Preface

Udorn

The Klong

The Routine

The Monsoon Season

One More For the Ditch

A Disappointment

Samchai

The Morning After

Family

The Klong

 

The girl's cool, young face was such an effective antidote for the loneliness that had driven Burdick out of his room he almost was glad he'd decided to come down to the bar. It was hard for him to believe she was one of the bar girls who frequented the place. For a long time he nursed his beer, self-consciously ignoring the women who tried to flirt with him, studying the girl secretly from the next booth.

She waited an hour for him to make a move, then looked at him openly. "You wanna buy me drink, G.I.?" Her voice was throaty — he supposed some people would call it sexy — not at all what he'd expected. He was tempted to smile at her. Instead he darted quick glances around the room to make sure no one he knew was in sight.

"Yot!" she hollered at the bartender, "Scotz, Coke, ti ni!" Yot nodded and began mixing the drink. "What you name, G.I.?" the girl asked Burdick.

"Will Burdick," he said. "I'm not a G.I. I'm an Air Force captain."

"Numba one," she smiled. "You stay Bangkok?"

"No. Ubon."

"Numba one. What you do Bangkok? Go R and R?"

"Yes," he said, catching for the first time the jasmine fragrance of her hair.

"Where you stay Bangkok?"

"This hotel."

"Ching ching?" Really? "Why I not see you before?"

"I don't know. . . I've been busy," he stumbled.

"You don't come bar before?"

"No," he said. "I'm not much on bars."

The colloquialism was too much for her. "Not unnerstand."

Before he could explain a waitress came up and set down a drink in front of her. "You want anoder Amarit?" the waitress asked Burdick.

"I guess so. . ."

"Yot!" the waitress yelled. "Nung Amarit." Yot pushed the bottle across the wet bar and the waitress thumped it down in front of Burdick. "Sebenty baht," she said.

"For a beer?"

"You not buy her drink?" the waitress asked, nodding sideways toward the girl.

"Oh," he fumbled. "Here." He handed her a hundred baht note. "Keep the change." The waitress grunted and left without thanking him for the dollar and a half tip.

"Khawp koon ka." Thank you, sir. The girl flashed him a breathtaking smile. "You not want come sit with me?"

He felt himself blushing again.

"Okay," she giggled and picked up her purse. "I come sit with you." As she started to get up, a tall, redheaded boy came through the door and stopped in front of her.

"Hey," he said angrily. "How come you run out on me?" He slid into the booth alongside her.

She pulled away from him. "You no gib me baht, Duggin. Get lost."

"Whaddya mean I no give you baht?" he asked indignantly. "I give you baht."

"Cheap Chollie! You wanna go all night, pay shorttime. Get lost!"

"Hey. . . Come on, Sunny. . ." the boy pleaded. "I thought you were my girl."

"Boosiet, G.I.! Buzz off! You go find Cheap Chollie girl on street. Can do easy." The boy reached out to take hold of her but she grabbed her purse again and started to slide out of the booth.

Suddenly Burdick wished he hadn't come down to the bar. Yet the possibility that this loud-talking clod might walk off with the girl touched some reservoir of jealousy he hadn't known he possessed. He had no intention of sleeping with her or even sitting with her, but somehow, the grudging five dollars he'd spent a moment ago gave him a proprietary interest in her welfare. He moved over and made room as she escaped from Duggin and sat down next to him.

The boy towered in front of them, red-faced and furious. "You gotta be shittin' me, you dumb broad!" he yelled.

"Get fucked, Duggin!" she screeched back at him. "My tearock cap­tain. He send you go monkey house." She pressed hard against Burdick, linked arms with him and took his hand.

Duggin looked as if he might launch himself across the table. To his surprise, Burdick found he was ready to fight. He was lean and athletic, and though the redhead was ten years younger he was sure he could beat him.

"You stupid fucking broad." Duggin scooped up the girl's drink from the next booth and slammed it down onto their table. The thin glass shattered and a piece of it cut her above one eye. The contents splashed over her shimmering, blue, Thai-silk dress.

Burdick stood up and started around the table. Duggin squared off to meet him, but two of the men who'd been watching from the bar slid off their stools and pinioned the boy's arms.

"Call the M.P.s," one of them shouted to the bartender.

"No," Burdick said. "Wait." He looked steadily at Duggin. "You want the police in on this?"

"Nah," Duggin said after a minute. "She ain't worth it anyway." The men released him and he moved away. Before he went out the door he turned and thrust his fist upward toward the girl, middle finger erect. "Fuck you, you dumb broad. You're lousy in bed anyway. You ain't worth it."

The girl was crying softly. "It's all right," Burdick said. He sat down, took her head gently in his hands and examined the cut. "Does it hurt?"

"Mai pin rai," it doesn't matter, she sobbed, looking down at her sticky dress. "Dress numba ten now. Mak mak baht. No hab baht buy new."

"Maybe if you wash it out right away it won't be ruined."

"No." she said through her tears. "No can wash. My bungalow far away. Dress finit."

"Can't you wash it in the hotel?"

"No stay hotel. No hab room. Stay Duggin. . . phht." She twisted her face and pretended to spit. "Duggin mak mak tsokapok. . . dirty man."

Burdick was in a quandary. He reached into his pocket to give her the key to his room, then stopped. He was afraid that if she went up alone she'd run into Duggin, but he was mortified at the thought of walking out of the bar with her.

In the end his sympathy won out over his diffidence. "Come on," he said. "You can wash your dress in my room."

She walked embarrassingly close to him on the way to the lobby. The desk clerk grinned at them while they waited for an elevator. On the third floor they had to walk past the floor concierge and Burdick's cheeks burned at the man's leer. By the time they reached his room his stomach was tight with humiliation. The girl smiled up at him softly while he unlocked the door.

"Numba one!" she exclaimed when she saw the room. It was a suite, really, the only extravagance Burdick had allowed himself on his "rest and recuperation" leave. It had a spacious sitting room with a picture window that looked out on the back yards of three bungalows and the street. The bedroom was separated from the sitting room by an ornate room divider and equipped with a bed larger than the largest king-size bed he'd ever seen. He'd taken the suite because he knew he'd spend most of his vacation studying. He liked working at the table in front of the window where he could stop occasionally and watch children in the yards and passersby on the street.

He closed the curtains and turned on the lights. "The bathroom's in there," he said.

She went off. In a minute he heard water running in the washstand, in another minute the shower. He turned off the lights, opened the curtains and sat in front of the window watching people move about in the dimly-lit houses.

The girl came back wearing a tiny bra and brief panties. He was glad the room was dark. Even in the dim light the swell of her breasts and the voluptuous shadow of her navel above the briefs struck him like a blow. "Wait," he said, sharply. He got up and went to the closet, passing close to her and smelling her damp, scrubbed freshness. "Here." He handed her his bathrobe.

She put it on slowly. In the glow from the window her dark eyes followed him as he sat down. "Why you afraid of girl?" she asked.

"I'm not!"

His abrupt reply silenced her for a moment. She came and sat down on the other side of the table, facing him, an arm's length away. She touched the books. "What you do?"

"I study."

"You do on R and R?" she asked incredulously. "You don't go see Bangkok? You don't hab fun?"

"I have fun," he said, waving toward the books. "This is fun."

"You don't hab girl?"

"No." After a moment he added, "I don't want a girl."

"How you see Bangkok?"

The question seemed absurd. "I go out and. . . and see it."

"What you see?" He felt her smile in the darkness.

"Bangkok," he insisted. "The Emerald Buddha. The gardens. The city. . . Everything!"

"You don't see Bangkok," she said contemptuously. "How soon you go back Ubon?"

"Day after tomorrow."

He felt her staring at him.

"I still have a lot of work to do."

"Why you not work tonight?"

"I. . . I wanted a drink before dinner." It occurred to him he was hungry. It was after seven.

"You no like bar. Why you don't hab drink in room?"

"Are you hungry?" he asked. "I can call room service. We can eat while your dress dries."

"Dress no dry tonight," she said.

Burdick was shocked to find he'd known this all along. "How will you get home?"

"I no can stay with you?" Her voice was tiny.

"No!" he blurted. "I mean. . . yes. . . I don't know!"

She waited silently for a long time while he struggled with his conscience.

"Okay," she said. "I go."

"Go where?"

She stood up. "I donno. You no want me stay. I go. No sa-wet G.I. You don't worry."

The idea of being alone again clawed at him. He snapped on the light and looked at her. Her wet hair and the white bathrobe heightened her innocence. She seemed tender and helpless.

"You don't have to go," he said.

"You don't worry," she repeated. "I stay hotel. Maybe Duggin not hab new girl yet."

He had a sudden vision of Duggin with his sweaty hands on her. He stood up and drew the curtains.

"Please don't go."

She looked at him evenly and he noticed her cut forehead was beginning to swell. He took a deep breath and confessed, "I went to the bar tonight because I was lonely. I wanted to be with people."

She continued to size him up relentlessly. "Why you afraid of girl?"

He stared back at her. "I'm not afraid of girls. I'm married. I don't want to be unfaithful to my wife. Do you understand that?"

She thought for a minute. "Chai," yes, she said, softly. "You no hab girl Ubon?"

"No."

"How long you stay Ubon?"

"Five months."

She sat down again. The bathrobe fell open slightly and the fullness of her breasts made him catch his breath. "You good man, Will, but you not Buddha."

 

The sun was high when he swept her ahead of him into the busy coffee shop. They ate a huge breakfast to make up for the dinner that sat upstairs untouched on the table. As Burdick lingered over a third cup of coffee he noticed her attention was fixed on something behind him.

"What?" he asked.

"Duggin."

He turned around in time to see the redhead sit down in a booth, followed by a stout, tough-looking girl. The boy was dressed in filthy jeans and a T-shirt. He grinned and lifted his middle finger at them.

"How soon does he go back?" Burdick asked.

"Not go back. He live here."

The injustice of that shook Burdick. He set down his coffee cup. "Have you. . . known him a long time. . . Sunny?"

She looked out the window without answering. After a while she turned back and touched his hand. "'Sunny' bar girl name, Will. My name, 'Bu Sala.'" She paused, then added quietly and emphatically, "Duggin. . . not know my name, Will."

Burdick watched her finish her breakfast. She smiled when she looked up, and the smile was in her voice. "I no can show you all Bangkok today, Will. I show you klong — canal. We go in boat."

They rode outside the main part of town in a taxi and stopped near a concrete bridge. Bu Sala led him beneath it to a place where an old man sat beside a cluster of slender boats. She argued with the man for a while, then told Burdick to pay him a hundred baht. The man shouted to a twelve-year-old boy who pulled one of the boats close to shore and held it for them while they boarded. In a few minutes they were moving up the canal propelled by a noisy engine. When Burdick turned to smile at the girl the boy in the stern grinned and shouted something to her. They exchanged a few words and the boy smiled and nodded. "What did he say?" Burdick asked her.

"He ask where I find handsome farang."

"What's a 'farang?'"

"Mai pin rai."

"What?"

"It doesn't matter."

"Will!" she shouted as he turned away. "Mai pin rai same 'It doesn't matter.'"

"What's 'farang?'"

She answered sheepishly. "Everybody not Thai, farang."

He decided not to ask what she'd said to the boy.

"I tell him you my tearock — same sweetheart. He happy for me." She gave him one of her heart-stopping smiles. "I happy for me too, Will."

At first the canals were full of tour boats and commercial traffic. They turned and twisted, going into a tiny side channel where branches grew so low over the water they had to crouch down to pass, debouching into a broad waterway full of boats and people. On some of the small canals the foliage formed a solid canopy for hundreds of feet, dimming the sunlight and casting a green hue over the water. Along the larger canals naked, brown-skinned children screamed and splashed on banks spotted with coconut palms and thick with banana trees. Their elders went about their business among thatched huts and tile-roofed houses, along dirt paths, in and out of boats at lichen-encrusted jetties, dressed in sarongs, full of laughter. This was the old Bangkok, close to the concrete and glass of the city, yet distant from it in time by a hundred years.

They came finally to a place where two large canals joined in a T, surrounded by a village. A Buddhist temple stood on one point of land — red-trimmed yellow walls around a cluster of buildings — elegant, ornate, capped with gold-tiled roofs and upswept finials gleaming in the sun. At the girl's bidding the boatman docked on the opposite point in front of a rustic-looking, open-fronted restaurant.

Bu Sala jumped out of the boat and ran up the dock. A woman came out to meet her and Bu Sala waied to her, putting her hands together prayer-like in front of her face and crouching low, then the two women embraced and welcomed each other with a stream of happy words. "Come on, Will," Bu Sala urged as he hung back. He got out of the boat and came slowly up the dock to where the two women stood, hand in hand. As a tourist he'd found the exotic scene fascinating, but now that he was about to become part of it he found it a little unnerving.

"What is this place, Bu Sala?"

"This my village, Will."

Behind her a middle-aged man dressed in a T-shirt and sarong came smiling out of the dark recesses of the restaurant. He and the girl waied to each other. The man grinned at Will and said something that made the two women laugh. Bu Sala answered him softly and before she'd finished the couple were nodding and smiling at Burdick. The man grinned and waied to him. "Sawadee, khap," he said.

"This Poranaphet, Will," Bu Sala said. "He say, 'How you do, sir?'"

"I'm happy to meet you," Burdick said, extending his hand. Poranaphet shook hands with a powerful grip. "Are these your. . . parents?" he asked her.

"My moder, fader dead, Will. These my friends. Know me when I babee."

They went inside the restaurant and sat down at a flyspecked table. Poranaphet went into a back room and brought out beer for the women and a bottle with two glasses. The girl laughed. "Poranaphet gib you rice whiskey, Will. Maybe you don't like."

Poranaphet poured the watery stuff, saluted with his glass and tossed it off. Burdick sipped tentatively and gasped at the raw alcohol taste, but when he saw Poranaphet grin he held his breath and downed the rest. Bu Sala frowned. "You be careful, handsome farang. Maybe you spoil tonight. I not be happy." When Poranaphet refilled the glasses and tossed off a second round the girl scolded him sharply. The older couple began to laugh and after a moment the girl stopped frowning and joined in. When Burdick laughed too the three Thai laughed harder.

"You know what I tell him?" Bu Sala giggled.

"No."

"I tell him he old man, maybe need whiskey be strong. You young man, not need. . . anything."

It took Burdick a full minute to understand. He blushed and the Thai laughed harder.

"Will," she giggled. "Why you face red?"

He blushed silently, flattered and embarrassed, until her mischievous eyes made him forget his dignity. She saw him fight against a smile and touched his hand. "Will, today Wan Phra. Buddhist Sunday. We hab a holiday. We hab fun." 

In spite of his apprehension Burdick went with his new friends to the Buddhist temple, knelt with them and helped them plaster gold foil on the images. At first he was put off by the crowd of naked children who followed him and mimicked his every move until, kidnapped by their curiosity about his foreignness he took them on his knees and found he could talk with them easily though they held no words in common with him. He ate Thai food, a little here, a little there, intrigued by the diversity of tastes and textures. In that green afternoon, as his apprehension slowly evaporated, Bu Sala taught Burdick to laugh, with her, at her, and finally, at himself.

Later, she led him to a room at the back of the restaurant, to a bed surrounded by a billowing, white mosquito net. "We sleep now, Will. . . maybe one, two hours." She showed him to a slat-floored bathroom where he washed, dipping water out of a crock with a wooden bowl. When she came back from the bathroom she wore a knee-length sarong fastened above her breasts. They lay down together on the hard bed and she curled close to him and put her head against his chest. He began to kiss her but she stilled him with a gentle finger against his lips and whispered: "Tonight, Will."

She was nearly asleep when he asked her: "Bu Sala. . . Has Duggin. . . ever come to this place?"

She pulled away angrily. "Will, I tell you. . . Duggin not know my name!" But after a moment her anger evaporated and she traced a line against the skin of his shoulder. "Will, last night you do something. . . nice for me. Something hard for you. But you do. For me." She rolled over and he fit the curve of his body against her back. "Duggin always do for Duggin." She took his hand and pressed it against her breast. They slept. 

It was late afternoon when they woke and dark by the time they reached the hotel. They went straight to Burdick's room, bypassing the bar and the lobby, taking a stairway near the swimming pool to the third floor. He left the curtains open and turned on some dim sidelights that cast shadows over most of the room. "Do you want a drink?"

"No," she said.

"Food?"

"Not yet."

He was struck suddenly by the terrible, lonely thought that in the morning he must leave her.

"Bu Sala?"

She sat down next to him on the couch and curled her legs under her.

"Would you. . ." he began. "What if you came to Ubon with me?" Her eyes were on him but she looked past him; through him. "You could come on the train. . . We could find a bungalow. . ." She got up and went to the window, to stare out at the lights along the street. "I still have almost seven months. . . before I have to go home."

She came back and stood in front of him. She took his hands. "Will. . . come. . ." She led him to the bed.

Later, he ordered food, and when they'd eaten he asked her again. "Bu Sala. . . Will you come to Ubon with me?"

"I think now, Will. I tell you later. . . Morning."

He slept soundly. Peacefully. He woke once during the night dreaming she'd kissed him gently on the mouth, but she was asleep with her face against his chest, her black hair spread out softly over his arm.

When he woke the sun was up and she was gone. He listened for a sound from the bathroom, then rolled over and saw that the bathroom door stood open. He jumped out of bed. The sitting room was empty. He convinced himself she'd gone out for something and would come back. He showered and dressed.

Systematically at first, then with mounting alarm he searched the hotel. The coffee shop was full of people. She wasn't there. The bar was empty except for a bartender and a woman mopping the floor. He went through the lobby, out to the pool, up the back stairs. He went to the floor concierge's desk but the man was gone. He hurried through the halls of the third floor, the second floor, the first floor. He went back to the coffee shop. Duggin sat in a booth near the back of the room. When the boy saw Burdick he smiled crookedly and gave him an ersatz, slack-handed salute. Burdick went back to the third floor and found the floor concierge at his desk. Blushing, he asked, "You know the girl. . . I was with yesterday? You see her this morning?"

"Mailoo, khap," I don't know, sir, the man grinned. "Not see."

He was running out of time. He went back to the coffee shop. She wasn't there. As he passed Duggin's booth the redhead smirked, "You lose somethin' sir?"

Burdick fought down an urge to grab him. "Have you seen her?"

"Seen who?" Duggin asked in an extravagantly innocent tone.

"Bu. . . Sunny?"

"That dumb broad? I ain't seen her since night before last. 'Smatter, she run out on you too?"

He walked away quickly and sat down in the booth he'd shared with Bu Sala less than twenty-four hours ago. He ordered coffee and stared out the window, hoping to see her enter or leave the hotel. He waited until the bus had left for the airport and there was barely enough time to pack and take a taxi. He asked the waitress for his check. When she brought it she gave him a single red rose and a note. "Pooying" woman "you sit here, yeteday, gib for you," she said.

He looked at the note which Bu Sala had pieced together from a dictionary or a phrase book. "Wear this flower today wil. Be happy. I never forget. Sincerely love, Bu Sala."

In his rush to get to the airport he lost the flower and the note. Somehow he made it back to Ubon in time to avoid being A.W.O.L. In terrible, self-punishing pain he got through his final seven months in Thailand and rejoined his family, and gradually, after years of very ordinary living he began to forget that terrible morning.

But one vacation afternoon as he lay half-asleep beside a lake, listening to the bright sounds of his children playing in the water, softly at first, then vividly, palpably, the day on the klong rose up about him: pure, warm, musical with the chatter of birds, pungent with incense and flowers and the green, fish-smell of the river, and he found himself shivering with delight at the sound of Bu Sala's golden laugher.

 

Aftermath

Massage

Sunday Morning

Housegirls

Sawadee (Hello)

The Island Paradise

The Drunk

The Christmas Season

Sawadee (Goodbye)

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