Preface

Udorn

The Klong

The Routine

The Monsoon Season

One More For the Ditch

A Disappointment

Samchai

The Morning After

Family

The Island Paradise

 

"Stand up and walk around," Ben said. "Don't look as if you're doing it but just glance out the window on that side." Alan crossed the little room and pretended to mix a drink. "What's he doing now?" Ben asked.

"Who?"

"Barney."

"Sitting on his porch."

"Did he see you looking?"

"I don't know." Alan sat down again and sipped his bourbon. "He's on his own porch."

"It's too hot out there to be sitting on a porch."

"Come on," Alan said. "You're sounding paranoid."

Ben Green's housegirl came through the bathroom door from Willie's end of the trailer. "Dang," Thai for "red," had jet black hair, but she behaved like a redhead. She was about twenty-five, taller and larger-boned than most Thai but with a swimsuit-model figure, high cheekbones, light Chinese skin, and a pretty face full of high color that rose even higher when her quick temper flared. She gave Alan a sly grin. "Sawadee," she said. "Where you girl?"

"What girl?" Alan asked.

She held out her hand, palm down, waist high. "You know who girl."

There was a scratching at the outside door. It flew open and Lek bounded into the trailer. "Sawadee!" she said.

"Sawadee," Alan replied, quietly.

"Lek," Thai for "small" was in her early twenties, married and divorced. She was housegirl for the trailer Wilson Simms had lived in before he went home. Today she was dressed in a pair of ragged cutoffs and a huge, blue shirt that made her look about twelve years old. She had black hair that hung to her waist and a mobile face barely rescued from homeliness by a mouth like a pink bud. In a single, continuous motion she jerked open Ben's refrigerator, fished out a beer, popped the tab, took a long swallow, and collapsed into Alan's lap. "Sa-wa-dee," she repeated slowly, letting her Little Girl voice slide up and down the scale. "What you do?" She was warm from the sun and she smelled faintly of fish sauce, jasmine and sweat. She wriggled on Alan's lap like a sack of baby eels. "Where we go tonight?" she asked, bouncing on Alan's knees. "What we do?"

"We go home."

"Dee mak!" Great, she said brightly.

"I go my home, you go your home."

She stopped bouncing. "Numba ten!"

"Did you see Barney out there?" Ben asked her.

"I see. He stay he traila."

"We'll have to sneak out through Willie's room," Ben said.

"Why do we have to sneak out?" Alan asked. "You're not doing anything wrong. . . At least as far as Barney's concerned."

"If he doesn't know we're gone maybe he'll stay out there all night."

Alan gave Ben a wide-eyed look and asked, conspiratorially: "How will you get in when you come back? You don't have a key to Willie's room."

Ben returned Alan's gaze with a faraway expression. "Maybe we won't have to come back."

There was a polite rap at the door. "Oh oh," Ben said.

Dang zipped into the bathroom and banged the door shut. "Just a minute!" Ben shouted. He started after Dang but stopped in mid stride as the door opened and Barney stuck his head in, gave Lek and Alan a pinched look, and focused on Ben who was pretending to put on his shirt, pulling his sleeves and fiddling with his top button. Ben began whistling "Shall we Dance" from The King and I.

"Getting ready to go out?" Barney asked as he stepped into the room and closed the door.

"We're on our way to the club," Ben said.

"Lek going too?" Barney gave Lek an out-of-focus smile.

"Lek's going home," Alan said.

"I go you traila!" Lek said indignantly, bouncing on Alan's knees with a galloping motion.

"Have you seen Dang?" Barney stared past Ben at the closed bathroom door. "I need to ask her something."

Ben finished unbuttoning and buttoning his shirt. "I think she's gone home. She went out a while ago with a pile of laundry. I think it was Ty's."

Barney pushed past Ben and tried the bathroom door. It opened. The door to Willie's end of the trailer was closed. "She hasn't been in Ty's room all afternoon," Barney said. He looked around as if he thought Ben might have hidden Dang in the toilet tank or a drawer. He went into the bathroom and tried Willie's door. It was locked.

"I think Willie's asleep," Ben said.

Barney rapped on the door. There was no answer. He put his ear to it. "Someone's breathing in there."

"Sometimes he snores," Ben said. Barney listened at the door for a moment more and then began examining the bathroom fixtures in a way that suggested he was about to take out a magnifying glass and dust for fingerprints.

Ben glanced out the window and Alan saw his expression freeze.

"What?" Alan whispered.

"Willie! He's coming up the walk."

They heard the door at the other end of the trailer open and close, followed by a minute of silence. Then they heard Willie bumbling around in his room, opening and closing his refrigerator. In a moment he unlocked his inner door and came into the bathroom with a glass half full of ice and bourbon. "Howdy," he said nonchalantly to the motionless group. He ran some water into the glass, stirred it with his finger and took a long drink. "Ahhh." He smacked his lips.

Barney pushed past Willie and peered into Willie's room. It was empty. "Someone was breathing in there," Barney said.

"I'm a heavy breather," Willie said.

Barney gave him a withering look, then drew himself up with elaborate dignity and turned to Ben. "If you see Dang, please tell her I need to talk to her."

"You looking for Dang?" Willie asked.

"Yes," Barney said icily.

"She was coming out of Ty's room when I went by."

Barney went white in the face. "Which way did she go?"

"I donno," Willie said. "Probably home. She was dressed in street clothes."

Without another word Barney stalked across Willie's room and went out the door. Willie sat down on Ben's bed and stirred his drink with his finger again. "What's going on?" he asked.

"Were you serious?" Ben asked him.

Willie stuck his finger in his mouth and drew it out slowly.

"William!" Ben took him by the shoulders and rocked him gently. "Where's Dang? Did she really go home?"

Willie sniffed his finger thoughtfully.

"William!" Ben said. "Where is she? She was in your room when you came home."

They heard the closet in Willie's room slide open with a rumble. In a moment Dang came through the bathroom dangling a moldy looking pair of sweat socks from their extremities. "Why you put in closet?" she asked Willie accusingly. "Dhow no wash."

"Numba ten!" Lek said.

"I'll be damned," Willie said. "I wondered where those went."

"Numba ten!" Dang echoed. "I throw away."

She started for the door but Ben caught her arm. "Maybe Barney's still out there."

"Mai," No, Lek said sarcastically. "I see. He go offica club." She pointed out the window.

"Let's go," Ben said. He began grabbing things off his dresser.

"Go where?" Alan asked.

"The Royal Thai first, then your trailer," Ben said in a voice that implied Alan ought to have known. "Colonel Cass is in Bangkok. Right?"

 

Ben lifted his glass in Alan's direction. "Skoal."

Even though Alan's trailer-mate would be in Bangkok overnight Alan should have sent Lek home hours ago, but she and Dang were having so much fun he hadn't had the heart to insist. Ben's gaze drifted toward Dang and lingered. She paused in mid sentence to smile at him. "When I came home this afternoon Barney was outside in the weeds. He was crawling around out there. Like a snake."

"Why?"

"He's trying to catch us."

"Catch who?"

"He thinks Dang and I have something going."

"How could he possibly have gotten an idea like that?" Alan said with heavy sarcasm.

"I was about ready to send her home tonight. The bastard tries to peek in through the windows."

"Oh come on," Alan said. "He's a grown man. Why the hell should he care if you've got something going with Dang?"

"He says he wants to marry her."

"You've got to be kidding. He's at least forty. Maybe forty five. He's married. He's got kids."

"He told her he was going to divorce his wife and retire here. . . In Thailand."

"That's ridiculous."

They sipped their drinks and watched the girls who were carrying on an animated conversation. Finally Alan said: "What are you going to do about Dang?"

Ben stared at Alan for a long time without seeing him. "I don't know." He dropped his eyes. "This is the last time. The end. What we have here. . . It won't ever come again.

"It?" Alan asked. "You mean Dang?"

"Not Dang. . . I think she's sleeping with Barney part of the time. You can't really have a girl like Dang. Nobody can."

"I doubt she is. But man, if you understand that, what the hell are you doing all this for?"

"She's part of this!" Ben spread his hands as if he were bestowing a blessing on the room, then looked at Alan and smiled a thin smile. "You know what I'm talking about."

"No." Alan said. "I don't know. This..?" He mimicked Ben's gesture. "What? These mildewed trailers we live in? Our buddies, who think self-discipline means toilet training?"

"Some time in your life you have to be childish and noisy and superficial," Ben said.

"At forty?"

"Maybe it's more important at forty than at seventeen." Ben got up and went to the refrigerator to add ice to his drink. "When we go home this time it'll be for good. You and I… we'll be retired before we get another overseas tour. This war is finished, and it'll be a long time before the United States gets involved again in a flap like this."

"Is that a bad thing?"

Ben sat down and sipped his drink slowly, looking at Dang. "In the States," he said, "You get in a rut. You don't even know you're in a rut until one day you look up and see something that makes you say to yourself, 'Where are all the memories I ought to have when I'm old?' Maybe it's a girl. Maybe it's a vision. . . a place. . . an island with palm trees and warm nights and gentle rains that smell of jasmine and frangipani."

"There's no such place," Alan said. "Only in novels."

Ben smiled. "How about right here?"

"Sure. It's a paradise. Snakes in the grass and people in the backwaters with worms, hepatitis, leprosy, T.B.  .  ."

"And jasmine, and flowers in the trees, and tropical rains that wash the air, and the feeling of a new creation every morning," Ben said, smiling wider. "Unquote."

Alan shook his head and looked at Lek curled in the corner of the couch, speaking rapidly and animatedly. Her face was flushed and her eyes were huge and dark. She flashed him a heart-stopping smile and went on talking. "I was bombed when I said that."

Ben's blue eyes danced under his thistle-patch eyebrows. "All the average philandering man in his forties really wants is a happy philander. He doesn't want to leave his wife and he's not actually much interested in The Other Woman. But back in the States he can't cut out and have a good, noisy, childish, superficial, hell-raising philander and then come home and forget about it. He and the girl he's philandering with have to sneak around. In the process they're thrown together on a lot more intimate basis than either of them probably would like. Before long a simple philander turns into a big deal and there's a divorce coming up that no one really wants."

"I see," Alan said. "Thailand — safety valve in the East."

"Maybe. Something like that."

"That's gohok. . . bullshit. You know as well as I do how many of the innocent philanders around here turn into big deals. Counting Barney, I know four guys who want to leave their wives and marry Thai girls. That's out of a sample of maybe a hundred-fifty people. If you were to survey the whole base you'd find more than a hundred cases like that." Alan got up and went to the sink for a fresh drink. "So much for an innocent philander in palmy Thailand. Then there's the V.D. line at the clinic."

"There's a difference," Ben said. "Over here out of a hundred terminal cases of True Love maybe four or five will end up in a divorce court. When it's time to pack your bags things look different."

"A lot of those ninety-six True Lovers who change their minds will never be able to get their heads straight again," Alan said. "And what about the people who never would have philandered back in the States? The ones who do it here because of the jasmine and soft rain and the new creation every morning?"

"Is that what you're doing?"

Alan turned toward the sink and ran some water into his glass.

"Maybe you're not philandering, but you're having a hell of a good time. You mean to tell me you never thought about any of this when you were back in the States after your last tour here? I see how you look at Lek. You're weakening, and it isn't because of the jasmine and the morning air."

Alan sat down again. "I'm not weakening. But I'll have to admit. . . I'm having a good time."

"Save the surprised tone for somebody else," Ben said. "The jasmine didn't sneak up on you. When you got off that airplane you knew exactly what to expect. The Island got stuck in your eye a long time ago. You can look the other way when you're in your thirties, but once the Island gets in your eye it stays there, and when you're in your forties there are only two ways left to go. You can give up and admit you're never going to have experiences like that or you can do something childish and undisciplined and superficial. So here you are, doing it, more or less safely. It's a golden opportunity."

"All right," Alan sighed. "I've already admitted I'm having fun, but I won't admit it's safe. The whole thing is dangerous as hell."

"More or less safely," Ben repeated. "It's always dangerous, but less dangerous here than in the States."

"It's safer in the States, because you don't do it there," Alan said.

Ben shook his head. "For some people, not doing it is the most dangerous thing of all. It depends on what kind of soul you have. If you have enough imagination to see how boundless and unformed life really is, it's scary. The more you limit it with rules, the less scary it is. But that only works if you can forget that the rules are arbitrary. If you have a romantic soul, sooner or later it wants to see what's out there, beyond the rules."

"If it's an intelligent soul it knows that what's out there is redundant."

"Maybe you can make your mind accept that," Ben said. "But you can't make your soul accept it. It wants to find out for itself."

"So what if you don't let it?"

"You go to your grave wondering what the Island was like."

Dang and Lek had finished their conversation and were playing cards noisily at the coffee table. "Do you really believe what you're saying?" Alan asked.

Ben stared into the dregs of his drink. "It's the truth."

"Hardly enough of the truth to notice. And it's not just the forty-year-olds who are joyously dumping the arbitrary rules. Most of the people around here who don't seem worried about the rules are in their twenties and thirties. Maybe it's true there's no fool like an old fool, but some of these kids are at least going to make it into the finals."

Ben lifted his eyes from his drink and watched Dang.

"How come all of a sudden it's so important to justify what you're doing?" Alan asked him.

"You're really in a mood to get to the point, aren't you."

"You've been playing Island Paradise for nine months without needing to explain anything. Now you're explaining. What's changed?"

"It's getting close to the end," Ben said.

"Not that close."

Lek went to the refrigerator and opened a beer for herself and another for Dang. "What you talk?" she asked.

"Talk about falang," Americans, Alan said.

"Mai ching." Baloney. "Talk about Dang. Talk about Lek. I see." She sat down on the couch again and the two girls resumed their game.

"What are you going to do about her?" Ben asked.

"If I had any sense, I'd tell her to get lost."

"Then why don't you do it?"

Alan sighed and tried to think of a reasonable answer. "I guess she appeals to my male chauvinist piggism. She goes out of her way to make me feel important. I like it when she blows in my ear."

"So if you don't buy what I just said, how do you justify what you're doing?"

"I don't. So I've stopped trying. A month from now it'll all be over anyway."

"Why a month from now?"

"Because a month from now I'll have three months left before I go home. Maybe if I stay away from the girls and out of the club and out of town for three months I'll be able to make some sense out of all this."

"And in the meantime," Ben said, smiling again. "It's going to be business as usual."

"In the meantime, I'm softening her up for the break. I've already told her what I'm going to do."

"What did she say?"

"She changed the subject."

Ben laughed. "You're not going to get off as easy as you think."

"You keep changing the subject," Alan said. "You were about to explain why all of a sudden you're trying so hard to justify what you're doing."

"I didn't know that's what I was about to do." Ben swirled the shrinking ice cubes around the bottom of his glass.

"Would you like to hear what I think?" Alan asked.

"I've got this feeling I'm going to hear what you think whether I want to or not."

"I think you're setting yourself up to be the fifth case."

"Fifth case of what?"

"True Love. You're getting ready to be next after Barney."

"Oh balls," Ben said. "I'm not looking for a new wife."

"That's not what I meant. Barney was half paralyzed between the ears before he met Dang. At least you're smart enough to understand you can't stay in this island paradise and live happily ever after."

"Thanks for the vote of confidence."

"It's not a vote of confidence," Alan said. "What you do to yourself may not be any of my business, but what happens to Dang might get to be my business."

Ben got up and went to the sink again. "Ah," he said. "Soap opera. I love it." He opened the refrigerator and took out a tray of ice cubes. "How? You're not involved except maybe through Lek, and you just told me that a month from now you're saying sawadee to Lek."

"But Lek isn't going anywhere and neither is Dang. In three months, you are, and I'm going to inherit all the left over problems.

Ben finished mixing his drink. "Want me to fix you one?"

"No." Alan set his glass on the table. "In about fifteen minutes I'm going to bed."

Ben put away the ice and closed the refrigerator. "You going to put the cat out first?"

"In about two minutes."

Lek was concentrating on the cards in front of her. Her brow was wrinkled in a small frown that gave her an unusually determined look. "Something tells me the cat doesn't want to go," Ben said.

"The cat doesn't have any choice in the matter."

Ben laughed. "The most I can say for that point of view is that it's optimistic. I can't wait to see how you're going to do it."

Alan stood up. "Okay. You can stop holding your breath." He went over to the couch and sat down next to Lek. She put one arm around his neck and wriggled over until her soft little hip was scrunched against his.

"Sawadee," she said. "Pity soon Lek win."

"Lek better win lao lao," quickly. "It's time to go home. I'm going to call a taxi." He picked up the telephone.

"Mai!" No! Lek snatched the phone out of his hand and put it back on the end table. "Lek stay you traila tonight."

"Mai," Alan picked up the phone again. "Lek's going home tonight. Same as every night."

Lek untangled her arm from Alan's neck, hunched forward over the coffee table and put her chin in her palms. He put the phone back and hunkered down so that he could look into her face. Tears were growing at the corners of her eyes and her mouth was twisted into a dejected pout. She wouldn't look at him. He had expected her to go grumping and stamping around the trailer and he wasn't prepared for this. After a minute she turned toward him, gigantic dark eyes welling with tears. "No can go home," she said. "I tell my broder, 'Lek no can go home tonight.'" Alan stared at her and tried to think of what to do next. After a moment she said: "Broder hab gun. Too late I come, maybe he sink I kamoy." thief. "Finit me!" She made a slashing motion across her throat, gasped, rolled her eyes back into her head and thrust the tip of her tongue out of the corner of her mouth.

"All right," Alan said. "That's enough." He lifted the telephone.

Lek stood up. Her head hung forward. Her arms were slack at her sides. She looked at Alan and her face was half hidden in a cascade of black hair. "I no can s-tay you traila?" she said.

"No."

"Okay. I go home. Maybe I die!"

"Quit that." Alan started dialing.

Dang threw herself down on the coffee table in front of Alan and grabbed his hand to keep him from dialing the rest of the number. "Lek no speak gohok. No can go home tonight. Maybe her brozer moho," angry, "mak mak! Maybe she die!"

Alan put the receiver back in its cradle. "No fair," he said. "No two on one."

"I saleep you coutz," Lek sobbed in a tiny voice. "Not make noise. Go early. You not see me."

Alan put the phone back on the table and looked at Ben. "Come on," he said. "Help me."

Ben's arms hung limp over the sides of his chair and he was shaking with laughter. "A month from now when you tell her it's finished. . . We can sell tickets."

Alan put Lek to bed in his room, waited until Dang and Ben were through with the bathroom, washed, stripped to his shorts and lay down on the couch. The couch was forty times harder than it was at noon when he used it for a nap.

He was only half asleep an hour or so later when Ben tiptoed past him into the kitchen. Ben sat down at the table, lit a cigarette, and stayed motionless for a long time, looking out the window while the street lamps caught the curling smoke and cast mottles of light and shadow on his face.

Finally, Alan said: "Why don't you just quit while you're ahead?"

Ben went on smoking and didn't look at Alan. After a while he said: "I'm not sure I'm still ahead." He stubbed out his cigarette and went back to his room.

 

It seemed to Alan he still was only half asleep when the doorbell rang. He sat up and looked at his watch in the half-light. The best he could get was an approximate reading. It was at least the middle of the night. He opened the door and instantly was hit in the eye by one of the thousands of insects clustered around the porch light. Barney stood on the stoop making sweeping motions to drive away the bugs. "May I come in?" he asked. He pushed past Alan and Alan closed the door. "Is Dang here?"

Alan took hold of his eyelash and pulled the eyelid down to try to wash out the last of the insect fragments. "Are you drunk, Barney?"

"I know Dang and Ben are here." He took a step toward the hallway but Alan stepped in front of him.

"Barney! I'm not alone."

"That's what I thought." He made a move to step past Alan but Alan put out his hands and stopped him.

"Barney," Alan said. "What kind of bastard are you? What's down that hall is none of your business."

"That depends on who's down there." He stepped back as if he were going to rush Alan and Alan braced himself for the crunch. There was no doubt what the outcome was going to be. Alan weighed a hundred-fifty pounds in a wet parka and Barney weighed at least two hundred in his socks.

Suddenly Lek peeked around the corner of the hallway. Barney uncoiled himself and stepped back. "Go to bed," Alan said. Lek disappeared again and closed the door to Alan's room.

Barney sat down in the easy chair. "Look," he said. "I know it must seem strange — me coming here like this in the middle of the night. . ."

"Here at restful Udon Thani? Not at all."

"I want you to know. . . I want you to understand how things are between Dang and me."

"I think I understand," Alan said.

"I don't think you do. I. . . I don't know what kind of relationship you have with Lek, but I want you to know. . . I'm not like. . . Ben. My intentions toward Dang are honorable."

"Barney," Alan said. "Why don't you go home now. I'll examine my conscience and as soon as I'm sure, I'll let you know whether or not my intentions toward Lek are honorable."

Barney stood up. "It's nothing to joke about. Dang and I are going to be married."

"Congratulations," Alan held the door open.

"Good night," Barney said. "Please remember what I said."

"You can depend on it." Alan shut the door and went back to the couch.

 

Aftermath

Massage

Sunday Morning

Housegirls

Sawadee (Hello)

The Island Paradise

The Drunk

The Christmas Season

Sawadee (Goodbye)

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