompanied by
waist-spin reversals off a near shoulder-high work bench,
careful to avoid an imposing vice, the ring expat was primed
and ready to show off what most Thais learned as a prelude to
walking; the saving grace that had rescued his ambitions from
the drudgery of knee-high mud, rice-farming misery and earned
him a coveted belt of fame, fighting up north, before someone
better ended his career. It was a rib-crushing slapkick that
buckled the bag in half; but as loud as a gunshot, the wounded
warrior had hardly moved. Ja saw it in my eyes. I was totally
fascinated. "You, you, you," he coaxed, pushing me forward,
swiveling my hips. Something about arching up on my toes, he
showed me where and how to exactly kick. Then a final grab, his
arms and chest in rhythmic tiptoe upper acceleration, I took to
mean, don't forget to breathe.
     With a rock-hard butt just about waist-high, my
leather-chapped adversary had the yawning advantage, confident
that my unconditioned leg had little chance of reaching high
enough to do any more damage than hint of a breeze. Determined,
I stared it down, taking off my sneakers, unaware of what the
force of a kick could do to cripple my virgin instep. The         ***225
effort was a concentrated windup, a full-force exhaling swing,
a mighty shout, a moaning thud. Everyone bit their lip, not
daring to laugh under Ja's glare, as they helped me up from a
slip to the floor. Only the bag moved, dancing in silent
mockery. The thud was his; the moan was mine. The pain racing   
up my leg was a warning; don't come back until you know what     
you're doing.                                                    
     Ja sighed. Kids craddled in the skateboard comforts of      
rock and roll, surf boards, free sex, and pot, things he'd only
read about, must have learned everything differently. And this
one, dropped in his lap, was going to take a whole lot of work.
What I didn't know then, the rumors flying, he was preparing me
for, just in case. But actually, it was for reasons above the
call of duty that he was watching my back. Something I had
forgotten about. Something he never could.
     Sightseeing in a rented long boat, down the river inlets
with a camera and fly rod, my first trip here, resulted in a
twenty-pound carp souvenir. Coming back triumphant with my
dangling catch, noone home, the cook at the market, I dropped
it in the kitchen sink and headed for a shower. Only on the way
up the stairs, after a glance out the window, Ja's house loomed
beside the soccer field, dinner black smoke ashening the air. A
hot fire waiting seemed as good an excuse as any to walk over,
not wanting my catch to go to waste. For three kids used to
surviving on a ration of rice and sardines - one helping a day,
no hope of more - the spectacle of such a bamboo-leaf wrapped
delicacy being layed out on the coals, sparked a frenzy of
running around the kitchen, banging plates in an impromptu
cymbal symphony. Their mom too worn out from taking in laundry
all day felt helpless to quell the commotion, resigning herself
to clearing off a seat and offering me a drink. After taking a
sip and over their objections, I bowed and walked out to
gesturing folded hands on genuflecting knees like they had just
seen the vision of a saint. Maybe this was what it was all
about, repayment for a kindness. How it worked out, it was I
who was in Ja's eternal debt.
 
     Damned, I wanted to work on my tan. But Ja kept on pushing
out reluctant valets to give me a hard time after every massage
type instruction session to make sure of getting his money's
worth. First just one, then two, and finally three, until after
two months, there weren't any more volunteers, willing to risk a   ***226
cold-pack recovery. Nodding and smiling his approval that my
Akido was coming along, ignoring the occasional begrudging
finger retort aimed at pissing him off in return whenever the
exercise resulted in a limp, he seemed confident in my enduring
while holding back the holy grail so desperately lacking,
getting the go ahead to learn how to kick.                         
     Alone in the mosquito-net darkness of my barrack bunk,         
settling for what was available, I kicked off the sheets after   
a yawning stretch. Screw Ja and his girly kicks, there's           
another way to get my legs in shape without having to fall for
his pie-in-the-sky reassurances as if the envisioned day might
be just around the corner. As I tried to make sense of the
tangled laces of one sneaker while groping in the dark under       
the bed for the other, the alarm clock nestled under my pillow
hummed and blinked with the promise of a dawn awakening more
vibrant than any mere artist's hopeful rendition. Or was that
just how my uplifted spirits felt, anxious to work up to
running twelve miles a day, again?
     Sure the old pastime was going to lose some of its allure
in translation. No longer was there going to be the cushion of
pine needles under my Puma sneakers through forest peaks of
sweet-scented cedar in the twilight of an owl's hunting cry;
gone was the fresh-mountain air so cool it massaged my lungs
like a stick of peppermint; wildlife sopranos and baritones,
rehearsing a haunting chorus, had flown south rather than east
for sold-out engagements; gurgling brooks waiting to cool a
meditative sweat were now a fond memory; leaves dancing around
like a swarm of butterflies anxious to show off their autumn
fashion would be sorely missed. Left was the constant confusion
of an impersonal concrete jungle with only unforgiving asphalt,
arrogant horns, coughing buses, unforgiving humidity, rabid
cars, choking smog, naked towers, rushing crowds, and stray
dogs shadowing vendor carts to look forward to. A dear price to
pay in exchange for getting back in shape and clearing my head.
But it was the sudden blasting of a stereo on the shelf that
made it throb. A rogue indiscretion? Hardly. Ed wanted everyone
to know he was going to work. God, I wish I wasn't Catholic; it
would have been a lustful pleasure to snap his neck. My other
sneaker finally volunteered, not a moment too soon.
     The sun peeked over a yellow-streaked velvet veil, not in
a hurry to boast of its fury, ever mindful of the barefoot
Buddhist monks on their morning alms-taking pilgrimage, ever     ***227
respectful that they walked in the shade. Traffic was already
grumbling, gears grinding, mufflers bragging, and horns adding
in their two cents. The air was light, hinting of city spice,
after an overnight drizzle.
     Timing the four-lane two-way traffic, I sprinted in a
dodge across the avenue to a bellow of horns annoyed at the      
distraction, making my way for the railroad tracks that traced   
a perimeter around the inner city. The railbed stones crackled
like crushed ice underfoot as day laborers passed by on their
way to work. Heads covered in eye-slit garb and shoulders laden
down with gunnysack tools, they laughed, shouted, and flashed
peace signs, cheering me on. The permeating aroma of frying
spicy peppers was not so indulgent. Blowing tears in my eyes
and scratching my throat raw, satisfied only when there was a
fit of coughing, the air-born menace was a bland appetizer
compared to the competing smells of Thai cooking and human
sewage, emulating from the shanty town that had eye-sored both
sides of the tracks.
     Northern farmers had traded in their thatched grass-roof
huts, stilted barn-board floors, money-dear planting careers,
and virgin-mountain air for the dream of a better life, most
risking it high above the city along skyscraper row. What they
got in return wasn't much better, surviving in a jungle of
transient corrugated-steel cells with dirt-packed floors. Every
time it rained, they had to worry about a flood determined to
carry away their meager possessions. Every time it didn't, they
had to risk, getting their drinking water from a canal. But
noone seemed to regret, having made the decision. Their
constant smiles and roaring laughter were testament to they
would never go back.
     The kids had certainly adapted to the new fantasy world,
a disneyland of mud-puddle swimming pools, garbage-heap
treasure hunts, child-eating rail dragons, life-threatening
cement kingdoms, and cardboard-stacked medieval castles. Naked
with dirty faces, they ran around with sticks, laughing and
screaming, some donning capes, transformed into imaginary super
heroes with spirited golden lances and enchanted glimmering
swords. Chasing after me, as if an arch villian finally
cornered, who needed to be run out of town in a hurry, was an
unexpected treat, further proving their worth to the community.
Too bad the streets would be their only schooling. Books,
uniforms, and tuition were a luxury not as important as having   ***228
enough to eat.
     But an enterprising wife with an electrician husband might
come across an old tv, get it working again, tap into a looming
electrical cable overhead, and open a make-shift restaurant,
sure of a steady local clientele. Food, beer, whiskey, and a
much-bet-on soccer game were the magic ingredients needed to
guarantee a sell-out night. And then, just maybe, if she saved
every penny, her children would have that opportunity. The one   
neither she nor her husband had, growing up.
     This was an untapped haven with all its down-to-earth      
local color and charm that deserved exploring, a welcome relief 
from all those touristy pictures of temples and monks. Order a
coke and sit on an old milk crate at a warped plywood table to
eye strange condiments nearby, attracting flies; watch an
unintelligible soap opera, blaring from a black-and-white tv,
nursing a rolling blink, but still able to mesmerize a crowd of
kids, sitting in the dirt; listen to old men drinking beer,
telling lies, trying to amuse themselves, shelling peanuts;
admire a tired cook, wiping her brow, in between mixing
ingredients like a four-handed blackjack dealer high on
amphetamines; yeah, this might be just the place to get some
honest shots of real Thai life.
     Remembering my photography gear was still stowed away on
an ocean cruise in exchange for a quick-and-easy inflight
carryon, I returned to a sidewalk and the facade of the city
after another couple miles of rail-tie hopping, mindful of what
was in store for that first roll of film once we got a call
from the docks. Even though it was still early, the walkways
were already starting to choke up with vendors, fighting over
prime real estate, and hordes of pedestrians, piling out of a
procession of city buses, turning the trek into a weaving and
bobbing and thinking quick on my feet three-mile pinball
distraction, long before the horse-racing track with it's
adjoining golf course and shortcut fairways came into view.
     After a quick sprint, stealing across the eighteenth
green, accompanied by the echo of a nearby early-bird golfer,
warning not to get in the way of his approaching chip shot, I
came face-to-face with King Rama VI, luckily now, just a
thirty-foot statue, overlooking Silom business district's main
intersection, at the vendor-swamped entrance to Lumpini Park.
     Offered another chance to get away from the smog, the
crowds, and the noise, encouraged by the smell of fresh-cut    ***229
green and blooming flora, I didn't hesitate to slip down and
get lost on one of many tree-covered jogging paths. Rustling
palms ushered a breezy welcome thoughtfully cooled over the
ribbing waters of a paddle-boat lake. Scattered ponds nursed
beds of lily pads dotted with pink and blue lotus blossoms,
sunning frogs, circling dragonflies, wiggling tadpoles, and
nose-bobbing turtles in a rainbow aura of multi-chute
fountains. Tai chi enthusiasts, old but devoted, carved harmony
out of the serenity. Kids played and splashed in the rushing
streams while toddlers objected violently to rocking swings. On
benches or stretched out on the grass, early risers enjoyed
coffee and a first look at the morning edition. Passing joggers
sweated a thumbs-up greeting. A lap and a half around, barely
out of breath, already three miles, mildly intoxicated, the
spirit of a wind-chime bouncer eased me out onto Wireless Road,
facing the American Embassy. With its rows of interlocking oak
trees, the shaded avenue was a floral tunnel in the middle of
the city, an honor guard with drawn sabres, ready to pay
tribute to all passing strangers.
     My warmups that clung heavy, drenched with sweat, at
first, felt lighter, caught up in the windswept anomoly of the
route's intended embrace. But as soon as I sped up, the breeze
bored deeper into a shivering gauntlet, screaming chills up and
down my spine, until the junction of a city canal intervened
with racing taxi longboats, spraying and churning in frenzied
relief. Through a twist of vines, climbing, overtaking, and
hanging from promenade escorts rich in century-old foliage,
almost a mirage in the simmering concrete heat, a treacherous
kilometer run down a root-ripped sidewalk away, wavered a
footbridge, signaling the last lap home. No hurry. There was
plenty of time for a smoke and a meditative break. "Hey,
faranggggg," bounced off a passing longboat. Yeah, you're
right. Why bother worrying about what Ta was exposing me to.
Why think about what Ja was preparing me for. I flicked the
cigarette across the klong, waiting for the next taxi to race
to the bridge.
     It wasn't even close. All I can say is I got there before
the last passenger hopped out. The pilot grinned. Not too many
foreigners around, never mind one who was crazy enough to try
that. To my salute, he popped the bow high out of the water in
a quick turn to return upcountry. There were still lots of
village folk, waiting on the banks, who needed a three-penny    ***230
ride to work. He thought he'd seen it all in his years on the   
water. Now there was another encounter to exaggerate about over
buffalo chips and beer, or maybe whiskey, if the rest of the
day went well.
     Two hours already, the sun was in full glory, challenging
outstretched umbrellas. A mother, begging with two baby boys on    
the bridge, bowed in reverence to the silent anonymity of a
bill dropped in her tin dish. Used to only the showy clang of
spare change, barely enough to get them through the day, she
looked up with bagged blood-shot tearing eyes and tattoed my
heart with her unexpected smile. Kop, Bop, and Bing, the babies
were terrified at the sight of a foreigner. Kop grabbed my
hand, wanting to say a prayer, before she let go. Bop, Bing,
and I made friends with a stick of gum. Now if there was only
such a thing as chewable saliva-activated C-4, I could get rid
of one who I was sure was not.
     The constant horns, the bumper-to-bumper cars, the
kamikaze motorcycles, the traffic-stopping carts, the impatient
crowds, the traffic police doing their best to direct it all
from the shade of an overpass, Pratunam intersection, just off
the bridge, was a gateway of awn-covered sidewalks crowded with
wall-to-wall food vendors, leading into a maze of deceptive
garbage-strewn alleys, arteries of commerce, keeping the pulse
of the district. Watches, cameras, stereos, contraband perfume,
gems and jewelry, old-world momentos, legendary herbs, anything
you wanted, you could find it there. But a scavenger hunt into
nostalgia wouldn't come up with something to eat. I nudged and
pointed until I got what I wanted, something to munch on for
the short walk back.
     Chipping down toasted squid with a six-inch bamboo
toothpick, already having slurped down my third bottle of iced
vitamilk, a local soy-bean concoction, happy to have had a
morning to myself, I really hadn't expected the waiting
reception. Ja and a towel, how did he know? Not a word, just a
nod, and then he walked away.
     That did it. I had to know. Ta was already at her desk     
immersed in accounts, fielding calls, and nibbling papaya, in     
between sips of iced-black coffee. Khun M. was curled up,       
sleeping on the couch, two massage girls gently massaging her
far away dreams. Ed got stuck with an administrative shift, a
bonus guaranteeing a quiet morning. I sat down across from Ta
with a manicure kit, luded by a cold shower, not really there.    ***231
Almost an hour went by before she dropped her pencil and
massaged her temples. "Hairy, what? I know that look. You're
thinking of something."                                              
     "Nice eyeshadow."                                         
     "Okay, come on. What is it?" She took the phone off the
hook and leaned back in her seat.
     "Ja and Daeng, tell me about them."
     "Hairy, they aren't teaching you are they?"
     "Teaching me what? They just keep trying to talk to me,
that's all."
     "Just be careful. Daeng was a champion up north. Ja was
the only Thai fighter to ever retire with five gold belts
undefeated. Then he was in special forces as a martial arts
instructor. Daddy gave him the house on the soccer field to
look after the family and be his head bouncer at the club."
     "No shit. The guy's got to be sixty and he's a bouncer?
I think he's almost blind."
     "Hairy, look at him. He's the same size as you but twice
your weight, all muscle. I've seen him do an exhibition
blindfolded. He's amazing."
     "Okay, so I won't play cards in the dark with him.
Kitchen's making up some seafood stew, want some? Some more
coffee? A break with me behind the couch?"
     She sighed and blew me a kiss.

     But it had already started. Once Ja saw me start to run,
not just that once, but every day, training changed. Still no
kicks, the entire compound, before the massage parlor opened,
turned into his private gym. First came the buckets of water in
each hand, up and down four flights of stairs until my thighs
burned and my calves cramped up. Then came ankles secured to a
massage table, bending backwards at the waist to touch the
floor before arching forward to touch toes, a gruelling torture
that got my stomach as stiff and as flat as an ironing board.
That shoulder-high work bench of Daeng's was next. Foot up,
twist at the waist, arch the back. The day my knee could touch
my nose with my leg upstretched, without the aid of the bench,
even I was impressed. Then back to the buckets, up and down the
stairs, faster, the exercise wasn't over until I was the one
left waiting, while Ja took the lift. Runs started earlier and
lasted longer, finishing up with sprints around the parking
lot, wearing a fifty-pound pack. Ja gave kids sticks with
permission to hit me if they could catch me. Pain is weakness,        ***232
leaving the body, a laughing guest had translated. God-damned,
I missed my wine coolers. But I was getting quicker, looser,
and very "Don't fuck with me" confident.
     "The bag, the bag, the bag...Ja it's been three months.
When?" Some of the words, I'd well-rehearsed in Thai.
     He looked at his watchless wrist, shielded his eyes to
look at the sun, asked for his schedule, threw it back and
laughed. "Tomorrow, okay?" Who taught him those words?
     I thought he was going to preempt my career, getting that
surprise kiss on the lips. But he just spit and threatened a
swing at the laughing valets. Finally. Heading for the shower,
thinking all sorts of fantastic things like maybe a culminating
day in the ring, I almost didn't hear Ta call, not until the
third try, anyway.
     "TJ, I just got a call from the port authority. Your car
is here."
     "Great. It's about time. Let's go get it. We can be back
by lunch."
     "Sorry, but you can't go today. You have a 1:30PM
appointment at immigration. Your visa runs out tomorrow. And
unless they give you an extension, you'll be in for a
twelve-hour train ride to Malaysia tonight."
     "Not Hong Kong?"
     "Sorry, I have no time to travel."
     Looking at the appointment card, "Who's in room 317?"
     "Oh, that reminds me. Give him this tin of Macadamia
cookies."
     "Great, a cookie bribe, I'm sure that will work."

     It certainly won't work on this line...
     The immigration queue stretched around the corner of the
open-air three-story police annex, fidgeting and writing,
waiting for the after-lunch opening. Already moody from having
to stand out in the sun, a multi-nationality of sweaty faces
eyed me suspiciously, ready to protest violently, if I dared to
cut in. Walking right past them, an intrusive threat for fun, I
slipped through a staff entrance and headed up the flight of
stairs to the third floor, satisfied with the echo of distant
bickering. A police woman with her hair up in a tight bun was
sitting at her desk, arranging fan-whipped papers in front of
the closed door, stamped with the number 317.
     Not even looking up, she held out her hand. "Passport       ***233
please." After thumbing through and creasing the appropriate
page, she picked up the phone, nodded several times, and hung
up. "Please follow me."          
     Ta was never going to hear the end of this. Never for a
minute did she ever let on. Back from the dead, my appointment
was with Joey, sitting behind the desk in his well-pressed
major uniform. Having recovered from a six-month coma, he had
returned to his old job as head of immigration. Except for a
scar on his forehead, receding into his hairline, and holding
his left arm slinged, he looked about the same if you didn't
count the twenty extra pounds.
     "TJ, you can close your mouth now. How are you? Take a
seat."
     "Wow. Joey you look great. Those nurses at the hospital
must have taken real good care of you."
     "Yeah. One in particular did, so well, I married her."
     "The sight of your butt every morning in that slit
hospital garb, month after month, finally on display, walking
an IV down the hall, she couldn't resist and had to say yes?"
     Joey smiled. He liked the thought maybe it had something
to do with that.
     "How's she been taking care of you now that you have tied
the knot?"
     "Better. She's two-months pregnant."                            
     "Congratulations..."
     "TJ, I see here in your passport that you have a
three-month visa. Didn't you know that after three months
you're supposed to leave the country to come back again?"
     "Yeah. Ta told me I might be on the train to Malaysia
tonight."
     Joey pointed to the insignia on his shoulder, "I guess I
can make an exception just this once. But the next time you
leave you're going to have to check in with the tax department
first." He handed my passport to the police woman who had been
standing by and told her to fill out the paperwork for me to
sign.
     "The tax department? Why? I don't work."
     "Anyone staying over ninety days without leaving the
country has to report to them. They charge you 15% on the money
you brought into the country to spend."
     "Do you have any friends over there?"
     "Sorry. We're the police. They are civilian."                 ***234
     "Oh, I almost forgot. Ta says these cookies are for you."
     Joey reached over and after opening the tin, offered me
one, before digging in and popping one whole into his mouth, "I
love these things. When I was studying in the states, Ta used
to bring these back from Hong Kong for me all the time." Joey       
munched and thought for a moment. "TJ, tell me something. If I
didn't give you this extension were you still going to give me   
the cookies?"                                                    
     "Hell no. I was going to save them for the train ride to
Malaysia."
     "Sign here please," the police woman said. As soon as I    
did she handed my passport back to Joey who, cookie in hand,      
stamped it for another three months.
     As I started to get up, Joey had one more question, "By   
the way. How's your friend Mike?"
     "Last I heard, he's still working as a steward for TWA and
has gotten serious with a stewardess. He's thinking of getting
married next year, if you can believe that's possible with
Mike."                     
     Joey shook his head before laughing at his own joke.
"Maybe they'll have a streak wedding."
     "Streak honeymoon, anyway."
     Joey seemed confused for a second. His hand shook. But his
attention bounced back as soon as I began to pay my respects,
his appetite keen to indulge in another cookie. Joey was back,
at least most of him.
     As I walked down the stairs, I kept thinking, no wonder
Khun P. was acting crazy. Joey pulled through but wasted little
time getting married to a nobody, destroying his dreams of a
financial-political empire. Brain-impaired, love, whatever.
Money, political position, name recognition, Khun P. already 
had it all. Except with nothing more to look forward to, he
was bored. Just the itch that could prompt a mistress, a trophy
to preen his peacocking interests. If only Khun M. had been
able to read the warning signs in time and done a little ego
stroking of her own, maybe things would be different now. 
                                                                
     The deep water port of Khlong Toey on the Chao Phaya River
was three easy backstreet lights away from Khun P.'s house but
a gruelling hour wasted in traffic from his office. Mirroring
the city, it's docks were a bottleneck of ships queued up as if
at an intersection during rush hour, some still anchored out in
the river, waiting the green light. Giant cranes swivelled back      *** line 7 is 235
and forth like their skyscraper cousins, working feverishly to
load and unload containers, while truckers lined up and
scrambled to get their paperwork processed. Forklifts and hard
hats paced themselves in the sweltering heat, maneuvering to,
as much as possible, work in the shade.
     Ta waved at Daeng as we walked up the wooden ramp past
spread newspapers and smoking truckers to the terminal office
entrance. He already looked bored, having arrived well before
us to secure a favorable spot in the queue. Left to soak under
the midmorning sun, leaning against his truck with a two-man
crew, probably didn't do much for his disposition either. But
he waayed back respectfully just the same.
     Wall fans, mimicking their waterfront cousins in a drift
from side to side, tried their best, assisted by open windows,
to greet us with a hint of fresh air while their spinning
swirls resuscitated the walls, breathing through a flutter of
tacked up notices, wallpapering them all. The front desk could
have been the research section of a law library with its
face-up succession of open yellow-tagged books. But these
weren't ordinary volumes. These were the duty diaries, covering
the import duty on everything from a fingernail clipper to a
fully-loaded Mercedes Benz. And duty didn't come cheap. For a
sports car or Rolex watch it could range as high as 225%.
     "Your documents please. Bill of lading. Your passport.
Notarized receipts. Any certificates of origin. Pertinent
status verifications," the clerk said, still stamping,
thumbing, and shuffling papers as he lit another cigarette and
glanced at the clock.
     Ta opened her briefcase and emptied the contents onto the
counter, arranging her paperwork, the easiest to skate by, if
they didn't look too close, first, the more difficult to sneak
by, requiring a diplomatic touch, last.
     "Okay, I see you were on a student visa. The crate labeled
"household goods" you can go ahead and load up. There is no
duty involved there. Here's the release form for your driver.
This car I'll have to look up. Please have a seat. I'll be with
you momentarily," he said, walking off to find and dust off a
manual, rarely consulted.
     Delighted with the outset, Ta hurried me to a waiting
bench without betraying a hint of emotion and was out the door,
waving the form at Daeng, before anyone inside regained their
senses. By the time she got back, the clerk had returned with a
thick red duty book. This time her luck was about to run out or     ***236
so it seemed.
     "German Opel sedan, 1975, made in Stuttgard, Germany,
suggested retail price $7,000...," he read, pulling his
calculator ever closer, like it was a loaded gun. "Now two
years old.." His finger went down the line. "Current value for
duty purposes...$5,000."
     "Wait a minute. Look at my invoice. I bought that car in
California for $3,200. General Motors sold them as loss leaders
in the states, and working for the dealer meant getting it at
cost," I protested.
     "Sir, my books are based on the country of origin and
their suggested retail price, not where the car was ultimately
sold. And according to the regulations, as a used car, there
will be a 110% duty charge that needs to be imposed, unless, of
course, you want to pay the freight and insurance to ship it
back," he said, grinning at Ta, as she dug her nails into my
side, giving me one of her "don't say another word" looks.
     "Would a personal check be acceptable?" she asked,
fumbling around in her purse.
     "Of course. I'll get you a receipt and go find the keys,"
he said, glancing back at the clock, desperate for a break.
     No sooner than he walked away, I turned to Ta. Guessing
what was on my mind, she whispered, "Wait until we're alone
outside."
     After another round of having Ta sign documents in
triplicate, giving her the yellow copies for her records, the
clerk, between his walkie-talkie and phone, by now weary,
managed to track down my Opel. "You'll find your car on dock
eleven," he said, finally handing over the keys as he eyed the
coffee machine.
     Down the wooden ramp, not a word, just the clatter of high
heals. When Ta waved for Daeng to follow us, it was the
contentment of a cigarette. Past all the ships, dodging fork
lifts, watching as it took two men to lift an anchor rope, it
was a bare request to borrow extra sunglasses and her giggle at
my exaggerated runway strut, showing off her Chanel's like one
of her gay friends. The river, now looming, blowing in a breeze
of activity, was an invitation to lean over the pier's edge and
get a mild rebuke as she hugged me back. Finally at dock
eleven, I had to ask. "So, why in the terminal office did you
try to cripple my kidney?"
     "Hairy you have spent at least $5,000 fixing up that car.    ***237
Never mind what you spent on the parts you have stashed in the  
trunk. Can you imagine how much it would have cost me if I had   
to pay duty on all that wine?"
     "You have a point. But god damned your nails are long."
     "You like? I just got these decals done yesterday."
     "Honey? You know I'm always honest with you, right? Your
nails are nice but what I really look forward to ravaging at
least three times a day..."
     "Hairy..." She blushed.
     "Your cooking. I miss that."
     "Good answer. There's your car."
     It was a flashback to Lager, my pup in college, that once
tried in vain to retrieve a favorite sneaker from behind my
bedroom door, only managing to close it in the process, while I
was off skipping class to take in some skiing and didn't get
back until late afternoon. There wasn't any water or food or
company to pacify him all that time. Reduced to a whimpering
welcome in the dark when the door finally opened, he peed
across the floor happy to have not been forgotten. Seeing my
car caked in dust, her tires flat, her front windshield
cracked, her passenger door dented, a proud racing mirror
hanging by a thread, I felt that desperate moment all over
again. "Damned. All that abuse, will it start?" Crawling in as
the door ached, seat a hot plate, inside the smell of
rotten-egg mold, moonroof at least still intact, I mumbled a
prayer, held my breath, slipped in the key, and turned it,
hoping for, not that, an annoying multiple click, the battery
was dead. "Aren't you happy you wrote that check?"
     Before Ta could carress her lips, fold her arms, and turn
around, Daeng was there - sergeant-in-arms - ready with a tank
of compressed air, jumper cables, and a twelve-volt battery all
built into a portable caddy cart.
     He pulled a screwdriver from his back pocket and fixed the
racing mirror, reached inside to pop the hood, hooked up the
cables, and turned the key. To the coughing rumble, he filled
the tires with air, coaxing me to get back in and check if
there were any other immediate problems. But Ta had other
plans. One casualty for the day was enough. And by now, in the
sheltered heat, her mascara was starting to run. Better to let
an expendable valet sweat the details and risk his neck to
drive the wounded wreck - with the steering wheel on the wrong
side and no air conditioning - back to the office. I didn't          ***238
have a license yet, never mind, might get lost, trying to find
my way through the maze of side streets.
                                             
     It was foresight she was so adamant. While we were buzy
crowbaring away at the "household goods" crate conveniently
parked in the shade next to Khun P.'s office with a spectator
crowd of Khun M.'s friends gathered round, salivating at the
thought of a Sears-and-Roebuck souvenir, my alter ego limped in
on the end of a tow rope, dragged like a common criminal. Not
able to bathe in the comforts of the assisting taxi, Daeng's
coworker looked a bit ragged pinned behind the wheel, still
recovering from what turned out to be an embarrassing
mid-intersection rescue.
     "Ta ask Daeng what happened," I said, dropping the crowbar
to run over and assess the damage. Ja joined me, leaning on my
shoulder, as if to console in the loss of a loved one. But the
concerned lean quickly turned into a heads-up squeeze the
moment he saw who was bringing up the rear. Not Ed, not now.
His timing was foreshadowing.
     Ta and cars, she didn't know anything beyond where to put
the key and what went in the gas tank. No wonder the back and
forth was taking so long. But then seeing Ed, "In your spare
parts, do you have something called a water pump?" she asked,
next glancing back suspiciously at one of Khun M.'s friends,
who seemed all too happy for the distraction, curious about
a particular carton. Shit, better not be the one with my new
Black-and-Decker drill.
     Gaskets, hoses, belts, spark plugs, bulbs, fuses, oil and
air filters...a water pump didn't make the top ten of my
25,000 mile anticipated spare-part list. I leaned around from
the trunk and shook my head, unintentionally telegraphing my
annoyance about something else. Who told that asshole it was
all right to sit in my car like everything else he imagined
being entitled to? Ed just couldn't help himself, always trying
to be the center of attention.
     "Daeng says if you order one air freight from Germany it
will take about a month and a half to get here." Ta folded her
hands, closing her eyes, begging me to relax. Ja twisted my
arm, not yet. It was hard to fit into a culture that frowned on
being outspoken. The inner turmoil of having to play along and
keep everything bottled up inside could involuntarily spark
into a confrontation if not tempered by discretion.               ***239
     Daeng stuttered not knowing what was going to happen. But
once Ja cleared his throat, he nodded and explained to Ta what
was the best available option.
     "He says he'll take this one off and go see what he can     
find. Sometimes they can mix and match." Ta kept shaking her    
head and looking at Ja. Ed had turned the key to stereo mode.   
I breathed deep. My nails bit into my palms.
     "Tell him to go for it and," raising my voice, "tell Ed
not to forget to check the oil after squeegeeing the windows."  
     Ta translated and blew a kiss of relief. Ja nodded with
gripped hands. Daeng went to find a wrench. Ed feigned not
having heard, unsure if it was a joke or a slight. But she had
to have known by now, regardless of language and culture, that
the bond between Ja and me was anything but casual. Even my
body touching hers, she had to have noticed was a work in
progress. It was just easier to not acknowledge what the
changes meant. So why she allowed the Ed monotony to persist
defied logical explanation. After all we'd been through to stay
together, she could be sure neither a gun nor a badge would
back me down. And if Ed went too far with his interfering, it
wouldn't matter that he was wearing either.
     But it had actually been because of the swarming
mosquitos, refereeing the tension, just at the right moment,
that I had changed my tact. Their familiar snacking brought
back miserable grade-school memories of a poison-ivy rash where
the itch only got worse the more it got scratched. Why bother
getting annoyed with Ed's feely-touchy obsession of stroking
every gauge and pushing every button? Better to ignore him.
Maybe he'll get taken in by the novelty of the fuel-injection
system and not notice we already went back to peeling away the
plywood cover of the "household goods" crate. Parked next to
Daeng's shed, the cargo was vulnerable until safely stored
inside under lock and key, especially the cases of wine - not
available in Thailand - that might easily disappear into a
waiting trunk, only to gather dust like a trophy on some
porcelain-laden shelf.
     As if on cue, just as the first boxes were being sorted,
Ta's auntie - Knun M.'s constant shadow - pulled up in a taxi
with her husband - the king's photographer. Not a couple of
repute or wealth, they aspired to use every acquaintance to
rub shoulders with those that were, taking every advantage
for a free meal or sponsored overseas trip. Seeing that most     ***240
of the other invited guests had already succumbed to the heat    
and retreated back into the cool ice-tea conforts of the office
while just enough lingered around, watching Daeng's water-pump
grapple, to interest Ed in a supervisory role, she shued her
husband to go in and pay his respects first, having spied what
looked like a rare opportunity. After a careful inspection of
the stacked up boxes, her eyes settled on a vineyard trademark.    
A case of wine, she wanted one.
     Ta smiled and turned away to vent. Her not-really-related
auntie didn't understand a word of English. "Do you believe
this? We just got back and already she's looking for a handout.
Doesn't even ask, doesn't know its not mine, just expects me to
give it to her. And she doesn't even drink. It's just a
conversation piece to show off when they have company."
     "Look, just open the case and grab a bottle before she has
a chance to realize that's all she's going to get. Carry on
about how she's so special but you don't want everyone else to
feel left out. Then ask for a big favor...let you sneak her the
token gift on the way home when noone is looking. With any
luck, who knows, she might even forget. Here I'll do it and you
can translate. That way she'll know its mine and won't feel so
free to ask again." After waaying the old Thai gypsy bandit
respectfully with folded hands, I leaned down and spun the case
around about to break the seal. "And hey, if I run out of wine,
we can always invite ourselves over to her house for lunch
sometime."
     Ta rolled her eyes and then went through the motions,
laying it on thick. Her auntie was estatic, whispering in her
ear and giggling, before rushing inside to see what she had
been missing.
     "Hey, that went well. Maybe I should just keep a couple of
cases under my bed and have the guards take the rest back to
your house away from prying eyes."
     Ta touched my shoulder. "That's a good idea. Why don't you
take everything back to the house. Next thing you know, she'll
be wanting to borrow my Kinsa knives."
     Ed, not above plagiarizing first-hand knowledge, had
settled into a routine, by now, paying little attention to
almost stepping on its source, amongst the radiator, belts, and
fan debri, cultivating his audience in a fiery gospel, as if by
his very words alone a water pump would magically appear. Daeng
ignored the bloviating and slid out on his back via an exhaust   ***241
detour, preferring to make his getaway a stealth maneuver. Head
to toe graffitied in grease, he walked over, holding up the      
heart of his surgery in a bloody drip of motor oil. After a few
words with Ta, he hopped on his motorcycle and sped off for the
automotive graveyards, returning all excited, before Ed even
realized his was a one-man show. Genuine Opel parts were months  
away. But marry a discarded Subaru reject to a Toyota wreck
survivor with the compression of a hydraulic-vice vicar, and
the first born is a hybrid water pump.
     I gave him a thumbs up.
     "Oh and he says the insurance payout will be enough for an
air conditioner, too," Ta said, thumbing through her wallet      
after a careful scrutiny of the bill. "It may take a week or so
to get everything fixed. Daeng still has to make a new gasket,
too."
     "No rush, tell him to take his time. The last thing I need
is the nightmare of another intersection breakdown." Showing
respect to a servant was usually frowned upon except my offered
thanks on this occasion Ta didn't seem to mind.

     But a city tortured with mindless traffic, compared to LA
with its freewheeling freeways, wasn't much of an endorsement
for even wanting to get behind the wheel. Trading in one toy
for another, afternoons free, I loaded up my camera and headed
for the tracks, a virgin playground minus the red lights. It
was a motor-drive bonanza of eight-by-tens for all the caped
crusaders, their swords and spears facing off rail dragons;
their mothers hugging them close so proud; their fathers weary
from a day's work, propping them up on a knee; an overworked
cook, juggling the next order as she offered me a not too spicy
snack; a wrinkled hunchbacked relic drinking beer, hinting his
history in the stroke of a ponytailed mole, the harsh light
digging the years deeper. Pennies for pictures, the kids had
great poses. Somewhere in there I started to pick up colloquial
Thai. A night visit after learning a baby was sick, having
coaxed a Lumpini Park running partner, a doctor, to take a
look, put me in debt for a lot of beer. There was never just
one. But the pictures were the gold stars posted in the
make-shift restaurants and corrugated cells that made the
adventure more theirs than mine. Don't figure, a jog through
still prompted an ambush. Without my camera I remained public
enemy number one.                                                 ***242
     Yet, Daeng washed and revved up my car every day. Every       
week merited a wax. Every other one was an injector adjustment.
The air conditioner running hot, no problem, he popped in an
oversized radiator and added an extra cooling fan - another
engineering feat using scavanged parts. I had endured the
endless queues to get the required license but still didn't
care much about driving. He kept it in peak condition just in    
case my life evolved past a twelve-mile radius. Sure a joint,    
a couple of beers, a cranked up stereo, a midnight traffic
thaw, and a hundred-mile dash to the beach for a dip, a tan,
and a turn around could have been fun. But training seemed all
important now. Anything I needed was as far away as a run.

     So why Ed's sudden shocked reaction the day Ta decided to
take my car for a spin around town to run a couple of errands?
Her Peugeot was in the shop; mine was handy. She'd barely
revved the engine to cool the air conditioning, adjusted the
seat, and selected a cassette when he drove in for one of his
busybody spot checks and nearly pulled her out, offering to
provide a ride. As if just sitting there would bring back too
many fond memories, he had to distract her. Spending a morning
by his side, she would be sure to forget.
     Not likely. With timing to match, I walked in from a run.
Ja threw me a towel and gestured, pointing. "Hey, Mr. Ed why
don't you fuck off, get back to harrassing ten year olds, and
leave her alone? Jeez, you act like a flea-ridden old nag." I
winked at Ja, no problem. "You touch her again, you're going to
get your ass kicked and spurred out to pasture."
     Ta started laughing.
     Ed was dumbfounded by her reaction. Never mind that being
called "Mr." was a sign of respect earned by virtue of his
position. How could she interpret my comments as anything but a
threat? Some twist of English, not a retort yet, he couldn't
let on that there might be some little quirk of language beyond
his grasp. No way would I be so forward as to try baiting him.
It must be some kind of joke. Noone would dare stand up to a
policeman of his stature, especially one so important to the
family.
     "Come on Mr. Ed. I'm not horsing around. Let her drive."
     By now Ta was almost in tears, coughing, trying to catch
her breath.
     "What? What's so funny?" he said, one hand on his gun, the   ***243
other on the car door, sharing a stern look all around. If he        
was being made the butt of a joke, getting played...
     I glanced at Ta. "Don't you dare tell him."
     She couldn't hold it in. "Your nickname."                     
     "Charlie..." Now she was pissing me off, pushing past the
point of no return. Letting our private joke slip in a lapsed
moment, she had inadvertently opened the floodgates, breaking
her own rules, committing the cardinal sin of indiscretion. Now
Ed would have reason to question her sincerity and only save
face by finding a way to retaliate.
     "It's a talking horse," she said, giggling as she pushed
past him to light a cigarette.
     Ed still looked confused.
     Ta was annoyed from getting manhandled. "TJ has been more
than happy to call you Mr. Ed ever since he got here because
Mr. Ed is a talking horse in an old American sitcom. Get it?"
     Ed glared at me. "You're calling me an animal?" He was   
splitting hairs aware that it could be taken as derogatory to
be called such in Thai culture; a strange distinction since
nicknames like frog, shrimp, crab, bird, or mouse were quite
common.
     Ta stopped laughing, looking a bit uneasy, not having
thought about it quite like that. Now he could justify his
actions if the situation escalated out of control, diverting
the blame, even though he instigated the problem with his own
childish display.
     I couldn't wait. He asked for it. "Get over it dork.
Remember you picked that nickname all by yourself not me. So
piss off. Why don't you get a life instead of trying to live
mine? What's the matter? Once you take off the uniform noone
wants to kiss your ass? You may think you can screw with this
family, but I've had enough. Don't try it with me."
     Ed walked up to within six inches of my face, my nose
almost touching his chin. I could smell the barbecued garlic
pork he had eaten for breakfast. He asked again. "Are you
calling me an animal?"
     I pushed him away, waiting. "God, try a breath mint. Maybe   
at least then you wouldn't smell like one." His hand was on his
gun again. Ta screamed for Ja. But I waved him off and stepped
in closer. "Is your dick so small you need a gun? Come on
pussy, one on one. Or are you afraid Khun M. will see through
the all-concerned act, recognize the two-bit grovelling hood    ***244
underneath, and kick your sorry ass to the curb where it         
belongs?"                                    
     Any dream of a varsity wrestling takedown with an illegal
rib tear to make sure he couldn't stand up straight for a week,  
evaporated with one-two Khun M. slaps before either one of us
had a chance to react. But so did any hope of a uneventful
tolerated coexistence. The gloves were off. Now it would be a
game of cat and mouse. He might not do it himself. He didn't
need to. There were other resources at his disposal to take
care of springing the trap.

     Just before dawn, Ja must have seen me, toting a carry-on
bag, bargaining with a taxi, and voiced his concern, blowing
the whistle, because Ta, not wasting a minute to put on any
makeup, arrived at the international airport as I was figuring
out change for the fare.                                          
     "Hairy, why? Weren't you even going to say goodbye?" she
panted, after a deserted run from her car in the loading zone,
worried about catching up to me in time.
     I just smiled. My whole world, everything I cared about,
lingered on a memory of who we once were.
     "Hairy, please." She grabbed my hand, hers cold and
shaking. "Don't leave like this. You're the only one that keeps
me from going crazy, being around that jerk every day. It's
just for a little while longer until things get settled with
mommy. Then we can be like before."
     "Charlie, go home."
     "But why? I know you love me."
     "So what? Doesn't seem to matter here."
     "Where are you going, anyway? Can I see your ticket?" She
showed her concern and confusion in a furrowed brow over the
unexpected changes. "It only goes as far as Alaska."
     "Northwest flight six to Anchorage is delayed," chimed
over the loudspeaker. "Please consult the carrier for further
updates. Thank you."
     "Shit, that was my flight."
     "Hairy, you don't have to go." She squeezed my hand, her
teared eyes, melting into my shoulder. "And Alaska?"
     "Nothing there to remind me of us."
     "But Hairy, there's no reason to leave."
     "Do you have any idea of what is going on? Did you
honestly believe that long talk mommy had with Ed was going to        ***245
change anything? I insulted him to his face in front of your
staff. Do you really think he's going to let that go? Up until
now, he's been prancing around like a barnyard cock, pushing
his weight around, because noone dares stand up to his Napoleon
delusions. What's it going to be like around here once word
gets out; I was about to call him on his bullying, gun and all,
except Khun M. intervened? First, it will be the inter-office
chatter and then the snickering behind his back when he walks
by. Oh, Ed and all his heroic bullshit stories, yeah right, he
can't even stand up to TJ unless its with a gun. You know he's
going to get pushed into doing something just to save face."
     "Hairy, come on, he would never."
     "Maybe not personally, but he knows where I run. And what
happens when he pisses me off again? Don't expect me to back
down. Then what? Who's to say what might happen? Going home in
coach is bad enough but better than in a box."
     "Mommy!" Ja walked her in. She giggled, pinched my cheek,
and gave me a kiss on the forehead. "Hairy, for mommy, stay?"
     "In exchange for all night in a hotel with you I might."
     "Hairy..."
     "Okay, okay...just make sure that Elvis wannabe stays on
his leash."
     She said something to Khun M. I got another pinched kiss.
Ja grabbed my bag while patting me on the back.
     I never told them that my ticket was for standby on a
flight that was two-weeks overbooked. It was a heads and tails
game of fate; only by divine intervention would I have ended up
using it. But the mock departure was more emotionally charged
than planned. If not for Ja, it would have been only the shock
of a travel-agent receipt sent over later that morning, my
showing up uneventfully some time after lunch. With an airport
backdrop to impress the urgent finality of a heart-wrenching
decision and highlight the trauma of what it took to cope, Ta
and Khun M. got a jolt of reality, finally understanding that
my complacency couldn't be taken for granted. There was a limit
to what I would put up with; a boundary Khun M. was about to
test.
     "Hairy, mommy has an idea," Ta said, as we all piled in
her car. Mommy sat next to her. Ja started giving me a massage
in the back. A sweaty cop came up with a grunt and a summons;
a five and a smile, he ripped it up. "You like to play tennis,
right?"                                                          ***246
     "Oh shit, don't tell me. She wants Ed and me to kiss and
make up over a game of tennis. It took me forever to beat Jenny
and now she wants me to play against the cadet-city champion.
Wow, that's a great idea. He can kick my ass and get bragging
rights and we can all get back to normal. Just make sure it's
not a ticket selling venue." I winced. Ja jerked a muscle when
I unexpectedly leaned over the front seat.
     "You don't mind?" Ta asked, definitely surprised, looking
in the rearview mirror.
     "Hell no. It's perfect." Khun M. giggled when I touched
her shoulder and nodded my approval.
     "Tomorrow okay?" she asked, lighting us both a cigarette.
     "Anytime after my morning run. But like I said, with his
ego, make sure it's minus any cheering friends."
     "I think this game is going to be a lot more personal than
that. Besides, I don't think he has any. Hairy, are you sure?"
She buzzed an eighteen wheeler, passing it at seventy on the
shoulder.
     "Piece of cake, I'm used to losing." How did she do that?
We were inches from sliding through the gravel into a canal.
Sideways, the Peugeot glided, spitting stones, right past it.
     The resulting glow on the faces in the rearview mirror
didn't come across as a sign of aftershock from a near traffic
mishap. It was more conspiratory in nature. With a viable plot
in place, they were eager to see if I could defuse the
situation and Ed would respond according to plan. It was their
first coup d'etat in the making. Ta and Khun M. seemed to be
relishing the moment.

     The morning was unusually hot and muggy with the sun
coasting in and out through a scattering of clouds. Crazed
flies in a latent-trace stupor of Boss cologne, buzzed my face,
impossible to outrun. Kids coaxing corked strings along a
railed canal, someone's little sister just landed her first
bream. Dogs, traveling in packs, took turns chasing cars as if
certain colors were tastier than others. Two hand-holding
beggars, both blind, one mouthing a microphone, the other
clanging a cup, explored a sidewalk universe none of us could
touch. Near the river, along the jagged piers, the sea air
begged a long distance embrace. Farther, farther, the offbeat
route encouraged a demanding pace. A quarter to ten, time to
thumb the address for a taxi. Just hoped a certain someone was     ***247
there waiting with spare change in her pockets.
     Barely a fifteen-minute ride, Ta bailed me out, still
holding my racket suckled to her chest while Ed continued his
marathon stretches. Ja walked over and threw me a towel eager   
to sneak in a last-minute massage. Ed sneered, switching to      
drilling balls against the wall, jumping up and down between   
shots, to show off his new sneakers. Finishing a cigarette, I
thanked Ja for the warmup, picked up my racket, and strolled to
the baseline. Ed drilled a few more balls then turned around 
ready to begin an intimidation noone could object to.
     "What are we playing for?" he asked, showing off with two
balls bounced at once to the spin of his racket.                                
     I looked around. We were all alone on a secluded court at
his old alma mater. There was a faraway mock F-4 phantom jet
propped up as if buzzing the campus entrance. Cadets were
performing a regimen of calithenics on nearby parade fields.
Traffic was only a murmur in the distance. Ta and Ja sat
quietly together, sipping water on a midcourt bench. "I don't
know. What did you have in mind?"
     "Everything you own in Thailand."
     I walked up to the net. "Get over it. Forty love and you
still couldn't have that."
     The toss, first game was my serve and my only win. The
rest...well it wasn't pretty. Match point, I threw my racket
over the fence. Ta went to run after it. I hit her square in
the back with a ball, don't bother. She stuck out her tongue.
I flashed her a moon. Ed didn't get it. How could he? He'd
never been in love with anyone but himself.
     The important thing though was that Khun M.'s intuition
had been right. Ed seemed satisfied with my feigned display of
humiliation, bragging all week about his routing skills to
anyone he could corner long enough, willing to listen. The spot
checks didn't stop. The disapproving stares when Ta went to use
my car were still there. But he didn't come up with any more
gimmicks to spark another showdown. His ego had been restored;
we could all breathe easier.
     Ja considered it a victory. Besides the arsenal of leg,
knee, hand, elbow, and head moves he had equipped me with to
defend myself, first he saw heart begging a gun, now he saw
humility defusing a situation. Everything was in place to
continue my training unimpeded. Everything that was needed to
get to the next level was well ingrained. Everything was more  ***248
urgent now. Ed had already shown his hand and I needed to be
ready. Add to that our bond of trust and respect, there was no
way I would ever give up, even if, one day after a run, he
mysteriously forgot to show up, waiting for me with his
signature towel.                             
  
     Nearly six months in, he'd never forgotten. Even when it
rained and flooded and lightning blew out the power and noone
in their right mind would have ventured outside, he was waiting   
with one - sometimes two - for me to wade in all muddy from the
impassable streets. It was how we started every morning, a
backstage pass to what came next. Four hours on the bag to
learn what to practice that night. A half hour of meditation to
keep my focus.
     But how my contentment was spilling over to everyone else,
that was an enigma. Like an eye-of-the-hurricane lull, the
family squabbling almost seemed to abate. Either that or I was
never home to witness the melodrama. Ed was back to working
nights. I was spending all my afternoons, driving, taking
pictures, temple hopping.
     With the city government's ceaseless agenda, obsessed with
filling in even more canals for real-estate condo projects and
foreign-owned industrial parks - hungry for new tax revenue -
it was only a matter of time before the seasonal flooding
reached disasterous levels. The first to suffer were the
temples in the center of the city along the Chao Phaya river,
most important, the Emerald Buddha complex with its inner walls
a mural history of biblical mystique. Nymphs and monkey kings
helping mere mortals combat impossible dark forces. Artisans
with gold-leaf finesse restored their glory. Every shot a
glimpse at a fairy-tale legend, every shot a cry to preserve a
dying art, every shot an attempt to hold onto the past, days
turned into weeks as I roamed the ancient courtyards. There
were just too many temples to record it all.
     Then right in the middle of a meticulously set up tripod
sequence, my motordrive whined to a halt, its batteries
exhausted by my enthusiasm. After racking my modest vocabulary
for a crude translation, I walked down a hill to a weekend
market, replaying over and over in my head how to ask for them.
It was a modest gathering, not too many stalls, mostly tuk-tuk
drivers, playing Thai chess, waiting for locals. But being next
to a tourist attraction meant film and batteries were             ***249
hot-selling items. After a drawn out cellophane struggle, the   
motor drive hummed back to life, prompting a growl from a
nearby dugout. A father, a sixish daughter, a wife nursing
twins, a chained gold with black-striped kitten, munching down
finger-length mackerel, I held up a dollar and asked for a
snapshot.                                                         
     "Water tiger, water tiger," he said, holding up the          
kitten, blinking five fingers. I could have it for a twenty,
snapshot included.
     I nodded and pulled out the cash. He grabbed the snarling
fluff by the nape and threw it, chain and all, into a burlap
sack.                                                           
     It was perfect. The owner assured me it wouldn't get much   
bigger than a terrier. Daeng had just built a game room behind
the coffee-shop kitchen that was a ping-pong haven when not
doubling as a gym. One wall devoted to a floor-to-ceiling cage
wouldn't be much to add. After all, we now had a mascot - eye
of the tiger, rock and roll. But teasing her with a close-up of
the wall-high fish tank in the lobby, I'll never try that stunt
again. Even a kilo-bulging belly of fish didn't phase the young
feline's voracious appetite. Entranced into a gluttonous
frenzy, if not for my leather driving gloves, its sudden
gyrating razor swipes would have shredded my hands like
samuried sushi.
     Ja didn't seem to mind the distraction. In fact, the paced
purring growls conjured up a repertoire of old-world epic
comparisons. Snakes, tigers, elephants, and hawks were all
fighting symbols of ancient dynasties. Their prowess was the
driving force that molded strategies. Now if I could just
conjure up one to get him to look after my icon in-training.
The time had come for a Hong Kong visa run and conscious of
Joey's warning, I had to get to the tax department the minute
it opened or risk waiting to travel alone on a later flight.
Screw it. I threw him the cage key and said see you next week
without looking back.
     Off to the other side of town, in the shade of the old
city, it was a step up to the curb, just as the tax doors
opened. No queue and no time to quibble, I pulled out my wallet
and asked how much. The civil servant looked a bit disappointed
that his first charge was so accomodating. Usually, he could
sweat one all day, learn about a local family, get a few
contact numbers, and maybe get invited out for a drink if he'd    ***250
only accept a bribe. It was a badge of honor to be able to wait     
out the best of them. Time and time again, until the doors were
about to close when he was gathering his papers, piling them in
his briefcase, about to go home, even the most defiant had
succumbed. As he fumbled behind his desk, he recalled one of
his most recent favorites, a tanned welldressed European who
shouldn't have been wearing Gucci slippers, gold chains, and a
ruby ring when he claimed to be just surviving on room and
board, working for a religious mission up north. Poor sucker
got stuck, eating Thai food for lunch. Must have run right
through him since he disappeared into the bathroom most of the
afternoon. Yeah buddy, right. The closest you've ever gotten to
real Isaan cooking is probably a club sandwich at the Oriental
Hotel where I'd have to have my family skip a meal just to
afford a bottle of sparkling water. Should have just been up
front. How much money did you bring into the country? It would
have been over in a minute if you'd thought to be honest.
Instead you grovelled at the closing bell with a bribe before
you cracked. Shit, you wasted a whole day for what amounted to
less than a night out on the town. But this guy, looking across
at me, just asked how much without even trying to defend an
amount. Damned, it was a sigh and a receipt over the counter
for fifty bucks. I payed, slipped him a tip, hailed a cab, and
was off to the airport with time to spare.

     Just on the way back, exhaustion worse than running a
marathon backwards, barefoot, set in from trying to do too much
with too little sleep. Letting Ta and Khun M. run me ragged for
three days, carrying name-brand booty, wasn't a problem. But
when my visa wasn't ready by the time the monsoon count got to
two, they grabbed the last flight out, entrusting me with a
shopping list and a wad of cash. Even though the paperwork came
through on the exhaust of their departure, the monsoon count
jumped up to seven over night. All flights were grounded until
further notice. That's when a monsoon of round-the-clock calls
started as if my phone was the local toll-free number for the
home-shopping network. I couldn't understand the Thai product
descriptions. Call Ta if you want something. She can call me
back. Finally, she did. Any money left? Hong Kong, Kowloon, the
territories, not just for her, close friends wanted forbidden
fruits. Others wanted toys that couldn't be found without a bit
of persuasion. A wire transfer is on the way. Pick up the money    ***251
at our travel agent's office. Midnight harbor sampans and         
offshore Chinese junks, it was a scavenger hunt to find it all.
Just don't ever ask me to try that weird food again. Two more
days and the monsoon count was down but a couple of specialty
items had not yet arrived. Rare herbs took time to smuggle from
the mainland. Ta's famous last words after learning of the
delay, don't worry, someone will meet you at customs. But a
special escort right off the plane into a waiting van? With two
mafia body-disposal-size suitcases, I got wisked back to a
packed office, all eyes on them, like it was the start of a
two-for-one tupperware party.                           
     Handing Ta all the receipts, I retreated to the kitchen,
grabbed some fish, and headed over to check up on Ding. Don't
know where I came up with that name, just did.
     Ding started pacing, swaying back and forth, the second
she sensed the late-night snack was prepared just for her. A
shrimp, squid, clam combo was a treat she had never enjoyed
before. Out of my hand, never a frenzied bite, she saved a last
raspy lick to clean my fingers, pawing at my new Cartier watch,
before retreating to the hammock of an overhanging branch. One
paw dangling, she closed her eyes, as if to say, okay, see you
tomorrow.
     Ja and Daeng thought their stealth entrance hadn't been
noticed, waiting as I sat there watching Ding, dropped my pack,
and tore off my denim jacket, just wanting to stretch the way
Ja taught me to relax. Breathe deep, push against the air. The
room went quiet; my thoughts went blank. Ja nodded to Daeng. A
pinched cry later, I let him go.
     Jumping up, I reached into my bag. Abalone, a delicacy,
four cans each, it was as many as I could carry.
     Ja let out a mock threat of disgust, signaling to Daeng,
"Sweep. Sweep hard. Let jungle boy see, too much Hong Kong, not
enough practice."
     A jump, double heal jam, and a twist, I walked away giving
Ja the finger. He gave me the thumbs up. Daeng leaned back,
trying to make off with an extra can of contraband.
     I hesitated at the door. A Swiss army knife in my pocket,
there was another can left. Ja threw me the key. Ding watched
as I moved inside her cage and opened it. Eating it like a can
of peaches, I knew she would join me. Ja smiled. She settled in
my lap and we both fell asleep.
                                                                     ***252
     But temple hopping and Hong Kong visa runs just weren't      
enough anymore to drown out Ed's constant guitar strumming,
singing old Elvis tunes to the stale monotony of buzzing office
politics. I was getting as stir crazy as Ding, waiting for her
dinner; time to get out and explore the southern part of the
country with its Malaysian border towns and island-diving coral
reefs. After all, my being here wasn't going to make any
difference. Might as well have some fun and get out from under
this time bomb of emotion.
      Ta sympathized and agreed to call Joey for the latest
military updates, expressing regret at not being able to tag
along. There had been an insurgent uprising across that region
and the first priority was finding out if travel was safe or
not. Joey assured her it had been quiet for the last month and
a half, lots of patrols, lots of checkpoints, not to worry;
then asked about more macadamia-nut cookies as if my scheduled
visa runs were circled on his calendar.
     "So how long do you want to go for?" she asked, thumbing
through her rolodex for her travel agent's number.
     "Two weeks should do it. I'll fly into Hat Yai. Catch a cab
to Songlaa. And then double back to Phuket and maybe take a boat
out to the Phi Phi Islands for some diving. I heard the Similan
Islands are nice, too. But I don't know if I'll have time to get
up there."           
     "So fly into Hat Yai and fly out of Phuket. Is that right?"
     "Yeah just leave the return ticket open. Two weeks, give or
take a day or two."
     "You have enough money?"
     "Hope so."
     "Hairy don't say that."
     "Okay. Yes."
     "When do you want to leave?"
     "Listening to this music, yesterday."
                                                              
     Flying into Hat Yai, I looked down at what appeared to be
an advanced encampment for an army ranger recon operation.
There were gunship helicopters buzzing the field, armed
soldiers assisting a battery of tanks, and jeeps mounted with
50mm machine guns scrambling about. Officers and couriers ran
in and out of an outpost tent, probably the headquarters and
communications link, as if they were calculating and relaying
last minute strategies about insurgents, hiding out in the        ***253
surrounding jungle. Was an attack imminent? No way was the
troop commander about to let our pilot land in the middle of an
erupting war zone and risk innocent lives. We'd probably get
redirected back to Bangkok.
     The pilot's voice came over the intercom. I prepared for
the worst. "Ladies and gentleman. Don't be alarmed by all the   
military activity on the ground. The crown prince's plane is
about fifteen minutes behind us and what you see below is just
his welcoming committee. We'll be landing shortly. Have a nice
day."
     Forget the prince, everyone, including the crew, was
impressed with the unexpected goodwill gesture. After picking
up my bag from the arrival carousel to still resounding
relieved chatter, I turned to find an exit through a thicket of
military personnel and dignitaries, taking their seats in full
uniformed medal array. A brass band, still tuning their
instruments, lined the passageway. Then came another unexpected
reception, a tall slender Thai guy with glasses, about my age,
accompanied by three Thai girls, one holding a sign that read
"Mr. TJ".
     Curious, I started to walk over. He pointed, putting out
his cigarette. The girls giggled, cupping hands to their lips
in a flurry of secrets.
     "Are you Ta's friend?" he asked, nudging them to waay in
respect.
     I nodded, returning the greeting.
     "Chai. I used to live in Bangkok. Ta's family and mine go
way back. She asked me to meet you, answer any questions, and
provide a ride to your hotel," he said, grabbing my bag before
I could object.
     "That's great. Tell me something. Why are all the women
around here dressed like nuns?" A flashback to Catholic grade
school, I imagined them all hiding rulers, ready to strike at
the first sign of misconduct. Better to put on sunglasses and
try not to stare.
     "Oh, that's because they are all Muslim women. Down here
near the Malaysian border most people are Muslim. They all
speak English, too. So you won't have a difficult time getting
around." He handed off my duffle bag, a girl to a handle.
     "Damn. I came all the way down here, hoping to practice my
Thai and y'all speak English?"
     He laughed. "You can practice your Thai with me if you
like....y'all."                                                   ***254
     "You're quick. Girls come on. I can carry my own bag." I
reached but they giggled off in a run.
     The whole sixty mph, twenty-minute ride to the hotel, on a
potholed backstreet known as highway one was a tickertape
progression of backseat questions. Do you think Thai girls are
pretty; can you find me an American boyfriend; is our food too
spicy for you; can you speak Thai; do you like our country; do
you have any brothers? The three-against-one playful
interrogation didn't let up until Chai pulled in front of the
hotel and gave me his card. I thanked him and said goodbye to
his three inquisitive friends. It was only half past ten in the
morning, plenty of time to check in, grab my camera, and head
out to explore.
     Hat Yai was not what I had imagined. Nothing like a lazy
Thai upcountry village with dirt-packed roads, plywood-shack
vendors, a hear-and-there pickup, water buffalo drawn carts,
and an occassional elephant, this bustling gateway to Malaysia
resembled a landlocked Hong Kong. Eighteen wheelers swarmed
back and forth across the border day and night, carrying
contraband duty-evading treasures that barely, if ever, found
their way to the capitol. Store inventories were piled high
with every brand name of perfume, camera, watch, lighter, pen,
stereo, and household appliance you could think of. Marlboros
were almost half the price of Bangkok. It was the first can of
Budweiser I'd seen since leaving the states. And Chai was
right. Except for the mobs of Bangkok bargain hunters, everyone
spoke perfect English. It wasn't until ducking down into the
back alleys of the food markets that Thai echoed in the
shadows.
     At the end of the main street, butting up against the
bazaar atmosphere, was a nondescript border crossing. With just
a couple of bored armed guards oblivious to the backlog of
truckers being processed through a nearby tollbooth shed, and
one adjacent near-deserted two-story building, getting a new
visa was as easy as going out for a morning cup of coffee.
Sorry Joey, this time, no cookies. A turnstile affair, I made
it back in plenty of time for an early dinner with Chai and a
tour of the nightlife that went on into the weary hours. Not
anything I did. He just seemed to enjoy buying drinks for too
many friends. But one day was enough. I still had a long way to
go without worrying about a hangover.
     I didn't know whether to thank Chai or curse him for         ***255
keeping me out until almost dawn. Different girls, none of them
his wife, we must have hit every bar that night. My taxi was
early, just enough time for a quick shower. With Songlaa only
an hour drive, leaving no room to catch a nap, I was no more
than a yawn as the sun came up. But about to take in a secluded
cove harbor stretch out through a glint of gold-capped waves, a
Marlboro-Coke chaser provided just enough of an adrenaline rush
to ensure, staying awake was no longer a problem. Add a shot of
excitement at seeing the harbor teeming with a rainbow collage
of fishing boats docked to decaying docks held up by a
shoreline of stilted shacks and I soon forgot all about, not
having slept.
     Not really a taxi driver, his brother the consierge, my    
driver had driven me to the highest vantage point, overlooking
the fishing village, cranked back the seat, craddled a          
newspaper, and gone to sleep. Two rolls of film later, my eyes
sandy and my stomach growling, come on, wake up. Where do you
want to go for breakfast? Up the coast, thatched stilted huts
reached far out into a lagoon; bare-bottom kids caught a snack
with swirling nets right off their back porches; old men and
women sat on the beach and mended nets while their seed pushed
long boats out into the surf. It was a sketchpad drawing
against the light. My driver yawned, pulling up to a roadside
grill, unaware that he'd found the perfect setting. My Nikon
had a rough morning, singing until its batteries died. No
problem. Phuket Island was another four hours away on the west
coast and only a long nap was going to get me there.    
 The sunburned skeletal remains of a rusted and marooned
tin dredge was the first tortured site to greet our arrival
under the steel-grate droned crossing of the Phuket Island
bridge. Still spewing oil from a ruptured hold, the deserted
platform must have been one of the last casualties of that
dying industry; its brothers laying abandoned like tombstones
in the nearby Andaman sea; relics of an industry that had for
years been thriving there. But because Phuket was growing,
their demise had only been a matter of time. The enterprising
residents wanted to get rid of the constant eyesores and do
some prospecting of their own, turning the island paradise
into a tourist hub. The government agreed but not at first to
bolster tourism. It was the perfect distraction to thwart all
of the illegal mining activity.                                  (line 15 is page 256)
     Tourism and remnants of tin mining weren't the only
activities, supporting the island. Kilometer after kilometer,
in equally-spaced rows, palm-oil trees flashed by as a blur of
dizzying illusion, making my head spin. My driver, seeing our
first stop, pulled into the parking lot of an open-air shop. I
rubbed my eyes, thinking it was a rest-area break.
      "You have many friends in Bangkok. Yes?" he asked, taking
off his sunglasses, squinting, and stroking a two-day-old
stubble. Middle-aged and starting to grey with a well-developed
paunch, at last, he spoke more than two words and a grunt.
     "A few," I said, opening the door to stretch my legs. The
afternoon sun bathed in an orange glow took its cue and started
to bake my cheeks warm while a salty breeze assisted, tousling
my hair. The pounding of the ocean wasn't far away.
     "Here you buy treats for them. Everything fresh. Specialty
of Phuket. Hard to find in Bangkok," he said, rolling down the
windows to make sure the car stayed cool.
     A busy dried-package fish market, he pointed and I put
whatever it was in the basket: jars of shrimp paste, packages
of dried baby shrimp, dried octopus, dried silver dollars,
dried squid, dried mussles, and dried clams....don't forget all
these different varieties of finger-length fish; sea urchins
and anemones produced a bumper crop this year. By the time we
were done, I was ready to scold him. "I came down here with
barely a backpack and now it's going to take at least a duffle
bag to get all this stuff home."
     He smiled and touched my shoulder. "When you go on
vacation and have a good time but still think enough to buy
something special for your friends, they know you were thinking
about them. Not a good idea?"
     "You're a smart old fucker, aren't you?" I asked, grabbing
up the plastic bags, not sure if on that abacus, the old woman
had just added in a tourist commission. Something in Chinese,
something in her eyes, something in the way she scolded her
half-snoozing husband...good for her. Bent over, bushing about
eighty, it was the least I could do, contribute to her social
security.
     "No. But I used to be a monk. Does that count?"
     I nodded. No wonder it had been such a quiet ride over.
                                                                  
     The old guy, who never shared his name, dropped me off in   ***257
front of my jungle-hidden hotel and politely declined an
insistent offer of a last-minute dinner invitation, happy with
just the mangosteen, lamyay, coconut juice, grilled octopus,
and barbecued-pork skewers we had stocked up on along the way.  
All I could do is leave him with a generous tip for his          
insightful advice and wish him a safe journey on his long ride
back. It would be well after dark before he got home and on an
unlit two-lane potholed road after a full day of driving the
trek was a gaunlet for tired eyes.
     If Chai hadn't asked to look at my plane ticket over
dinner, the included four-star hotel reservation might have
gone unnoticed. Ta must have tipped him off there was a little
something extra she wanted to surprise me with but only after
my plane had landed. Struggling with my extra souvenir bags, I
walked down the long winding steps under a vined canopy of
trees, past ferned gardens, bubbling with waterfalls and
chirping with birds, to find the reception area. Four stars, my
ass. Where were the porters?
     Built into the side of a cliff with straw-mat bungalows
overlooking a private beach and wooden walkways sewn together
and attached precariously by ropes anchored into the limestone
face, the island refuge hid the main lobby and restaurant,
letting them slowly come into view at the center of the web.
     After discovering there was no such thing as hot water or
air conditioning, just a lopsided looming fan over my bed that
might fall and kill me in my sleep, I grabbed my camera and a
towel and headed for Patong beach. The sunset was ruby red. The
water was warm. The waves were soothing. The gulls were noisy.
The wind was gusting up. The salt air burned my eyes. Damned, I
forgot to buy batteries for my motor drive.
     As the sun melted into the horizon, I couldn't help but
think about what the old man had said. Presents and friends,
souvenirs and holidays, blow-fish poison and a peace offering
for Ed...my imagination raced in a fit of wishful thinking,
heading up the beach steps for the hotel gift shop and balcony
restaurant. Good thing my round-trip ticket home and this hotel
were paid for. Tomorrow was going to bring a variety of
specialty gift shops.
     Sitting at a corner table, garnishing the last bits of
light, I switched out the old batteries of my motor drive,
promising myself never to be preempted by my overenthusiasm
again. Armed with two extra eight packs, there was still a bit    ***258
of light. A sailboat was drifting by with an island in the
background. Gulls were in a frenzy all around. One last shot.
A 35mm 1.4 lense set to infinity at one eighth of a second
would catch it. Leaning against a post and holding my breath,    
"Damned mosquitos," I shouted, slapping my neck, almost         
dropping my camera off the balcony in an outnumbered dogfight.                             
     A young couple sitting nearby, sipping wine, nibbling on
cashews, and watching the same sailboat, started laughing. I
just smiled, rolled my eyes, and nodded at a waitress who came
scurrying over with a menu. Not even looking at it, I closed
my eyes, well rehearsed, asking for everything I liked. She
took my order with a curtsey, recommending house specialty
dips. If as spicy as she, how could I resist.
     Black-bean sauce simmering fish, a crab stir-fried
scallion mixture that always made my nose squint, baby clams
fried, begging a garlic sauce, the waitress told the couple
compliments of the house. They looked over shocked. How did I,
cleaning a fork and spoon at the table, with an obvious
northeastern accent, understand their whispered French. The
waitress prepared another spot, waiting. There was one thing
left to order yet. What were they drinking - a chilled bottle
of cabernet '70 - now for a bowl of rice and a chat.
     "I'm Gunther. This is my wife, Evon," he said, standing
up to shake my hand.
     About to dabble in the steaming fish with silver-embossed
chopsticks, she dabbed a napkin to her shocking-pink lips. They
were both tall, slim, and young. With brown hair and green
eyes, they looked like brother and sister. Gunther was wearing
khaki shorts and a burgandy sports t-shirt flipped up at the
collar, hiding his long hair, slipping down his back. Evon was
still in a patterned two-piece with a scarf tied around her
waist. She twirled her shoulder-length hair as she looked up at
the ceiling making me wait, pushing out her long legs for a
stolen glance.
     "Tom. So how did you know?" I asked, spiking and bathing a
baby clam, the moment I sat down.
     "I didn't," he said, looking back at Evon as he sampled
the wine.
     "Tom...not TJ?" she asked with a whimsical wink, dipping
her fingers into a lime-juice finger bowl. "Your wife Ta..."
She sat back to reminisce. Gunther excused himself. He'd be
right back. "We worked side-by-side in Germany where I was a       ***259
branding manager for Helena Rubinstein cosmetics and she was
the lead model in their Thai-silk line promotional campaign.
Traveling around the country for six months, we became close
friends. I still have a picture she gave me of you two together  
with a Mexican boy and Chinese girl, standing in front of a     
waterfall, somewhere in the mountains. She recommended this      
hotel and said we might run into you. When you bitched at the
mosquitos, we knew you were American. But Ta never told us you
could speak French and might be able to listen in on us. Glad
you could. This food is yummy."
     "Mr. Tom? I wanted to confirm your seat on our 9am tour of
the island tommorrow." A young girl was holding a ticket, on
her knees at my feet.
     "What tour?" I asked as Gunther rejoined us.                 
     She put a hand to her lips, trying to hide a smile,
looking back at the young couple, gulping down the prelude to
what was meant to be dessert.
     "Will you join us?" Gunther asked, toasting with his
glass.
     "Only if you guys don't mind, finishing off this bottle of
wine and the rest of the food. It's been a nonstop two days so
far and I really need to catch up on some sleep if there is
going to be any prayer of getting up at dawn to take some
sunrise shots." I shook hands with Gunther and gave Evon a Thai
kiss on the cheek. Screw that looming fan, I'll just open the
windows to avoid worrying about it.
   
     Chai, Gunther, and Evon, it really didn't matter that Ta's
attempts to keep tabs on me didn't extend to the other side of
the island. Chai was miles away. The wine lovers had overslept.
Ditching the tour halfway through, I boarded the ferry for the
hour-long cruise to the Phi-Phi Islands, sure that there would
be plenty of time to make new friends. Six small inhabited
islands huddled together in the Andaman sea, they weren't the
only ones. Piercing indian-arrowhead shards of two-hundred-foot
shear limestone cliffs stood out like inverted icebergs along
the way. Sentinels, havens for rare-bird nests, their isolation
betrayed their lonliness.
     The main deck was rocking with tanning and gyrating
tourists, loudspeaker music, and nonstop beer in a resounded
rumble like a college keg reunion. I found the air-conditioned
lower deck with a choice of comfortable reclining velour seats.    ***260
My eyes were sandy. No need for a cool towel, never mind a
glass of water, thanks, I just want to catch a nap.
     Suddenly the boat started to heave violently back and
forth, throwing those unaware into the sea; their splashes      
quickly consumed by bone-crushing tenacles before they could     
scream. Menacing cliffs rose, almost blocking out the sun, not       
islands after all, but warrior heads that had kept a constant       
vigil, waiting for the demonic signal to release their bent up
rage and wreak worldwide havoc. Dropped as meteorites in the
puddle of the world's oceans millenia ago by a sinister cosmic
force to nurture and cultivate a vast army of hellish sea
abominations, the predictions of the Thai mural paintings had
finally come true. Except, there were no monkey gods, nymphs,
or fairies to save the human race. Entire oceans would soon be
lost. By tomorrow Mumbai and New York would be underwater and
forgotten. Once the US naval fleet was swallowed up in one
gluttonous gulp, the indestructable guardians would unleash
their insatiable hordes to devour the land, leaving nowhere to
hide. The earth was about to become a watery grave.
     "Sir? Sir? We're here. We have arrived in Phi Phi," the
deck girl said, trying to wake me up. Satisfied with a drawn
out yawn, "That must have been some dream."
     I nodded, grabbed my bag, and headed for the gangplank,
still sweating as if it had all been real.
     With a single delapidated pier, the harbor sheltered in a
coral-rich cove on Phi Phi Don - the largest island in the
chain - was alive with activity, catering to mainland ferries,
diving barges, twin-engine speedsters, luxury cruisers, and
triple-mast sailboats. Passengers lugged their luggage down off
the creaking welcome mat onto the sandy beach to queue up for
one of the motorized skiffs, working as taxis around the
island. But before taking off my Pumas and rolling up my jeans
to wade into the water to board one, I wanted to roam around
and explore the nearby village. There was plenty of time to
find a bungalow and plenty of room in my backpack for the
curious oddity.
     The sand-swept wooden boardwalk winded up a hill of diving
schools and souvenir shops. A beauty parlor was doing a booming
business in African-style braided hair, ornamented with strings
of multi-colored beads. Local fisherman were sorting their
morning catch while their wives tended to mending nets strung
up on lines like freshly hung laundry. Barefoot kids danced        ***261
around, screaming and laughing, playing with sticks, immersed
in mortal combat. Roosters and chickens under bamboo-domed
cages cackled, scratched, and pecked at the dirt. In front of a
magazine stand, a group of locals, ripe with white lighning,     
were falling over each other to bet on a cock fight. After a
few snapshots, I spotted a Thai-style 7-11, bought some snacks,
headed back to the boats, and in no time reached the other side
of the island.
     Sliding up onto an umbrella-lined beach, our taxi dropped
us off right in front of our longed for seclusion. Besides the
porters running out barefoot to grab up all the luggage, young
bronzed girls in tribal island wear came out to greet us with a
variety of local fruit drinks. As if the virgin-white sandy
beach wasn't enough, there was a tropical waterfall, emptying
into a swimming pool of sunburned tourists in front of the
reception area beside an open-air restaurant. Through a
coconut-palm grove, I could make out the thatched-grass roofs
of randomly scattered bungalows.
     Still missing the comforts of a hot-water shower and air
conditioning and still leary of lopsided ceiling fans, falling
the minute my eyes were closed under one, I dropped off my gear
and decided to explore the shoreline. It wasn't long before the
well-manicured beach of windswept palms and colorful umbrellas
gave way to a jungle-covered cliff, overlooking a minefield of
wave-crashed rocks, with a small path leading away into the
brush, forcing a curiosity decision. Head back now, grab a cool
drink, and baste out around the pool all afternoon or risk
getting strangled by vines, poisoned by snakes, rabied by bats,
ravaged by dogs, or deathgripped by lizards, never to be heard
from again. Time to find a big stick. Just as I was getting a
bit tired of getting nibbled on by mosquitos and thinking of
turning back, the path opened up onto the other side of the
island at the front door of a local's fishing camp. The smoke
of a charcoal fire burned my eyes and obscured a barking dog,
running up to investigate. To the command of a grottal yell,
the knee-high mutt stopped just short of my leg, whining with
disappointment, settling for a sniff.
     Beyond the campfire, in front of a palm-leaf leanto, rows
of fish were strung up between trees to dry-smoke in the sun
over a cleaved stump covered with fish guts; stray cats were
fighting over the discarded entrails. A single-mast boat with
an eggbeater engine danced in the waves of the secluded cove      ***262
just off the beach where a fisherman had anchored it securely
with a long rope to a nearby tree. As he walked past his strung
up nets, swaying in the breeze, his greying wirey hair as long
as his matted dribbled beard, I could see his mummied shorts     
were just strips of cloth wrapped around his legs and waist.
The leathery chocolate skin of his wrinkled half-naked body
accentuated a bugeyed look. He tilted his head, thumbed his
knife, scratched a bit, and limped up, holding a spear-length
cane, wondering what his dog had discovered.
     Not quite sure what to do, I waayed with folded hands
and offered a very nervous and verbose Thai comment. He smiled
a toothless grin and motioned towards a seat on a log in front
of the smoldering fire. With the morning catch gutted and
dressed, there was a simmering pot of fish stew he was more
interested in, enough for two, made with fresh vegetables from
his garden and shredded coconut from the grove. Ten parts rice
to one part stew, the concoction was actually quite tasty under
the fiery spices. Seeing me with watery eyes go for seconds, he
started to open up, talking about being a veteran of the tin
industry, an extruder operator on an offshore rig. But shortly
after his wife died, so did the mining, and his three sons who
had hoped to follow in his footsteps moved out to find jobs in
the city. Left with noone, Pong sold his meager possessions,
bought a boat, found this cove, and had been fishing from here
ever since. He shook his head and started to laugh. The first
person to show up on his doorstep in six years turned out to be
a foreigner. Guess that meant his hideaway was safe. Usually,
he'd run into people only once a month when he went to trade
fish for sugar, coffee, tobacco, and rice in the marketplace.
By the way what's that you're smoking? A Marlboro pack and a
zippo lighter seemed like a fair trade for a homecooked meal
and native hospitality. But that was too much, he could never
accept such kindness. Not until he saw I had another pack and
lighter, did he pat me on the back, accept, and offer me one
of his new status smokes. By late afternoon the three of us
were becoming great friends. Then as I pulled out my camera,
looking over his shoulder, he started to make a fuss, seeing
what had caught my eye.
     Straddling the entrance to the cove like intimidating
bouncers were two of those wedged-shaped peaks similar to so
many that had monitored the ferry ride over. But with the sun
now behind them producing a halo effect, they transformed into    ***263
saintly shrouded monks, walking on water, begging for alms,
robed in a saffron sun's afterglow. It was a surreal shot I
had to catch. But suddenly jumping up, shaking a hand no,
grabbing my arm to follow, Pong ran down to unanchor his boat.  
Still holding the anchor line, he motioned for me to get in. I
tried to say never mind but he just threw in the line, grabbed   
his dog, and started the engine. Waiting, he lit two status
cigarettes. Come on before we lose the light.                    
     Before long we were out of the cove and heading around the  
island cliffs away from the peaks. He pointed at a shear one in   
an adjacent inlet, facing the sea, with steps up to a laureled
Thai spirit house. After the long climb, his dog scouting
ahead, barking for me to hurry up, he had been right. Different
lenses, different filters, different angles, it was indeed the
perfect sequence. I wasn't in Phi Phi. I was on Everest. The
mescaline change of color and hue left me not wanting to be
anywhere else. But there was more there than I had ever
imagined; a treasure that would never be revealed in any guide
book. It was traces of an ancient broken Thai temple, growing
out through a shackel of vines in the belly of underbrush just
feet from the crust of the beach. A marble floor plagued with
spiders, cowered with regret. Mural slabs scattered like pieces
of a jigsaw puzzle, begged to be restored. Ancient pottery,
once cradled by monks, begging for alms, prayed for the less
fortunate. Gold-leaf flecks spotted trees where once they had
been a symbol of homage, decorating statues, a faint wish for a
better life. The twin peaks started to hide the forgotten
remnants with embarrassed shadows. I said a fallen prayer, not
wanting to take advantage. An appropriate response, considering
I ran out of light. But this really wasn't a site for me to
find. Thais and their lotus-dough, blessed, beloved medals,
arrayed around their necks to keep them safe, monks and
miracles, a homaged saint had to have come from here. Someone
devote would have a spiritual dream and discover this hallowed
grave for the right reasons.
     Sitting on the beach, I roughhoused Pong's dog until the
old guy beached the boat, quite pleased with my smiles and
jubulent ranting. Just one thing left to do. He floated me all
the way back around the island and dropped me off. I tried to
give him money for gas. He just waved his hand and asked, time
permitting, come see him again before taking off.
                                                                    ***264                                                                 
     After papaya, mango, aspirin, cigarettes, three cups of
coffee, and a very long cold shower to cheat a hangover, I ran
down to the beach at 8AM for an all-day trip around the islands
in a speed boat, wondering all the way, how that crowd had       
gotten me away from my backpack granola bars and nuts for a
festive drunken communal dinner last night; shouldn't have let 
that rowdy Australian corner me, buying shots all around,
rambling on about Great Barrier Reef fishing exploits.
     Crawling up the ladder, set between the twin-inboard
engines, I nodded at three slightly familiar surviving couples
who had come along for the ride. With their zinc-oxide noses,
flip flops, sunglasses, and fancy hats, modeling wildly-colored
Hawaiian shirts and spagetti tops, they made for a sobering
touristy bunch. The two crew members were still down in the
galley prepackaging a picnic lunch. But as soon as they saw me
arrive, they licked their fingers and stowed everything, ready
to get under way.
     While one pulled up the anchor, the other revved up the
engines ready to slowly guide the canvased cruiser out into
deeper water. Speeding up, he yelled something about passing
out soft drinks, no smoking, the ride would get bumpy, and if
you had to get sick, do it over the side, tracing the same line
Pong had taken, coming back the night before. Past the old
fisherman's cove, between its statured guardians, under the
spirit house on the cliff, we sped. Cameras clicked. If only
they knew what they were missing. The bow rose as our pilot
opened up the throttle and headed away from the endless island
cliffs for open water. He leaned back and pointed at a dot on
the horizon. That, he said, was where we were heading.
     Like yeasted oven bread, the cliffs rose an impregnable
fortress, divorcing themselves from the last hint of a beach,
pushing hard a virgin welcome mat back into the sea. A few
shrubs, a marooned log, a glint of sand, soon everyone would
leave the island alone. Everyone else seemed to be enthralled
with the last chance splendor, swimming in the shallow water
and taking cliffside pictures. I dangled my feet in the water
and gave the pilot a quizical look. He laughed, pointing,
"Look up."
     Streaks of red, darting blues, acrobatic oranges, diving
greens, screeching yellows, cooing pinks, impatient purples,
and hybrid offcolors tended condos of nests in the the nooks
and crannies of the outgrowing trees and vines. With wing       ***265
spreads like eagles, parrots tended their young, taking time
out to daredevil in the ocean currents. "What are they doing
here so far out at sea?" I asked.
     "At sunset there are huge black clouds of mosquitos. The
birds like it here because they have plenty to eat," he said.
     "Sunset. Not before?"
     "Always sunset," he said, laughing as he threw me a can of
bug spray. Zang and his brother Bop, both around my age, had
lived on the islands their entire lives. Their father was a
rice trader. They had an older sister in med school. They
learned English cooking and cleaning on tourist boats, saving
money before they could buy one of their own. A little dialect
confusion, we got along in Thai. It was his first American
cigarette, too. Never mind, just not in front of anyone else.
     "Bop," he yelled, fingering his watch. Everyone swam back
to the boat. I went to join them below deck. Zang grabbed me,
not yet, next island my turn. I looked at him like he was nuts.
He turned the boat. Okay fine, but in English. This is the
throttle. Sun is at ten oclock. Steer to one and gun it. Don't
go between waves. Go over them. Any problems, yell. He laughed.
Back in a few, still had to finish with preparing lunch.
     Susy, the wife of a bald guy, who passed out doing shots
with that crazy Australian, left to flirt in defense of a cute
Georgia accent and escorted home by a sympathetic staff came
topside, holding onto her hat. "Hey ya'll. Where are we going
next? What happened to that cute Thai boy? Are you supposed to
be doing that?"
     "It's not hard. Wanna try?"
     "Heavens no."
     "TJ, everything okay?" Zang asked, returning with a club
sandwich.
     "Susy wants to know where we're going," I said, sharing a
bite.
     "Mam, are you afraid of whales?" he asked, slipping me a
wink.
     "Whales?" She looked around like we were about to get
torpedoed by a U-boat.
     "See that white one out there sunning itself?" He pointed
about a half mile ahead. "Thai style mam, you can get a great
suntan. Something about the oil on their backs. Old Gus there,
I promise won't be a problem." He said it with a straight face
and she ran back down below not quite sure if she wanted to be    ***266
involved with the rest of the trip.
     I shook my head, exchanging the throttle for the rest of
the sandwich.
     "Ladies Island."
     "What?" I asked, offering Zang another bite.
     "It's a name Bop and I came up with. Just a big sandbox in
the middle of the ocean. Not much is on it except for a couple
of trees and a few shrubs. But after a few hours of bouncing
around on the waves in this boat, most ladies are grateful for
a pit stop; so we added a couple of outhouses up under the
trees. But that's not the funny part. When you tell them
there's a bathroom on the island, some of them are in such a
hurry to get off the boat, they jump into the water without
their shoes and they're half way up the hundred meters
of beach to the middle of the island before they realise the
sand is hot. And wow can some of them dance."
     I nodded, looking around for my sneakers.                                                               

    

    
     
    

 

 

 

 

 

  
     

 
    
    
 
                                                                       

         

 

 

 

 

 

    
                                                              
    
     
                                                                            
     
     
           
 
  
    

    

                               

 

 

 

    
    
    
 

 

    
    
    
  

 

 

 

       
    

    
    

 

    

     

    

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                                                                                                               ***85