Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 110 in 2005.
She came from a Lao village deep in the countryside where the crops failed for three consecutive years and an agent placed a season’s income in cash on the floormat in her family home, with the promise of thrice that and much more after her parents bonded her over. He came from a city in America, across a great expanse of land and water, a new man come to a new country, having effected a clean escape from the old, as completely gone from his old life as a range-crossing cowboy.
She arrived at the karaoke shack ringed with Christmas lights by a longtail boat, which brought her over the Mekong into Thailand under cover of darkness, following a two-day journey by bus, a rickety contraption of Soviet make that rattled over deeply-pocked roads, after a full day standing with twenty-five others in the back of a pickup from a small town, reached by a day in a buffalo-drawn cart from her village, she who’d never been more than a halfday’s walk from home; she cried the whole first day she was there, after the mamasan made her job description clear.
In the old days, he could’ve hired on a ship with no more asked of him than his name, sinking out of sight of his homeland forever; but in these mistrustful latter days, knowing his every move could be effortlessly tracked, it was necessary to construct an alternative identity; so, with a few fraudulent facts and a PO Box, he commenced to fill out forms, taking extreme care not to overlap his life as a Commercial Loan Officer at the Bank of Milwaukee, married (no children), homeowner, carowner, vacations to the Dells and Acapulco, baseball fan, in casual shape; watching with pleasure as helpful websites constructed an alter ego with predilections he’d previously only dreamed at: single, renter, user of public transportation, excursions to the Rockies and Sierra Nevadas, participant in individual endurance sports, in excellent shape.
She was still blubbering when her first client casually removed his pants in a bamboo shack, to run out howling a moment later wearing only a T-shirt, clutching his crotch where she’d twisted with the same dexterous force she used to decollate chickens back in the village, provoking peals of laughter from his companions and a furious mamasan to beat her with the bamboo rod till her tear ducts went dry, after which she was locked for three days in a back shack formerly used to house laying hens, dusty with piles of dried shit swarming with scurrying insects, not enough room to stand up or lay down, the mamasan peeking in every few hours to prod and poke with the rod, and when she was let out, the other girls, Lao imports all and which she called “sisters,” washed her and cooed at her gently not to be a fool, and she did not resist her second client, a shiphand who took her virginity with great bemusement, wiping off the blood on her shirt; he was on his lunchbreak, in a seedy sidestreet, renting out an upstairs room in a vast mansion transformed into a tenement house where no questions were asked, for use in storing the material effects – passport, driver’s license, clothes, traveling gear, credit cards, and so forth – necessary to make good his escape.
The following morning, as she absent-mindedly massaged the hurt between her legs, squatting by the cooking fire and staring off to the east and home, she let the soup boil over; the mamasan smacked her upside the head with the rod, hissing that she best pay attention if she didn’t want a daily beating, which the mamasan would nevertheless happily administer, he was with his wife, attending the final couples therapy session, the therapist saying they ought really to continue the therapy, especially him, who needed much work to expose and treat the root of his problems accepting the responsibilities of mature adult life, but nonetheless, in the therapist’s professional opinion, they were on a sound footing and should enjoy many years of marital harmony and companionship.
A week later, as he was cashing out nine years of earnings on his pension fund, ostensibly to re-invest it in a market with higher returns, against the staid advice of the Chief Loan Officer, who considered it an irresponsible thing for a man well within child-rearing years to do, placing the lions share in his wife’s personal account, where it would not be visible until the following month’s statement, converting the rest into trackless traveler’s checks which he left with an icy thrill inside a desk drawer in the rented room, thus completing the secret series of financial transactions that ensured he’d be well-supplied with ready cash while leaving his wife in possession of their material property and assets, a client hit her hard enough to loosen a molar when she was unable to make his cock stiffen even slightly, despite trying every trick her sisters had taught her; the bouncer, who swung on a cot with half-hooded eyes outside the karaoke shack and spoke only in grunts, heard her screams and burst in, beating the client senseless with a tire iron, until his buddies silently drug the man off into the night, trailing blood into the dust, causing the karaoke shack to empty of clients, for which the mamasan beat her with the rod until she couldn’t even whimper.
He was on a transpacific flight six days later, new identity a roaring success, divested of all possessions beyond the plane, watching bad movies on a distant screen and drinking Bloody Marys, which he was surprised to learn were free, as she limped down to the riverbank, just able to walk again after long days curled up in a sleeping hut, trying to get command of mutinous limbs and sinews and muscles in the afternoon heat, looking towards home across the gray dull-shimmering water that coursed sluggishly between rocky banks, gently rocking the hollow-bumping longtail boats tied to the bank, and down the Thai side, she saw hunched-over peasants tending vegetable patches that sloped up to the river promenade of the nearby town, where she could make out bare-legged strollers with ice cream cones under the shade of banyan trees – in the village they would be rounding up rice seedlings and butchering dogs, and her heart quivered wondering when she’d see home again, but, knowing she was paying for the seedlings and dogs this year, she went, weak as an arthritic old woman, back up to the karaoke shack, where her dim-lit nights were busy, pouring beer over ice for grubby Thai and Lao clients who warbled badly at the karaoke machine and after sufficient beer, took her to the one of the bamboo shacks behind the tin karaoke shack, and climbed on her to finish what they’d begun with groping at the table, sometimes one a night, sometimes several, as on the night he touched down in Bangkok, wet air sticking his shirt to his back, half-drunk and half-hungover; blinking under the yellow sodium lights underneath the expressway, a man with a black suit and a Mercedes took him to his hotel, requiring what seemed an exorbitant lot of bills for the service, where he toppled into his twenty-third story bed, repeating his new name to himself, that he might not forget in this new land.
A few days later, a Thai trader took her out of the karaoke shack, after handing the mamasan a stack of bills palmed too quickly for her to count, as he hit the dusty red road of the wide-plained countryside that curved out into the gauzy horizon lined with leaned-over palm trees and stilted huts and tendrils of smoke, driving a rented jeep guardedly on the opposite side of the road across scorched dry-season rice paddies, weaving through aimlessly shepherded herds of water buffalo and slatribbed cattle, talking with a circle of monks at a dusty temple with a serene Buddha in a boat, eating sticky rice and speaking the badly broken Thai he’d gotten from a boxed language course (practiced in that solitary room), while the trader locked her in a backroom of a warehouse, where workers made use of her two dozen times daily for a week on a floor mattress; she was fed rice and curried fish and did not leave the room, sickly rays of sun filtering through the grimy-window over the crumpled pile of clothes and underwear she didn’t bother to put back on, never knowing when the next one might show up, as he swam in a muddy pond and shrieking village children poked and prodded at his flaccid skin, then at the headman’s house he sat on a floormat scooping up unrecognizable globs of food so spicy his eyes watered in steady streams, passing around Marlboro cigarettes and a bottle of Jack Daniels, the dozen men there quickly polishing off the bottle, everyone grinning at everyone, before falling asleep outdoors just after sunfall, waking at dawn to discover a column of tiny black ants running up his leg; he bathed in the pond and headed down another red backroad, as the Thai trader brought her back to the karaoke shack, where she collapsed into a dead sleep for a day and a half, after which her pubic hair was so gummy and matted that her sisters advised her to shave it off; besides, they said, tiny as she was, clients would like it, so she did, thereafter saving herself a good deal of chafing.
On northeastwards he went, disregarding roadmaps, knowing eventually he would come to the Mekong, which he’d settled on in the rented room to give some substance to his voyage, liking the two syllables tripping exotically off his tongue; he carefully tacked up a Lands Of The Mekong wallmap, and found that, for all the thousands of miles the river flowed through six countries, the only reasonable access point was Bangkok, which required a long traverse of countryside that he’d greedily anticipated and now greedily took in, as she discovered that large gulps of beer were magic: first swimming cold fire in her stomach, then mystifying numbness in her lips, finally delightful lightness in her head, making the coarse client across the table almost handsome and nearly amusing and sometimes she could pretty well ignore his frenzied thrustings later; at first the mamasan approved of this gambit, offering all the girls two bahts’ incentive for every beer they got emptied, to which the girls responded with sudden clumsiness, spilling an inordinate number and pouring extras out, ruses the mamasan responded to by culling a week’s pay from each girl, with twenty strokes of the rod for her, who the mamasan blamed for causing the foolishness in the first place.
A great bank of thunderclouds rushed over the Lao jungle onto the Thai riceplains, lashing the earth with sideways sheets of rain.
Fearful of storm spirits, she cowered in the karaoke shack with her sisters as the storm raged outside, kept company by chickens, a buffalo who breathed heavily and deposited clumps of steaming shit, and some dogs which she eyed hungrily as lunchtime passed and no one was willing to leave the warm group to cook in back, rain finally slackening as it grew dark, thunder fading to distant rumbling, lightning still peppering the sky and lighting up the wide spine of the river.
He left the jeep top down and drove on as the storm hit, whooping as the rain washed over him like a baptism, following the headlights through rain-reflected air, down a road that dipped and disappeared beneath torrents that nearly reached the engine block before climbing to gray vistas of warm downpour, landscape cloaked behind silver curtains, reaching a town where the road gave out, climbing out as the rain misted over to a sprinkle, wondering where he was, until dancing lightning lit up fast-gone flashes of the great river below and the land beyond, marveling to think how far he’d come; he drank beer on the river promenade, practicing Thai phrases from a damp textbook, stumbling back to his bungalow as the last of the lightning ebbed away, knocking over bottles as the amused Thai staff watched from a polite distance.
The next day she was scrubbing shit stains off the cement floor of the karaoke shack and washing her work outfits – two miniskirts, two spaghetti-strap tops – wondering if the seedlings were in the paddies and if she’d be home by harvest, as he was wandering the town half a mile away, smiling at locals who smiled back broadly and tossed English phrases “Where you go?” “You come from?” at him, taking a trail that led to cliff paintings etched by unknown tribes millennia ago, shapes of fish and fire and human hands, and he sat on the dusty trail in the midday heat looking up at them, flushed with instinctual certainty bubbling up in his veins that he had been here before, had played a part in creating these etchings, the instinct laying latent in untold generations of genes until summoned forth by the sight, until a waxy insect dangerously resembling a wasp alighted on his arm, and standing with a stumble to shake it off, the feeling vanished; he walked back to town certain he would never go home.
That evening, as she put on a miniskirt and T-shirt, brushed out her hair, and sat with the youngest sister outside the karaoke shack, he was drinking more beer and practicing more phrases draped in solitude at the same promenade restaurant, while the Christmas lights flicked on and she swatted at mosquitoes and no clients came.
But it was early. She waited.
He had more beer watching timid local couples court along the promenade, wooing in gentle tones and without touching but more obviously needful of each other than he had ever been of anyone, twin daggers of envy and loneliness stabbing him, the couples taking no notice of him walking slowly past to the jeep, thinking a drive might clear his head; he followed a road which trailed alongside the river out of town, thoughts of happy couples keeping his foot on the accelerator, until there were sudden sharp beams in his eyes and shadowy figures motioning him to pull over; she idly nudged a dozing dog and speculated at the pleasing thought that this could be a night when she had no clients; any stragglers would be scarfed up by the older sisters, and she could stay outside with the youngest sister, and no one would sweat on her.
“You, where you go?” said a cop, blinding him with a flashlight and flanked by two others. Noticing their pistols and wide unchanging smiles, he felt no menace in their voices or pose, but a cold surety something was required of him.
“I’m driving,” he said. “Just driving.”
The cop said, “Okay, okay. You drive. You see. Okay. Take cash.”
Through the cop’s thick accent, he might’ve heard “pass,” as in “passport”; “What?” he said.
The cop said, “Cash. Money. Baht. Cash.”
No guesswork this time, so he handed over a few hundred-baht bills, which the cop folded deftly into a breast pocket with a free hand.
“Okay, okay,” the cop said, and waved him on.
Down the pothole-festooned road, which veered sharply to the left, he stopped, jeep idling in fumy burbles, eyeing the murk beyond the pallid halogen pools of his flickering headlights. His skin was electric, something in the air permeating the row of shacks outlined by blinking Christmas lights, shadowy figures around them, so he jerkily engaged the clutch, feeling he must do anything but act suspicious, as though he’d coolly done this hundreds of times, driven into the dark night to park up a steep upslope in front of the second shack on the right, bathed in reality and thinking there was no reason ever to go back anywhere, headlights beaming onto two girls sitting outside with legs demurely crossed, eyes flashing silver.
The headlights blinded her like always, but, trained by rod strokes not to shield her eyes, she smiled, not moving from her perch, to allow the client to go inside for an older sister to make overtures at, which only the most brazen client would decline, to his great detriment, as the sulky rejected sister would instruct her replacement to treat the usurper poorly, a practice the mamasan had failed to stamp out, since the older sisters contemptuously stared down the upraised rod, leaving the mamasan hissing threats and muttering in the cooking area, fearful for the solvency that rested in their skillful ministrations, so the rod, needing somewhere to fall, would end on the younger sisters; and then the lights cut out, and getting out of the jeep was the last thing in all the world she could’ve expected: a boxida, a foreigner, tall pasty man with slightly bulging belly and dark hair and clean white arms with fingernails that caught the gleam of the Christmas lights as he went with a conquering stride inside, eyes running over her small frame, and she, too surprised to even look away, caught his scent, deep and musky and speaking of warmth in cold places, having before only seen flickering TV images of boxida, who, it was said, existed in numberless hordes in faraway places cold enough to crack bones, ruling the world from palaces of ice, their strange angular symbols imprinted on the very clothes she wore, their power greater than even the spirits; he went inside to shuffling and laughing and breaking glass and she abandoned her post, because she could not miss the chance to see a boxida with her own eyeballs.
She was the first thing he saw, and though old conditioning urged a retreat to what now seemed the safe-as-home haven of his bungalow, much older urges kept him moving forward, the girl as lovely as any coaxed by mad dreams from a feverish brain, skin so dark it blended in a smooth ridge into her shadow, eyes onyx as an abyss, face as fine-ridged as fired porcelain; inside were tables ringed by molded plastic chairs, a karaoke machine that resembled a jukebox from his childhood, the kind with actual records inside, and receiving no welcomes or directions from the group of girls gathered in the corner, giggling and gabbling and slack-jawed staring like the villagers he’d encountered, he sat down in a corner, quaking but alive as fire.
Her strong sisters, able to resist the mamasan, were unwilling to approach the boxida, who might herald sick horrors or drink their young blood, so before she could summon courage or thought, she sat down across from him, back to her sisters, looking in his face, her only defense a smile so broad her back molars gleamed, as long seconds slid forward with the most bated of expectations on both sides, hush reverberating from her sisters behind; he drummed his fingers on the table and, in a voice deep-rumbly as yesterday’s thunder, pronounced a sound that must have passed for a word among his people, the shack going dead silent, no one sure what he could want, until he curled his fingers around an imaginary glass and put it to his mouth, causing great peals of laughter among the sisters, and when the boxida said the word again, she caught a muted echo of the language spoken here across the river, and the word was, “Drink?”
“Drink,” she repeated, standing up, knocking her knees against the table and nearly falling over, a smile rising on his creased face like a creature from the murky deep, white and dark at the same time, and crossing the uneven cement floor for beer, she tried to ignore her sisters, gazing at her in wide wonder while trying to pretend all was normal, that they were as used to seeing boxida as they were to picking the plumpest crickets out of the supper pail, the mamasan peeping in from the back doorway, wondering if what she’d heard was true, that you could reap enormous profits off boxida, and glad that should the boxida prove to be the blood-drinker of village legend, the casualty would be the shack’s least-valued hand, that sniveling bitch so stoic beneath her blows; she brought over four cans of beers and a pail full of ice, not re-eyeing him as she plunked ice in the glasses and poured it over the beer and they clinked glasses, she still not looking up but unable to stop the smile furrowing her face. They drank.
A sister got a song going; over the loud music, in patchy phrases and long silences, surreptitiously studying each other’s faces, the two worked out that he spoke no Lao and she spoke no English, but they had enough Thai between them for the basics: names, citizenship, ages, confirmation of eye colors, a mutual lack of Thai singing ability, compliments on looks (which she could not believe he meant), mutual affection for beer (both drinking too fast), a comparison of hand sizes (a sharp thrill running up his arm to touch of her silken skin); and then, beer gone, she said, “Go?”
He wasn’t sure why she was ready to go, or what they’d do once gone, but eyeing over her beauty once more and bucked up with raw reality and liquid courage, he said, “Okay.”
She scribbled a number on a damp napkin and slid it across the table; new realities dawning on him, he accepted with a nod, barely reading the digit, handing some bills over, heart jigging wildly at the thought of lines-never-to-be-uncrossed and a sweat-sudden fear that this was an elaborate setup, and any moment cops would burst in, clap him in handcuffs, and take him to a stinking solitary cell somewhere in the monkey-howling jungle, here where no one even imagined he existed, while she gave over the shack’s share to the mamasan, who endeavored to see how much the little girl kept for herself, but she kept the bills tightly palmed, and then returned to him, where they drank their dregs, (older sisters observing every movement), and went to the jeep, he shivering from bowels to crown – he’d never done anything of this sort even in dreams, or been so bewitched by a woman’s lithe animal-grace, but he tried to show nothing, and she followed him out slump-shouldered and silent, not looking back at her sisters, though she wasn’t quite sure she would ever see them again.
He got in the jeep and fumbled with the keys, dropping them twice, pawing for the ignition through a haze, senses muffled in cottony stupor, as she watched, lacking any of the prerequisites necessary to form judgments, all the reference points of all her previous life washed away; he got the jeep going and they backed over the rain ruts down the slope, headlights reflecting the dull green eyes of the languid buffalo, turning left and then right, past the checkpoint, cops lounging on ubiquitous plastic chairs, into town, and he relaxed somewhat as they neared the bungalow: as yet he’d committed no crime, as she gripped the door handle in a fierce try for calm, realizing the only one who could bring her back to anything she knew was the one who’d taken her out of it.
Parking with front wheels on the river promenade, the spot he’d left less than an hour earlier, he was working on forgetting the transaction that’d brought her here, so it seemed uncouth to take her straight to the bungalow; she followed him to the promenade railing, water diamondwhite under a plump moon daubed by wispy clouds, encircled by a silken halo, the moon walking a moondog, reminding him of the pre-superstore vacant lot behind his childhood subdivision, last refuge of the fireflies, where they played on warm nights, the only place he remembered noticing a moondog before, which to her was a good omen, since the moon, that giver of false light to nefarious spirits and vicious animals, only became docile when accompanied by the kind spirit of a gentle white dog, a comforting pale like his skin, here in this place where she was uncertain of the very ground, suffused in dappled alabastrine light that sharpened outlines while obscuring details, of the forest across the river, of the boats rocking in the river below, of each other’s faces, which they watched each other watching for the first time.
“A moondog,” he said, in his language.
“A moondog,” she said, in hers.
Each understood, somehow, and he stroked her arm, soft as moonlight to touch, and she leaned against him, and they watched the moondog walk.
She was like no woman he’d known: sensuous as glossed silk, acrobatic and unashamed, bringing him to three more acts than he thought himself capable of in a single night and after she melded into him as though created for this sole purpose, concaving into his contours with a gentle sturdiness that somehow bespoke a lifelong intention to have been there always, as though not only all his life had been preparation for this day, but hers also; which was not so far from the truth as he thought, since she knew boxida to be capable of anything from blood-drinking to whisking you away to a great gleaming city, filled with hairy pale-bodies, so far beyond the forests and rice paddies nobody in living memory had seen one, where machines did the work of men, animals were slaughtered in great killing-machines, all were rich and happy though there were no trees, disease and evil spirits were banished (the village shaman saying this was why the spirits had grown cruel – so many sought revenge for being expelled), and to be alone with a boxida was to have a chance at an untold reality beyond all previous possibility; unbuckling his belt she readied herself for anything, but she found the usual equipment, though unhealthily sallow, and the fucking was nearly the same, the boxida capable of less go-arounds than her usual all-nighter, which was delightful; what was truly different came after, when she lay back with a delicious sinking sensation on a bed too soft to be believed, crinkly white sheets cleaner than the rain, and in the bathroom, rather than scooping a few handfuls of fetid water between her legs (normally all the cleanup she was allowed while an impatient client smoked outside), she stood under placid streams of water warm as the sun, together with him, kind boxida, towering wider than two of her, who rubbed soap (so sweet-smelling she almost gagged) on her belly and breasts and between her shoulderblades, hands supple as trod-over mud, which kept on touching and touching and touching, even where she made her trade, without wanting to fuck, only to touch, and she liked it, the first hands she could remember that caressed her with affection, and in the bathroom’s bright light, she got a clear look in his eyes, great, deep, green, her reflection clear in them; by the time he handed her a velvety towel, maybe the kindest material she’d ever touched, she was so dizzingly overawed she barely knew she was in love with this boxida, more godlike and more human than anyone she’d known in her eighteen years; after the shower he stroked her head – so light! – and she was already asleep, body warm to the touch as she exhaled warm pools of air on his chest, and all his previous life seemed a dream, one that melts before the reality of a new room it takes you a moment to recognize waking up, and though he’d come seeking only a sight of the Mekong, he felt sure he’d found what all men seek.
In the morning, they awoke somewhat staggered to each other’s presence, athletically made love and had another shower, then walked to the market, fingers touching shyly, him oblivious and she forcedly indifferent to the gawks of the stallowners and shoppers, bringing back egg-battered rice cakes, greasy friedbread, and coffee, eating at the table in front of the bungalow as morning birds wheeled and cackled over the gray-flowing Mekong; he decided he could not part from her if it meant leaving her undefended in that ratty shack, and she, as yet prosaic, was keeping her hopes to a large tip, to put with the stash she’d managed to hide away, half a hundred dollars worth of Thai and Lao currency in a small cloth wallet tied around her waist. She shivered in the morning breeze and he ran back to the market, buying her two oversized sweatshirts with superstore brand names from worlds ago; she put one on and with the other covered her legs, which seemed ridiculously exposed in her miniskirt to morning air and staring eyes, watching carefully as the boxida, her boxida, ate in much the same manner as he drank beer the night before, which is to say, as people did, though it would not have surprised her if secret mandibles unfolded from his head to deposit food into a gullet in his back, but he remained human, even as his deep green eyes were godlike.
Finished, the day stretched out before them, and she knew that, boxida or no boxida, she’d best get back, before the mamasan took exception to a too-long absence, since her normal stock in trade, not liking to mix the businesses of day and night, always had her back by dawn, where she cleaned the shack and then made lunch with the youngest sisters for the others, and during the long idle afternoons, though homesickness was a deep daily gutache, she sometimes thought her lot was not so bad – back in the village the labor was ceaseless, hanging over your head even when you were working, the incessant cycles that kept food in stomachs and clothes on backs and rice in the paddies and the next generation coming along, whereas here, when the mamasan didn’t beat her (a thing her own mother had not spared her, at that) and as long as she stayed in the good graces of the older sisters and kept her mind off the coming night, life was good enough, and she sent back vaster sums to the village than her family could possibly know what to do with, though she knew it would all be gone when she returned – and now here was a miraculous karmic contortion, a boxida who’d liberated her from her reality for a night, and in the stout circle of his arms she was positive even the most malevolent of spirits could not harm her. But how could he have any use for her now, beyond the one he’d already satisfied?
“Where you want to go?” he asked, his accent making his voice sound like an underwater breeze.
“Back,” she said, her voice a warbling singsong to him, but taking in the meaning, his expression dropped so precipitously, like a child seeing its father beat up on a public thoroughfare, that she ran a finger across his clenched knuckles and said, “Just to see mamasan. Must see her.”
“And then?” he asked. “You go with me?”
Her heart swelled at the thought, but what would the mamasan say, but, “Yes,” she said. “I go with you.”
At the checkpoint were different cops, looking less authoritative in morning’s inclined yellow light; having already heard a foreigner quick with the cash had passed by last night, they affably received documentation in currency; a left, a right, then he was weaving around the buffalo standing in front of the karaoke shack, brakes squeaking with road dust, killing the engine and waiting in the driver’s seat as instructed. She went inside, past the bouncer dozing on one of the tables, back to the cooking area where the mamasan was squatting by the fire with the two older sisters, eating rice porridge and examining a pailful of palm-sized waterbugs still wet from forest ponds.
She said to the mamasan, “He wants me to go with him.”
“Cost him a pretty penny,” said the mamasan, not looking up from the waterbugs she was prodding with a forefinger. “For how long?”
“Today,” she said. “Tonight.”
“Did he hurt you? Did he go after your blood?” asked the first sister.
“Oh no. He was, oh, so nice,” she said, reeling with memory and lacking words, nothing in her experience having prepared her to describe such an experience, though it seemed natural as wet-season floods.
“A blood-sucker with cash,” said the second sister. “How much you get out of him?”
“Enough,” she said.
“He best have plenty more where that came from,” said the mamasan, looking at her cheeks, oily soft with the white lotion he’d daubed on them that morning. “You can talk to him okay?”
“He doesn’t talk like us. He talks like they do over here.”
“Well, you can talk that. Even stupid as you are, I bet you’ve learned that much since I rescued you from the mud. Tell him it’s three thousand a day.”
There was silence at this shocking sum: twenty go-arounds in the bamboo shacks. A stick popped and cracked in the fire.
“That’s for me, mind you,” said the mamasan. “Whatever else you can get is between you and him. And you best keep track of it, because I’ll be needing a third of that. Half.”
He’d paid five times the going rate last night, so she thought he’d pay – it was far far more than she’d ever gotten before, but still dizzy from the night, she could hardly think of money, which would disappear anyhow, down the craw of the mamasan or the village.
“Okay,” she said, going to get some clothes, not liking him waiting, forgetting her sisters, who were not forgetting, the mamasan not liking this little girl so suddenly uninhibited, who hadn’t even bothered to bargain like a respectable person, fearing loss of control if she gave the little girl free rein in full view of the other girls, who’d thenceforth spend their time plotting similar escapes. The mamasan flipped a waterbug onto its back, legs flailing slowly as she kept a finger on its thorax, almost ready for the eating, primed like the profit the little girl’d bring her from the puffy boxida, but, like the waterbug, the little girl would go bitter if let grow too big; she came back in street clothes.
“You can’t stay away from here long, you know,” the mamasan said. “The police catch you, they’ll beat the boxida right out of you. And don’t think I’m going to let you come crawling back here with no teeth.”
“Like as not he’ll suck you dry in your sleep,” said the first sister.
“Make sure he keeps the cash flowing,” said the second sister.
She looked at them, swimming in a haze only her boxida could clear, only the being next to him; she was down deep in a vortex, and had no desire to resist; she said nothing and headed outside, where he was waiting in the mounting mid-morning heat, fearful at each second of her absence of horrors swallowing her like a venus fly-trap, and incredulous there was no long line of men like him – drawing on to middle age, broken, lost, fitful, terrified of hope – waiting for dark gossamer angels to emerge from tin shacks perched between dry jungle and rasping river, why men everywhere were not seeking what he’d stumbled across, promise of happiness so cheaply purchased; he might just as easily have driven past this town, or never gotten on the plane, or never watched his wife become a stranger, or watched his life turn alien around his Loan Officer’s desk, and so missed everything. There she was, black hair sparkling fine as fairy dust, and then she was beside him, and she was thinking, Beside him nothing bad can happen, he is beyond the realm of troubles, and with him, I am also, all of everything is forever changed now.
Through the gauntlet of head-tilted stares in town, they went back to the bungalow, not leaving that day or night, ordering in food, saturating towels and ruining bedsheets. He lost all interest in the country beyond the bungalow door, ceaselessly retreading the small landscape of the new country in bed with him, while she forgot all of her place in the world in the wonder of his strong grip, and both ignored tomorrow’s inevitable approach.
When morning came, he was still lost, but her head flooded with thoughts of fearsome Thai police with long spiked clubs and the money the mamasan held for her family, who would be running through their last food reserves, afraid of angering her boxida by speaking of her troubles, by asking if he could get money across the river and hundreds of kilometers upcountry to her family, instead of giving it to her.
“Go back?” he said, not quite believing she wanted to go, not quite believing he’d take her.
“Back. Must go back. See mamasan. Maybe you pay again, we come back here again.”
Desperate to get at every detail of her existence prior to him, he’d asked everything his overtaxed Thai vocabulary allowed, questions she answered as well as she was able, about her family, motley coterie of relatives relying on her for survival; which sent a sickening chill of delight through him, since it meant he’d found her in that shack through no choice of her own, and already thinking to supply all the cash they could need; but she said nothing, so he consented, feeling he could do nothing else, and they went back through the checkpoint, official outlay the same (his face well-remembered), and again she disappeared inside the shack, and again he sweated under the morning sun.
Inside, the first sister, braiding her hair at a mirror propped up on the karaoke machine, bruised and sore from the three shiphands who’d trained her in the bamboo shacks last night, after securing a group discount, out of which the mamasan refused to lessen the shack’s share, turned to her and said, “Back from pretty-pretty-land, are you? Hope you’re not starting to think there’s no work for you here.”
“Oh, no,” she said, brushing by to the back, where the mamasan was squatting alone.
She said, “He wanted to bring me back here. To make sure?”
“Of what?” said the mamasan.
“That I can go with him again. He wants … ”
“That all you can think about? What he wants? Is he the one putting rice on the mat back at home? Is he the one who took your sin-black body in, gave you a home, gave you a chance at more money than you’re like to see the rest of your reeking paddy-trodding life? Is he?”
“No,” she said, not looking at the mamasan, her family waiting on that money, and if the mamasan kept it, and what could she do, what could he do?
“And your sisters. You think you can go traipsing around the country with some fat boxida, leaving them all the work? Just last night we had to turn clients away. What happens when word spreads about that? Your boxida will be back in boxida-land with his wife, you’ll be out in the mud, this place turns to nothing. What happens to me, little girl?”
Outside he would be waiting, getting hot, oh, he got so hot so quickly, he couldn’t take the sun, he said the sun was not the same in boxida-land, not burning like here where you had to hide in the shade, in boxida-land, he said, people had pale skin and blinding green eyes like his and everyone drove cars and it was bigger than ten trips back and forth to her village, and there was snow, white as clouds and colder than ice, which she’d seen on TV but never believed in, and she’d asked him, more than once, if he had a wife in boxida-land, and he said over and over the only one he could think of was her, and she believed him with all her small strength, and for her, too, there was only him – which didn’t mean there wasn’t her family, and she didn’t know the way home, the agent did all the talking and ticket-buying, but she was sure she could find the way with him, but then, what of the money she’d endured these long months to get, swallowing acts that would’ve made an outcast of her at home, but whose performance here preserved that very home; if she ran, she might as well light a match to that money meant for them, because her family would never see it, and everything would have been for nothing, but, oh, her boxida was waiting.
“You mean …?” she said.
“I mean, get back in here where you belong. Nice up to your sisters. Tell him to go away.”
“He’ll pay, mamasan. However much you want. Don’t make him go.”
This was the mamasan’s knife-edged dilemma, and she was incensed the little girl was pressing her thumb on it. She’d heard the stories. Those stories, of pale-faced boxida who threw money around like the paper they wiped their asses with (not that she believed any people anywhere, even blood-drinkers, would do something so filthy), slow-moving as giant lizards, requiring only a smile to trap, but they always went back to boxida-land, and what was she left with then, if she let the shack fall around her head for one of them? Her clients, they wouldn’t like it, would they, if word got round that she was toadying up to foreigners, they’d talk in vile voices in other shacks about how she’d gotten uppity, jacking up prices and pandering to pale-bodies who laughed at her, and she’d wake up one morning to find everything gone: for one little girl and a boxida. No, she’d made up her mind overnight, as the other girls grumbled in the background. If she let him get his pasty claws any more deeply into the little girl, this boxida was going to cost her more than she could ever make off him, and though her rough fingers clenched in rage to think of the thousands she was throwing away, there was no choice.
“Away,” the girl choked out.
“For good. Tell him whatever you have to. He’ll go. You’ll see. You best work some more cash off of him, because it’s your last chance. And then get your skinny black ass back in here. There’s work for you.”
What could she do, unable to think, barely able to walk, out to the jeep, where he was waiting and smiling, looking at her as no one had ever done, love and worship on his face, feeling herself unworthy, even as a crooked candle of hope sputtered in a dark corner of her mind that maybe she could be, and what she wanted was to jump into the jeep and go spinning off into the future, he’d know what to do, where to go, he knew everything, but, touching his outstretched hand on the driver’s side, she said, “Must go back. Must work here. You go away.”
He eyed her carefully, searching for a promising secret in her words, finding none, crushing reminder of how ignorant he was of how things ran here, of what he might be stomping his clumsy foot into, of how he might unwittingly be hurting her: he’d been in this country, on this continent, less than 3 weeks and at her side less than 36 hours, hours as shining real as any he could recall, slimy sheen of unreality painted over all the years and places and people before her, standing small beside the jeep, pulling her small soft gentle hand out of his, stepping back, stepping away.
“I come tonight,” he said. “Okay?”
“Cannot,” she said. “Mamasan, she say you cannot.”
Only one form of work here, thought revolting as death, her being handled – rented! – by other men, dirty hateful men; he said, “No. I come tonight. To see you. Must see you.”
“Cannot,” she said, and backed up a couple more steps, heart bashing out cavities on the inside of her small chest, cavernous blackness washing over her, blacker than the snake-caves at home, where hundreds of hooded vipers roiled in pits, so lethargic from lovemaking the villagers were able to gather dozens, severing heads for the shaman’s soothsaying stew, keeping the torsos to be stuffed with roots and spices, even those caves, entered with the village flashlight and flaming torches, were sunny airy places next to this void, as she backed away from the jeep, tripping over a rock, trying to reveal nothing to the sisters watching from the shack, blinded by tears she squeezed back into her eyeballs: she could not abandon her family or the mamasan in whose callused hands their fate and her shredded dignity was palmed.
“You go …?” he said helplessly, sitting against the hot-backed seat, watching her head inside the dim shack, no backward look, no goodbye or thank you, and he felt the square weight of money in his pocket, folded and meant for her family; then she came back out and her voice caught and he did not make her say it, digging out the damp wad and giving it to her, trying to brush his fingertips against her palm, failing, and then she was gone again, still silent, a blind sheet of white agony and mind-crushing jealousy coursing over his eyes like a dropping curtain in an old-time movie theater, and he could only think that the mamasan be damned, he would be back that night.
But he did not go back that night. From the promenade, he couldn’t see any twinkling Christmas lights, and wondered, had it all been the demonic dream of an evil god – had she meant nothing she said, been no more than professional in all she’d done, and would she eye him blankly if he entered the karaoke shack again, should he drive away forever right now, had his mind come unhinged at last, but, oh, he had to know, and even if it was only illusion, it didn’t matter and he didn’t care, because an existence without her was the illusion, and if it was all make-believe, he’d give up all pretense to reality, glug down bottles until he ended himself, but: even in the face of the sweaty day of mind-pulverizing doubt, he could not bring himself to disbelieve the promises and the words of love she’d repeated and offered, and so he would believe her, picturing her face the last time he’d seen it, that spoke of a lifetime of pain endured; how unbearably difficult her life must’ve been – look what she had to do to survive – how strong his brave little girl was! If she could take it, so could he. He would wait. New wad of cash in his pocket, he drank until he was sick over the railing of the promenade, and lost his way home among the swooping and swaying street lights and the leper glare of starlight. He awoke to head-tearing brainache and speculations about how often she’d been a rental last night and how worthless he was to let it happen; she must hate him, surely it had been a test, to see if he would really go away, and he’d failed thunderously, she’d never consent to see him again, and he knew he had to go, that night, before surrendering the last shards of sanity.
The mamasan told her she was no longer permitted to leave the karaoke shack, stupid as she was, and if this cost her and her family some money, it would remind her not to be so stupid again. Her night was mechanical, a trader and a shiphand, their hands rough as dried coconut shells on her skin still fresh with boxida-memory, a couple hours in the bamboo shacks, money collected and the mamasan silent, her sisters, old and young, also silent, not even asking how much she’d raked the boxida over the coals for, and he didn’t come, and there were moments, watching the black river outside, that she feared he didn’t care after all, his sugar-laced words falsehoods, like the agent’s, promising her a job as a maid in the big house of a rich man where she’d be well-taken care of; but she could not make herself believe her boxida had lied, and as the shack closed down, the first sister broke the silence, ordering her to carry the sewer buckets they’d saved up for her down to the river, the other sisters laughing and yammering, and she knew being with her boxida had sent her straight to the bottom, where she’d stay, probably even beyond next week when the new girl got here, and her future: the bamboo shacks until she was used up, then back to the toil and child-bearing of the village, and, oh, how staggering a chance was gone; she sloshed the sludgy sewage into the river to a great cloud of black flies, which squabbled on her bare shoulders and thighs and perched on her eyelashes, and on the last of a dozen trips, the second sister tripped her, warm gooey sewage from splattering all over her.
“Well how about that,” said the first sister. “Shit still sticks to a boxida-fucker.”
More peals of laughter from her sisters; she washed herself with scoopfuls of tepid water in the toilet, and the bouncer, gaze gone from protective to predatory, was waiting for her when she finished, throwing her face-down on his sleeping pallet alongside the karaoke shack, and forcing himself inside her before she could gasp, ramming her head into the tin wall, and when he finished, he wiped himself off on her shirt before grunting and throwing her out, and limping to her sleeping quarters she would have burned down her village to have back the moment when she could have gotten in the jeep with her boxida, and gone forever far away.
The next night he came. A uniformed gaggle of beer-swilling Thai cops were wailing songs and feeling up all the sisters but her – she’d not been allowed to approach the lucrative group, a coincidence for which she now praised the lucky spirits; the mamasan, fearing to stir the waters in the cops’ unpredictable presence, barked at her to get beer down his throat and keep it short back in the bamboo shacks, the bouncer watching on attentive toes in the doorway.
He grabbed for her hand and said, “You come with me. Away from here. We go.”
She said, “Mamasan say cannot.”
“I say can. I take you. I take you now.”
She put a hand on his arm and said, “First come with me.”
She led him past the cops, who hooted and shouted “Hello!” to him, thinking it great fun that foreigners, too, should enjoy the national pastime, past baleful mamasan stirring cricket stew at the fire, to a bamboo shack.
She said, “If go with you, must never come back.”
“Yes. Never come back to this place. I take you away. I take care.”
“But where we go?”
“To far far away. To where you know.”
“But, I not know here. They follow, they find.” She thought about it. It didn’t take long. She’d been thinking all day. “We go that way” – she pointed north – “in your car. To a town I hear of, called Lasan Sep. Can take boat over river. Into my country. I cannot stay here, but we go my country, can stay. Stay with you.”
“Lasan Sep,” he repeated. “I understand. We go.”
“Wait. Have many people now. Mamasan, she see, she very angry. Maybe police follow us. We wait. They go soon. Wait.”
She slipped out of the shack, and he waited, thinking she was going to gather her things, listening to the cops cackle and the girls squeal. Then she was back, with a bundle wrapped in a checkered rag, which she undid in the halflight, which was a pistol. The bouncer’s, kept between his sleeping pallet and the tin wall. Squat, black, greasy, loaded.
“I have this, she not stop us,” she said, cheeks shining, looking at him beside her on the platform.
“Passport for us,” he said.
Heart pounding against the back of his teeth, he hefted it, weight familiar – he’d taken a course with his ex-wife after a rash of break-ins in their neighborhood – giving it back to her, he could see their passport was familiar to her, too. He thought about removing the clip, decided not to. They lay down on the platform, faces so close their noses almost touched and their visages blurry in each other’s eyes, oily gun on the rag between them, arms draped across each other, waiting for the cops to take the girls to a hotel they held a controlling interest in down the way, listening for the mamasan, who didn’t come, being too busy attending to the cops’ currency, the bouncer out on the cot idly watching the night river. In the bamboo shack neither spoke, waiting, until finally plastic chairs scraped over concrete, boots clacked and giggles turned to murmurs and in various vehicles emblazoned with official insignia, the cops left with the younger sisters, leaving the two older sisters, of whose charms they’d already grown tired.
“We go,” she said, and did not turn away when he slobbered in her mouth, a practice she found repulsive but knew he took as a sign of love.
“We go,” he said, and they went down to the karaoke shack, her with the pistol, insisting, since no one’d believe a boxida required a gun to take what he wanted, her thin arm quaking.
The mamasan was in the main room, watching the two disgruntled older sisters clear up the mess, reckoning their usefulness to be much exaggerated if they were passed over by marks as easy as drunk cops, and thinking the little girl better have a pile of money on her, long as she’d been back there with the boxida, whittling down the already paltry amount to be forwarded to the girl’s family, and seeing them come in, had to brush at her eyes, not believing she the little girl could be an arm’s reach away with a gun pointed at her heart.
“Step back, old hag,” she said to the mamasan. “We’re getting out of here and I’m never coming back and I don’t want to hear a sound.”
“You little bitch,” said the mamasan. “After everything I did for you. You think I won’t track you down to that miserable mud puddle you call home, that I won’t cut out your filthy tongue and …”
The gun went off, nearly bucking out of her hand, the two older sisters screaming like dumb animals being flayed, clanking heads at the sight of the black pool spreading out from the supine mamasan, too shocked to run, and then she advanced on them, and the gun went off twice, and the two older sisters joined the mamasan on the floor.
“Jesus Christ!” he yelled, wrenching the gun away, hearing only pounding ringing in his head, whirling to a blurry movement, the bouncer running inside brandishing a tire iron, like one of those targets at the pistol range, cardboard cutout on a wire whizzing at you, and he fired twice, the bouncer’s momentum toppling him over a table to fall on the mamasan; and then into the doorway tripped another figure, a cop, who’d been taking a squat in the bushes, unsteady on unsober legs; his first shot went over the cop’s head, but the second and third did not, and then, in the receding reverberating din, the only sound was the clomping buffalo, loose from its tether and loping away.
A twitching older sister, choking on her own blood, knocked a glass off the table, which shattered into pieces that glinted in the black pools, and he watched her go into the cooking area where she smashed open the lacquered box beneath the Buddha-image, grabbing a neatly rubber-banded handful of cash and handing it to him, and then they were out of the karaoke shack, his brain yet to establish the veracity of his vision, into the jeep and down the dusty road, Christmas lights blinking in the rearview for a long-lasting second, to the familiar left and right turns, swerving past the cops at the checkpoint standing under a streetlight’s pool of pus in the road, wondering at what they’d heard, back through the town where he did not brake for a crippled old dog too slow to get out of the way, into the dark night, moon invisible, headed north for Lasan Sep.
It was dark when they got to Lasan Sep the next day, past traffic cops who did not hear their hard-pounding hearts, abandoning the jeep down a dark sidestreet, the entirety of their possessions on their bodies; they bought half a dozen bottles of water and drank them in another dark alley. The town was set high above the river, dyke running down to the riverbank, with stairs down to the narrow longtail boats, most flying Lao flags, weighed down to the water line with teak logs, lights of the Lao town on the opposite bank barely visible in the glare of Lasan Sep’s night market, which extended from the dyke walkway to the temple gates, overflowing the streets and sidestreets of the town center with bulging stalls, stocked with goods of plastic practicality for the locals and cultural cut-outs for the tourists, the first he’d seen since Bangkok, wandering the narrow walkways with floppy hats and chubby legs and clutching backpacks and fannypacks and each other; he pulled her behind a stall proffering transistor radios, mangoes, and boiled duck’s blood, slit-eyed stallowner obese in an orange sarong shrieking out sales pitches, and he told her to meet him at the temple gates, after she’d arranged things – he wanted to set a time, but when he unstrapped his watch, she stared at him confusedly, so he just shoved some bills in her hands, and she took them and disappeared into the teeming market, transfigured into a local shopper lookalike; he found an international ATM and drew out all it’d give, then wandered the market aimlessly, feeling as though a target was painted on his head, buying a small Buddha-image, stallowner saying it “give to you the good luck”, hoping there was enough for the both of them, pretending to paw through souvenir stands and buying a couple T-shirts that seemed to be tiny enough for her, before a paroxysm of panic shivered through him that this singled him out.
A badly washed-out fax of his passport photo (there was no photo of her, only a sketchy written description) hung in the police box at the edge of the market with an official bulletin that advised the pair were thought to be headed west, based on the trembling suggestion of the youngest sister, who’d been waiting for the squatting cop and dived on a mash of still-warm buffalo dung when the shots went off; she’d watched the pair drive off, babbling all to the cops who clapped cuffs on her, a material witness with reason to flee, not to mention being an illegal alien and a possible scapegoat, but the cops in Lasan Sep were at the moment otherwise occupied, circulating through the market collecting their weekly protection fee and customary drink.
She went down to the river, skimpy outfit drawing looks, where she spoke to a group of boatmen squatting on the riverbank, waiting for their loads to be winched up the dyke, smoking hand-rolled Lao tobacco and muttering about the day’s currents and ever-rising price of diesel. They balked when she mentioned the boxida and wanting to wait until the market lights were out and she watched helplessly as the news spread, the most exciting chatter on the riverbank since the river ferry, overloaded with migrant workers headed for the sugarcane and tamarind harvests, had capsized; she could only wait, squatting alone on the riverbank, turned away from the dyke and meeting no one’s eyes, until a few bobbing chins led her to a boatman who muttered a price of two thousand baht, a ludicrous amount, but he’d said not to quibble, so she peeled off half, and told the boatman he’d get the rest on the other side. The boatman demanded another five hundred, which she handed over, trying not to think of how many eyes were following this transaction, and then she went back up the stairs, same pack of eyes following her from the riverbank, the chatter making it up and over the dyke minutes after she did.
She found him feigning an examination of carved wooden frog at a stand near the gates, fingers unsteady with steady-gnawing worry and guts wrung out with missing her; when she came he dropped the frog, hugging her tight to him, she watching wildly over his shoulder, caressing the back of his neck, whispering that he must stop this at once, then the two walked swiftly away, to the great annoyance of the stallowner, whose goods he’d disturbed in their entirety during the half hour he’d been there; they bought curries and rice in plastic to-go sacks, she pointing and trying to speak as little as possible to cloak her poor vernacular, and then they walked away from market, neither understanding the chatter that swirled through the market triangulating their position, around a bend to sit on a pile of logs outside a lumber warehouse, dipping rice into steaming bags of curry, leaning against each other and looking out over the inky Mekong cutting a wide swath of oily dark between feeble Lao lights and bright Thai ones and then, unable to stop with the touching, they made feverish love in impossible positions on the stack, ignoring the mosquitoes and rough-cutting teak, after which she sat on his lap, him feeling none of her slight weight, until the market lights began snapping off and the Mekong seemed to rise out of the dim gloom, implacable and ready to swallow their world, and they went back around the bend and headed down the stairs, where she recognized a figure squatted by an empty boat.
“That is him,” she said.
They got into the boat, pupils wide in the dark, the boatman firing up the engine and as they turned into the current, stark spotlights beamed down from the dyke and flashlights came bumpily down the stairs, megaphone-garbled voice bellowing words neither understood, but both comprehended perfectly well. She hissed at the boatman and they clutched each other as plinging bullets spattered around them; the cops, bad shots at the best of times, were reeling from the drinks proffered by the stallowners, but they used up all the ammunition they had. The engine sputtered and died and the prow turned down with the current and the boatman was slumped over, hand trailing in the water, black stain spreading over the bench.
The town disappeared behind the bending river, no sounds of pursuit, the police patrol boat half a dozen kilometers upriver, its sole operator at a karaoke shack eyeing the merchandise and swigging beer and as the boat spun in the swift eddies, he took the boatman’s hand out of the water and nearly capsized the thing trying to shift the corpse overboard; she crawled over the corpse and squatted next to the warm engine but did not know how to start it nor in the dark was there any way to learn, so she crawled back to him, not looking at the inky water with its unknown evils, and they watched for where the current would take them, paddling hard when it looked like it might be to the Thai side, though they only succeeded in spinning the boat in semicircles. Then the river veered to the right, and they heard rushing torrents, and then came giant jagged silhouettes overhanging the river, rock outcroppings the boat slid under, hull scraping horribly as the water shallowed out, and they flattened themselves down, he on top of her, boat rattling and wobbling against the rocks, before popping back out into the current, tilting madly, long tailed propeller catching on something, boat jolting to a halt, marooned and shivering, and they could hear rapids rumbling ahead, which he could not imagine the shallow wooden craft could survive, and she held back whimpers, knowing will was futile in the face of spirits you were powerless against, the warm skin of her boxida on hers and home so close, and her toes were wet – the boat had sprung a leak.
He held her and tried to gauge how far away Laos was; he doubted she could swim, but they could not chance the rapids, so as the water in the boat reached his ankles, he said,
“We go. Swim.”
“Oh,” she said.
“You must. You stay with me.”
“I stay with you,” she said.
He edged himself over the edge of the boat while she gripped his arms, warm breath on his face, to bash his knees on rocky riverbed, a foot below the hull; he felt around, riverbed solid and tepid water shallow, and he stood slowly as she watched, at first thinking he was now revealing secret powers, then she saw, and whooping leaned over to the boatman and extracted the bills from a pocket, hand getting sticky, and clambered over to her boxida, sharp-pointed rocks stabbing through the thin soles of her sandals as they picked their way ashore and up an outcropping to a trail leading into the forest beyond, where the nightsounds were as she knew them.