Preface

Udorn

The Klong

The Routine

The Monsoon Season

One More For the Ditch

A Disappointment

Samchai

The Morning After

Family

Samchai

 

Jim Allen was on one of his long walks downtown when he saw the child, hit by a taxi, bleeding in the street. The taxi disappeared around a corner while the passersby gawked but seemed only mildly curious. With another taxi and a well-paid driver Jim got the little boy to a hospital and saw to it that he was cared for by a doctor and placed in a small ward that seemed cleaner than the rest.

Having done everything he could, Jim was about to return to the base and change clothes when an elegant young woman with an exquisite, fine-boned face came to him across the small courtyard that served as an entryway to the hospital. "You are the American who brought Jo Fay from the street?" She spoke the English words in a precise, quiet voice.

"Yes. The little boy is inside. I don't know how badly he's hurt."

"I have spoken with his doctor. He will live but he will have to stay here for many days. Sir, the doctor says you saved his life. Please… tell me your name."

"Jim… Jim Allen."

"I am Jo Fay's mother." He was surprised. He'd have guessed her age at something between eighteen and twenty, yet her little boy must be at least five. She looked at his shirt and pants, bloodied from lifting the child into the taxi and cradling him on the way to the hospital. "Your clothes will be spoiled if they are not washed very soon. Will you come to my home, and let me do it?" The invitation was almost a plea. She searched his face with wide-set dark eyes and he could see tears in them.

"I… Yes… Please, I don't know your name?"

"My name is Samchai."

"Samchai…" His tongue felt as if it were tied in a knot.

She seemed to mistake his confusion for hesitation. "Please… Sir… My home is not far. Your clothes must be made clean before they are stained. It will not take long. Then I will come back with food and see if Jo Fay is awake, and we will not bother you any more. I do not know how to thank you… except… this."

His mind conjured a jumble of reasons to say no but he realized he'd insult her if he refused. "Yes," he said. "Thank you."

Samchai hailed a taxi and bargained briefly with the driver. He held the cab door while the girl seated herself, and before he got in he checked his wallet to confirm what he already knew: he was nearly out of baht. It had been a catastrophically expensive morning. At the hospital his taxi driver, with about ten words of English, had been his interpreter. He knew he'd been cheated and that the driver had arranged a kickback from the people at the hospital, but it hadn't seemed important as long as the child was taken care of.

In the cramped space of the tiny cab he could feel the warmth of the girl's thigh against his own. Her face was blank, but tears grew at the corners of her half-closed eyes, then slid down her cheeks. He wanted to comfort her, find something to say that would help, but to touch her in public would be an insult and her nearness overwhelmed his thoughts.

The taxi stopped next to a muddy lane between two rows of dilapidated bungalows. Jim paid the driver and followed Samchai down the lane. Children wearing nothing but filthy shirts ran back and forth, playing on the muddy ground. Clothing was hung out to dry from porches and posts. Samchai turned in at a bungalow set on stilts behind a fence of warped and weathered poles. The walkway was scattered with fragments of board, and they jumped hopscotch across them to keep from stepping in the mud. Steps ran up diagonally across the width of the house, turned abruptly at the top of the stilts and ended on a wide verandah whose teakwood flooring shone brightly from decades of sweeping. Three rough-looking, padlocked doors fronted on the porch and there was an open hallway at one end leading toward the back of the house. Samchai stopped at the top of the steps and slipped out of her shoes. Jim followed her example. She took some keys out of her small purse and walked along the verandah, unlocking the padlocks. She opened the door farthest from the hallway and he saw that the room was a kitchen with an hibachi in the middle of the floor, several large crocks along one wall, an ancient, battered refrigerator against another.

Samchai went to the refrigerator and got out a bottle of cola. "I must change my clothes first," she said. "Will you drink this while I am gone?" She offered it to him with a little bow.

"Thank you." Jim took the bottle and sat down on a bench that ran the length of the porch under the railing. No crowd of relatives. No one here except Samchai. Most of his misgivings had been groundless, but one problem still nagged at him. "Samchai, shouldn't you tell your husband I'm here?"

She had started toward the middle room, but she stopped and without turning said, "My husband was killed in Vietnam before Jo Fay was born." She turned and faced him. "Except for my mother I do not have family. My mother stays here but she is very old. Today she is gone to visit our village. But it is all right for you to be here."

She came back and looked closely at his shirt. "We must hurry. The blood dries too much." She unlocked the middle room, went in and closed the door. In two or three minutes she was back, dressed in a faded white shirt and a sarong. She went down the porch and disappeared into the hallway. He heard running water and in a minute she came back with a large aluminum basin. She opened the door of the room nearest the hallway and put the basin inside on the polished floor. "Now," she said. "Take off your clothes and put them in there. I think the blood must be in your underclothes too. I will get you something to wear while I wash." She went into the middle room and he began to take off his shirt. She was back almost immediately with a folded, patterned cloth and a pair of sandals. "Here." She handed him the cloth. "This is a salong. You must wear it while I wash and iron."

He closed the door and stripped, dropping his clothes into the basin of water. She was right; the blood had soaked into his underwear. The sarong gave him trouble. It was a tubular piece of cloth, about the size and shape of a large bathtowel sewn together at the ends. He'd seen Thai men wearing them but he couldn't remember exactly how one looked when it was on. He stepped into the tube of cloth and drew it up around his waist like a skirt. It hung just below his knees, but there were no drawstrings or fasteners and he didn't know how to make it stay up. He grabbed the fabric in two places at the top, pulled the cloth out to his sides, drew the folds tightly inward and tied them together in front of him. The whole thing wasn't very secure but it was the best he could do.

Samchai was at the bathroom door. "Jim, are you ready? I must wash your clothes quickly. I am afraid the rain will come soon." When he opened the door Samchai giggled and covered her mouth. "I must show you how to wear a salong. Watch." Below her blouse she was wearing a sarong too, but it was a woman's sarong that reached to mid-calf. She pulled up her shirt and he saw she wore a heavy, frayed brassiere over her small breasts. Her sarong came to just below the bra and was folded over with a single fold. The fold pointed toward her left side and the end of the cloth was tucked in and held by the tension of the cloth across her waist. He untied the knot he'd made, pulled the material tight against his left side, crossed his hands over his stomach and made a fold and a tuck like the one she wore.

"Let me show you." She moved close, took hold of the sarong at his waist and unfastened the tuck he'd made. "A woman wears a salong that way," she said. "A man wears a salong this way." She reversed the fold so that it pointed to his right side and tucked the end of the material securely into the stretched cloth. Her rich, black hair was just below his chin. The angle of her head and the fine, white slash of her part gave her an air of vulnerability that overwhelmed him with a rush of tenderness. Her hand, against the flesh of his stomach for a moment was soft, strong, swift, alive! "Come," she said. "Drink your cola while I wash." She picked up the basin and carried it to a spot on the porch just outside the kitchen.

Jim tucked his wallet into the top of the sarong and sat down again on the bench at the edge of the porch. Samchai's sarong brought out a softness that had been subdued by the dress. In the dress she'd been a dignified young woman; now she was a girl. His mind overflowed with questions. He watched her scrub his clothes, squatting on her heels — a position Thai seemed to be able to hold indefinitely and which he'd found he could manage for about a minute without crippling himself. Part of her hair had fallen over one eye. She shook it back with a toss of her head and smiled at him. "How did you learn to speak English so well?" he asked.

"I am an English teacher. I teach English at the school on Friendship Highway."

"But you understand colloquial English."

"I've been with Americans much. I was a housegirl on the base. Then I worked in the American Consulate. I have studied English since I was a little girl. I learned to speak this way at the Consulate. When I worked there I found that the colloquial English I had learned on the base was not… polite."

"But you're very young."

"No," she said, "not young. I am twenty five. Twenty four you would say. Thai count age beginning at one. Jo Fay is six, Thai six." She set his shirt aside in a ball and began scrubbing his pants. "I stopped working at the base because I… I did not want to be a tealock — a sweetheart — of someone who would disappear. I married, then my husband died and I found a job at the Consulate. When they did not need me any more I got a job teaching. Now I take care of my mother and Jo Fay." She looked up at him again and shook the hair out of her eyes with a toss of her head. "You are married." She was looking at his ring and it was a statement rather than a question.

"Yes."

"And you have children?"

"Yes. A boy and a girl."

"How old is the boy? Your son?"

"Six. And the girl is four."

"And your family is happy? You love your wife very much I think."

"Yes," he said. "I love her very much. I've known her a long time— since we were children." The thought brought a flash of guilt that seemed out of place since his relationship with this girl was innocent and it was going to stay that way.

"Do you have a picture of her?" Samchai asked.

"Not here. Back at the base."

"What color is her hair?" He smiled. It was the kind of question Nancy might have asked.

"Yellow," he said. "Golden."

"And does she wear it long?"

"Yes. Quite long."

"She must be very beautiful." Samchai stopped scrubbing and looked up. "Oh!" She jumped up from the washing, looking past him at the sky. The rain had crept up on them and he could hear it on the tin roof of the bungalow and see it dimpling the mud. It had just begun and was very light, but the sky was turning black. "Your clothes will not dry while it is raining. I am sorry. I promised it would not take long and now I do not know how long it will take." She crouched on her heels again and took the rest of the clothes out of the basin. "I will rinse them and hang them up. If they dry a little I will iron them and dry them enough for you to wear." She took the basin to the porch railing and threw the water into the yard, then went into the kitchen and filled it again.

The clouds opened with a vast roar and the rain crashing on the tin roof suffocated all other sounds. The mud in the yard churned to a froth and the boards in the walkway began to float. A downspout on the house across the walkway shot a solid cylinder of water halfway across the yard. He was fascinated by the spectacle and forgot Samchai until he felt her standing very close behind him.

He looked up at her and shouted, "How long do you think it will last?"

She bent and put her face close to him. "I don't know. Maybe a few more minutes. Maybe an hour."

She straightened but he beckoned her down again. "It doesn't matter. Today's my day off."

"I am glad. But soon I must take food to Jo Fay. I don't know what you will do while I am gone."

"Don't worry about it," he shouted. "I'll find something."

"You may read. I have books in my room and I will get you something to drink." The shouting was too difficult to keep up. They watched the rain silently for what seemed a long time, but for what, Jim realized, might have been only a few minutes. Time seemed to shrink under the blows of the rain. Yet gradually the downpour slackened and the noise on the roof changed from a roar to a drumming. Samchai began to hang his clothes on the line, head back, arms high.

"I'm not sure I want them to dry," he said, watching her.

"You would look very foolish going to the base in a salong." She smiled, but her eyes were fathomless.

She finished pinning his shirt to the line and lowered her arms. "Jim, I must change again and take food to Jo Fay." Her voice was apologetic. "Let me get you something to drink, and I will show you my books in English. I do not know what else you can do while I am gone. I will try to be back very soon. I will take a samblao.

"No," he said. "You should take a taxi."

"A taxi is expensive, and it is not far."

"I don't want you to be gone any longer than you have to. Besides…" He choked off the rest of it. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean I want you to hurry at the hospital."

"It is all right," she said. "For a while I forgot about Jo Fay's accident too.

He pulled out his wallet and gave her ten baht.

She took the brown note and folded it in her hand. "I will take a taxi… But I must get you something to drink first. I do not have more cola. What would you like?"

You don't need to do that. It doesn't matter."

"I can't just leave you like this. Let me get you something. I will send a little boy from next door and he will go while I dress."

"Can he get me Mekong and soda?" He picked up his wallet again and gave her twenty baht, which left him five.

She frowned. "Will you get drunk while I am gone?"

It took him a moment to realize she was serious. "Of course not!"

She executed a little bow and her eyes flashed. "Then I will get you whiskey and soda, sir."

She went down the steps of the bungalow and was gone only a minute. "I must hurry now," she said as she came back up and went into her room.

The rain slowed to a light shower that beat monotonously on the tin roof, a rhythmic, peaceful sound. He went over the events of the past few hours, trying to understand what was happening to him. When he'd first arrived at Udorn, he had been a regular on the downtown bar circuit, going out every chance he got. He'd enjoyed the dancing, the drinking, the flirting. But though he had no firm moral scruples against extramarital sex, he'd stayed straight. He'd come close more than once. A delicate short-haired girl at Caesar's had taken him home one night, but at the last minute he'd paid her and left. Always, at the last minute it seemed, Nancy would come sharply into focus and the contrast between Nancy and the girl at hand always made casual sex out of the question.

In the two hours he'd been with Samchai he'd slipped over a line that should have brought Nancy to confront him, but she hadn't materialized. No matter how lovely Samchai might be, he knew that if he could compare her with Nancy, Nancy would still be the most wonderful girl he'd ever known. But he couldn't compare Nancy with Samchai. He could bring Nancy before him in his mind's eye and visualize episode after episode of their life together: any episode he wanted. But it was no good. The visions were academic, as if he were reading a biography of someone he'd never known. But Samchai! He could see her supple movement as she hung his clothes, see her dark eyes flash as she turned to him.

His musings were interrupted by a muddy urchin who came running up the steps. The child wore nothing but a pair of tattered shorts, ringing wet. His black hair was plastered to his head and he carried a soggy paper bag that had partially fallen apart, to expose a pint-sized bottle. The boy smiled from ear to ear, showing off a set of ragged gums from which several teeth were missing. "Sawadee, sir." The grinning little boy gave him a British salute with the palm of his hand turned outward, nearly dropping the bag. "You Amelican, sir. I speak Englit you."

Jim laughed and returned the salute. "My name is Captain Jim. What's your name?"

"Name Supong, sir." He held out the bag and after Jim had taken it he said: "Pi Samchai bainai, sir?"

"I'm sorry," Jim answered. "I don't know what you said."

"He asked where I went." Samchai was an elegant young woman again in the dress she'd worn earlier.

The little boy dug a grimy hand into a pocket and gave Samchai some coins. She handed him back one of them and he executed a deep bow and wai, hands together high on his forehead, the coin cupped between them. He turned and started to make a wai toward Jim but straightened and repeated the salute he'd given earlier. "Okay. Amelican G.I. I speak you Englit."

"Okay, Supong" Jim said, returning the salute. The boy dropped his salute and ran back down the stairs with a wide grin.

Samchai was ready to leave. "You will be able to find everything. "There are glasses in the kitchen. There is ice and you may drink it. I made it from boiled water. There are books in my room. You may find what you want there. This house is your own and you may go where you want to go and do what you want to do." She paused at the top of the stairs. "Your clothes are only wet now. They would be wet if you had been in the rain." Her eyes were huge and dark. "If you decide to leave, please lock the doors."

 

He wandered around the house. The bathroom appeared to have been an afterthought. It was set on its own stilts on the side of a short hallway opposite the main rooms. It had a standard Asian bombsight toilet and a sheet metal water tank, open at the top, with a slowly dripping faucet and an aluminum pan floating on the water. He went into the kitchen, found several clean glasses on a table, brought the Mekong and soda from the porch and mixed himself a drink. After it was mixed he remembered what Samchai had said and found the ice in a freezer compartment in the refrigerator. He drank off part of the warm drink and dropped three cubes into his glass.

He went back outside and sat down on the porch. Beyond the fence, between two houses at the end of the lane, he could see the street. Children were playing in the mud again and passers-by picked their way between puddles. He watched them absently, reluctant to go into Samchai's room. She'd given him permission to look at anything in the house, but he knew that his image of Samchai was part illusion, and he had to settle with himself how far he was willing to risk the illusion by examining it too closely. After a long time he got up and went into her room.

Her few clothes hung from a bar in one corner. There were two slightly newer sarongs and the one she'd worn to do his washing. There were three dresses but the one she was wearing clearly was her best. No, there were two dresses. He recognized one skirt and blouse as the uniform she wore to school. There was a pair of not very diaphanous panty hose clipped to one hanger and a plain, slightly frayed brassiere on another. On the floor under the clothing rack were a single pair of open-toed shoes and the battered sandals Samchai had worn with her sarong. A dressing table with a mirror and a single pedestal of drawers stood against a wall. The table held her cosmetics: a lipstick and a few small, flat-topped jars, a brush and comb, and a poorly-framed black and white photograph of a handsome, very young Thai sergeant in a pose that reminded him of a Civil War tintype: stiff and full of self-importance.

A double bed neatly made up with sheets dominated the room. A huge, white mosquito net hung from poles over the bed, the sides looped up and tied back. He tested the bed with his hand. It was hard as a tumbling mat. He'd seen beds like it in the downtown furniture shops. The mattress was made of hard felt pads set in a shallow wooden box and there were no springs. The only other pieces of furniture were a pair of straight chairs, one in a corner, the other in front of the dressing table, and a two-shelved bookcase full of well-read books, mostly paperbacks. The floor was bare except for a patterned rattan mat next to the bed. The walls and floor, like the rest of the house, were of unfinished, unpainted teak, the walls still rough, the floor polished by decades of sweeping. Everything was clean and well cared for. Three iron-grilled windows without glass but with rough wooden shutters held back by large metal hooks spanned the back of the room. Outside he could see a small, muddy yard and the stave fence. Another bungalow rose up just beyond the fence and beyond that another and another and another, crowded together, teeming with life.

He went to the bookcase and ran his eyes over the titles. Most of the books were in Thai, but there were a few English paperback novels of a variety carried by bookstores around town for the benefit of American G.I.'s. They weren't to his taste but he recognized that Samchai's English must be very good for her to be able to read them. There was a small English-Thai, Thai-English dictionary, so well-thumbed it was mostly in tatters.

He sat on the porch for a long time, getting up once to mix himself another drink. Several times he thought about leaving. He was incapable of rational thought when Samchai was near, but now the significance of what he was doing bore in upon him. Again and again he reviewed the reasons why he should put on his clothes and go. Yet, each time, when he was finished, he saw Samchai coming back to the bungalow and finding it empty. And he saw Jo Fay, damaged and bleeding in the street. His look at Samchai's worldly possessions convinced him she couldn't afford to keep the child in the hospital as long as he should stay there. Jim didn't know how he'd be able to help, considering the sorry state of his own finances, but he knew he'd find a way.

Still, he was honest enough to admit to himself that he could help Samchai and Jo Fay without waiting for Samchai to return, and he got up once, intending to dress and go. But as he stood up he felt Samchai's hand, quick against his flesh, and heard her bright laugh above the sound of the rain.

 

He caught sight of her while she was still on the street. She turned into the lane and was hidden by the fence, but in a moment she appeared in the gateway at the end of the walk. She looked up at the house and saw him. She began to run, skipping from board to board, splashing mud on her legs. She came up the steps out of breath, carrying a paper bag and a bunch of flowers wrapped in newspaper. Her eyes were big and alive and she was smiling. "Jim," she said, breathlessly. "You are still here! I have brought food for you and flowers to brighten this poor house." She smiled into his eyes and he understood that it was only custom that held her away from him. "Jim! Jo Fay is awake and he is much better. The bleeding has stopped. He ate much food and he will be comfortable tonight. If you had not… Jo Fay would be dead, but now he is alive!"

He'd forgotten about Jo Fay as soon as he saw her and now he tried not to let his face show his reaction to her words. Her eyes sobered. "Jo Fay is not the only reason I am happy. You must know that. When I came from the street I thought… I will come to the gate and the bungalow will be locked..." He took the packages out of her arms and set them on the table.

"I should pretend it does not matter to me that you are still here," she said. "But you already know that it does. We are going to fix you something to eat now, and we are going to set a table so that you do not have to sit on the floor, and we are going to put these flowers on it so it will be beautiful." She brandished the flowers and went into the kitchen where she caught sight of the half-empty Mekong bottle. "Jim!" she shouted. "You promised you would not get drunk."

"I'm not," he said, following her into the kitchen. "Mekong's only a little stronger than wine."

She set down the vase she was filling and looked at him with sober, thoughtful eyes. "You do not have to be too gentle with me, Jim, because I am not a young girl. But I must tell you also that I am a little bit afraid of you. You are falang. You are very big. You do things that are strange to me. I have worked for Americans and I have seen many Americans, but I have not known an American… like this. You do not have to be too gentle with me, but you will have to be…" She groped for the word. "You will have to be patient with me."

She didn't try to escape when he pulled her close and put his lips to her forehead. Her skin was surprisingly cool. In spite of the rain the air was hot and he was sweating even without a shirt, but her skin was dry and her forehead and hair smelled faintly spicy. She clung to him tightly for a moment, putting her arms behind his neck. He started to kiss her but she lowered her head to his shoulder and relaxed her body against him. "You will stay with me tonight?"

This was it then, his final chance to turn back. All the difficulties and objections swept over him again, but it was as if all of them applied to someone else — someone he scarcely knew. "Yes," he said.

Instead of answering she held him tightly. He lifted her face and kissed her. When he paused, her eyes were bright and she caught her breath with a gasp. But when he started to kiss her again she slipped out of his arms and whirled away. "My falang with yellow hair will not get to work on time in the morning if I do not feed him now."

It was nearly dark. Samchai showed him where to find a folding table in Jo Fay's room. He brought the two chairs from hers. She arranged the flowers in the vase and he took them to the table. The food was cold but spicy and practically all of it was strange to him. Samchai said: "In English things that are hot from the fire and things that are spicy are both called hot. But hot from the fire in Thai is lawn, and hot from spice is pet." She described some small, almost transparent peppers in a little dish as "pet mak," very hot. "If you eat that," she warned, "you must eat only a little bit at first." But even the little bit he tried made sweat break out on his forehead. She got up once during the meal and turned on the porch lights: small, dim bulbs that glowed warmly and secretively. She spoke little during dinner, and the shade was down behind her eyes.

When they'd finished she went into her room and changed into a sarong before she cleared the table. He started to carry things to the kitchen but she stopped him. "It is for me to do. You may sit here and have a drink if you wish. You may make Mekong and soda for me too." He went to the kitchen and mixed some drinks. She followed him into the kitchen with dishes from the table and said: "Some Thai customs you will have to learn." When she'd finished in the kitchen she put a sheet-covered blanket on the floor of the porch, plugged in an iron, and took his clothes down from the line. Jim sat at the table with his drink and watched as she quickly and expertly ironed his trousers, shirt and underclothes. She folded them neatly and carried them into her room, put away the blanket and iron, and sat down with him.

"I would like one more drink," she said. "I am tired." He fixed the drinks and they drank slowly in silence. When she glanced up her eyes were bottomless and she was lost in thought. Finally she said: "Jim, you must stay here while I get ready." She got up and brought him a towel from Jo Fay's room. "There is soap on a beam inside the bathroom. I am sorry this bathroom does not have a shower. You will have to wash with the pan." She locked Jo Fay's room, then went down the hallway. She was in the bathroom a long time and when she came out she wore only the sarong, tied above her breasts and hanging to her knees. She carried the rest of her clothes. "Jim, I forgot. We must put the table and chairs away or the kamoy… the thieves will get them." She put away her clothes and together they moved the table and chairs into the kitchen and locked the door. "Now you must get ready. When you come to the room, turn off the lights on the porch."

He washed carefully. The cold water felt good, reviving him. He toweled himself and then sat down on the bathroom's rough bench with the wet towel over his shoulders and tried to conjure Nancy, wondering whether or not she'd interfere with what he was about to do — almost wishing she would. But the images he brought up were as lifeless as they had been earlier, and the memory of Samchai's touch intruded and aroused him. He gave up and put on the sarong, finding it easy to tie now that he knew the secret. He went back to the porch, turned out the light, stepped into Samchai's room and bolted the door after him.

 

Aftermath

Massage

Sunday Morning

Housegirls

Sawadee (Hello)

The Island Paradise

The Drunk

The Christmas Season

Sawadee (Goodbye)

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