From the book: Murder at the Horny Toad Bar & other Outrageous Tales of Thailand
There are times when I blame myself for Ron’s death. And there are times when I don’t. I mean, I wasn’t the one who wanted to install a fancy fish tank in our go-go bar. He was. OK, I was the one who insisted we fire Dang. And that led to the hiring of Pla. But I wasn’t the one who fell in love with Pla. He did. And I warned him about her several times. You don’t run a bar in Bangkok and fall in love with one of the dancers and think it’s all going to have a happy ending. That dog won’t hunt. But something about these Thai women, once they got you, they got you. And common sense, the well-intentioned advice of a friend, a lifetime of experience – it all don’t mean a damn thing.
Sorry. I’m getting ahead of myself. But it still makes me angry and I suppose I still feel some guilt. Wouldn’t be human if I didn’t. After all, I was the one who convinced him to visit Bangkok.
Ron had been a happily married man and the proud owner of two stores in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, selling Goodyear tires and tubes. He seldom traveled from the neighborhood where he went to school and grew up. If you had asked him why not he would have asked you “What for”?
Except for a bit of fishing in his spare time, his wife of 29 years had been the sole joy of his life, and once the cancer took her, he had little in life except his business. He worked hard, sold an amazing amount of Goodyear products and before long had won a Goodyear incentive trip to Hong Kong.
I had dated his wife in high school and known Ron fairly well. We’d been on the same basketball team together and almost got into a fight in a gym locker room over something but I can’t remember what. It wasn’t over her because I’d stopped dating her by that time. Might have had something to do with the Vietnam War.
Anyway, after I’d moved to Bangkok, I kept in touch with both of them so when he said he was coming out to Hong Kong, I reminded him that Thailand was a mere two hours and twenty minutes’ flying time away. It took three letters to convince him to add Thailand to his itinerary but in the end he did.
But after several days in Hong Kong, Ron decided the former British colony was all money and no fun and he was looking forward to getting back to Louisiana. Then he landed in Bangkok where I met him at the airport.
He had changed very little from when I had last seen him years before. He had not an ounce of fat on him and while his auburn hair had thinned considerably, his tiny bald spot could easily be covered by a five-baht coin. He had a clean-shaven, weather-beaten face with craggy, angular features and not quite hollow cheeks. But he had a ready smile and bright cornflower blue eyes and he moved with the vigor and purpose of a much younger man. Although his face could not be described as handsome, it was an interesting face, intelligent and alert.
Despite mild protest on his part, the very first night he was in town I took him to some of the bars of Nana Plaza. Pinching himself to make certain he wasn’t dreaming, Ron found himself surrounded by nearly naked, incredibly beautiful and miraculously available women. Women who practically begged him to take them to his hotel. And just as the song’s lyrics warned, Ron soon found the devil walking beside him.
He flew back to Louisiana but only to sell his business as quickly as possible. Ron told me later that his neighbors and friends shook their heads and clucked their tongues but Ron assured them he knew right well what he was doing and prepared to fly back to Thailand to stay. The preacher of his Southern Baptist congregation made a trip to Ron’s house and informed Ron that he was shocked at Ron’s decision and not a little worried about his soul. But he left in a hurry once Ron explained that it was simply a case of “the Bible belt discovering the bikini belt and discovering that 2000-year-old scriptures ain’t quite as comforting as 20-year-old flesh.”
Ron soon saw an opportunity to buy one of the very bars that had attracted him to the city, and before long he was the proud owner (with me as a minor partner) of the Feminist Nightmare bar. The Feminist Nightmare was one of those which had been around for a very long time and — rarity among rarities — over the years various foreign owners had actually made a bit of money out of it. Its symbol was a flashing neon sign with a caricature of a balding, big-bellied Western male surrounded by Thai go go dancers in skimpy bikinis.
Many of the girls who worked at the Feminist Nightmare came from the northeast of Thailand, and almost all came from the countryside. And I could tell right away that Ron was fascinated by them. Well, who wouldn’t be; several of them were good looking and one or two were stunning. Wearing only the tiniest of bikinis, the girls gyrated on stage to the latest western songs and threw themselves wholeheartedly into the incessant and throbbing rhythms.
Ron got himself an apartment not far from the bar and we appointed a couple of former bar mamasans as managers. I had had some small share of a bar before, so finding the right disc jockey was left to me. And I knew just the man for the job.
I had been in Bangkok since the late 60’s when I’d been stationed here with the military. One of my best friends had been a dark-skinned, humor-loving, Thai mechanic named Wichai. Wichai had worked for JUSMAG and had flown to American Army and Air Force bases all over Thailand in a C-130, wherever and whenever the Americans had a vehicle to fix. He could repair anything the American Army gave him: jeeps, trucks, vans and, by the end of the war, helicopters.
I had met him at an air base in Udorn where I was spending several months TDY (temporary duty). Wichai and I hit it off right away. The incredible din of American warplanes taking off at night to pay their nocturnal visits to Vietnam and returning to base early the next morning allowed us so little sleep Wichai began working part of a night shift in the American clubs as a disc jockey. He often made up to twenty dollars a day in tips from Air Force pilots and crew chefs who had (sometimes accurate) premonitions that they might not be returning to spend the money.
Wichai had done real well and like many Thais working with the American military during the war, had thought the good times would go on forever. He gambled at dice and card games and lost heavily and lost most of the rest in a failed business venture with a dishonest Thai-Chinese partner; and when we’d finally lost our own gamble in Vietnam, he’d been left with no job and a wife and two young children to support.
For over two years he drove a ten-wheel truck between Bangkok and Chiang Mai, hauling soybeans from north to south and Sony television sets from south to north. He’d worked in auto repair garages, then began driving his own taxi during the day. Then, eventually, he’d found nighttime jobs as a disc jockey in various bars and once he’d heard about my involvement in the Feminist Nightmare it wasn’t difficult to recruit him.
Ron and I finished our renovations, hired a publicist, and, before long, the bar was packed with customers. Our beer was cold, our women were gorgeous and our music was popular. Despite a recent government crackdown on showing too much female flesh, we were doing well and would have continued doing well; until one day Ron made the first of his two serious mistakes. He decided he wanted his bar to be a bit classier than the rest and that he would add class to the bar in the form of a fish tank. He had had a tank in his office in Louisiana and it had added class there and he was certain it would add class here. Besides, he had always liked fishing and enjoyed being around colorful fish.
He made several trips to the exotic fish section of the Weekend Market and was pleased that he was overcharged less than the average foreigner. And so it came to pass that every night in the Feminist Nightmare all the colors of the rainbow displayed themselves for dazzled customers who chose to sit near the fish tank. Unlike the more convenient plastic aquarium, the standard glass-and-metal tank kept the visual distortion of the brilliantly colored specimens to a minimum.
Elaborate and impossibly graceful dorsal fins, caudal fins, pelvic fins, pectoral fins, and anal fins swayed languorously back and forth while slim bodies enclosed in magnificently colored scales of perfectly symmetrical designs were propelled by fantails, sword tails, round tails, speartails, pintails and flagtails. Yellow eyes, green eyes, black eyes and orange eyes stared out at customers and bargirls alike; for they too were observers.
The excitement and pride surrounding their collection of fish quickly spread to nearly all the girls in the bar (except for one or two who resented competition of any kind) and their income from ladies’ drinks, “casual stays” in hotel rooms and all-night stands — money which once went to buying dresses, cosmetics, jewelry and the latest cellphone -- now often went for buying still more resplendent fish. Regular customers began to joke that they were pushed a bit harder for drinks whenever the “fish fund” was in need of more money for a still more exotic purchase. And they were right.
Out of a sense of generosity and also due to a shortage of garbage bags, the bargirls were unselfish in sharing their own food with the fish; but in their exuberance, the girls had bought the fish with the most brilliant colors and exotic shapes without too much thought as to how the specimens would co-exist with one another in a community tank. Customers would often stop watching the dancers to observe several fish with nipped fins and tails, involved in deadly pursuits and fatal chases. It wasn’t until the girls learned something about incompatible species and employed a trial-and-error method that most of the mistakes were finally eliminated.
Ron had planned on placing one of his mamasans in charge of the fish tank but Dang, one of the dancers, used her not inconsiderable charms on him and Ron finally succumbed to her pleading and placed her in charge of the fish. Dang’s obvious attractions made her popular with Ron (a bit too popular, I thought) although unknown to him she was unpopular with the other girls in the bar as she was suspected of stealing money from another girl’s purse in more than one bar. But as her dancing and her figure were cynosures of nocturnal interest, no bar manager was willing to throw her out without absolute proof; and either because she was innocent or extremely clever she had never been caught at anything more serious than hustling drinks from someone else’s regular customer.
In my opinion, Dang was a disruptive element in the bar and I wanted to let her go; Ron didn’t. That led to the first time Ron and I had heated words.
One night I told him I needed to see him in our office. And I had it out with him over Dang. I told him I was aware that I was only a minor partner in the bar but I was still a partner. Furthermore, I had been a minor partner in a bar before and knew a bit about the many pitfalls in the business. More important, I was his friend. I told him Dang stole money, upset other girls by stealing their regular customers, and wasn’t to be trusted. She had to go. I also pointedly reminded him that it was bad form for bar owners to show favoritism to one of the dancers.
He gave me a few limp arguments about why she shouldn’t be fired but finally, very reluctantly, he gave in. And that was the last night Dang worked at the Feminist Nightmare. I felt a sense of relief at knowing the bar’s bad apple was gone.
I also felt a sense of relief at hearing Ron speak of his medical report from a local hospital. Something about Bangkok seemed to energize him and I thought he looked fine. Except he had a small lump on his neck which I had been telling him should be checked out. He’d finally agreed to have a sample taken and also an MRI. The result was negative, nothing was malignant, and whatever was on his neck was little more than a harmless cyst. As he put it, it was just one of many unsightly things that men our age might expect to come along. We went back into the bar and drank to his good health.
Dang’s departure left an opening in the bar and word got around quickly. The next day, several dancers stopped by and applied for the job. But one stood out above the rest; and I mean way above them. She was from somewhere near Surin and there was no question she was beautiful. Glossy, jet-black hair down to her waist, an oval face with large dark eyes, full lips, high cheekbones and perfect features. And a way of looking at a man that could cause him to forget there were other women in the world.
Ron reacted as if he’d been struck by Cupid’s arrow right on the spot. She danced for us on the stage and she was terrific; better than Dang had ever been. She used the brass pole in a way that gave erotic dancing new meaning. We looked at each other, smiled and nodded. We had our new dancer.
A few nights after that, I saw Ron put his arm around her and take her into the office. And I knew then beyond any doubt she had already ensnared him just like a fish in a trap. I also knew that her nickname, Pla, meant “fish,” and while I wasn’t superstitious about that, looking back, perhaps I should have been. In fact, she later told me that when she’d heard about the fish tank she had decided that, with her nickname, it would be lucky for her to work at the Feminist Nightmare. Ron’s fish tank had attracted Pla and now Pla had ensnared Ron.
The months passed and, by the end of the first year, we had made a good profit. Ron was strict with the girls in prescribing the way they acted toward customers and even in insisting that if they put on too much weight, they be fired. All except, Pla, of course. Pla had such a hold on him that she could have burned the bar down and I’m sure Ron would have made excuses for her.
I had already heard rumors of Ron buying her expensive gold jewelry and other gifts, and I had seen her new “absolutely red” Toyota Camry Solara SE sport coupe parked outside the bar, but it was Wichai who first alerted me to the fact that she had moved in with Ron. At the time I said nothing, but it did worry me that Ron wasn’t even telling me about it. It also worried me that he gladly took her onto his lap or in other ways showed affection and favoritism to her right in the bar. The few times I broached the subject with him, his attitude was quite clear: his relationship with Pla was his business; nobody else’s.
By the end of our first year in business, the bar remained popular and the fish tank had undoubtedly become one of the most colorful in all of Bangkok; and the fish seemed as fascinated with the girls as the girls were with them. And, as Ron loved to point out, like the girls themselves, each fish had its own personality. Some nervously darting, hugging their fins close to the body, like a schooner caught in a storm, some gracefully swimming with all fins and tails coordinating like a galleon with full, billowing sails, some using their pelvic fins like oars propelling a rowboat. A world full of constantly moving fins and tails, lips and gill covers. And always the imperfectly round staring eyes, continually rotating in their sockets with quick, abrupt, almost furtive, movements.
The kaleidoscopic underwater spectacle provided the girls in the bar with such delight that not only did they look forward to coming to work, on occasion, they preferred gazing at the fish to being bought out and jumping into bed with a customer.
Although their enthusiasm for the fish was great, and they paid an enormous amount of attention to them, how much the girls actually knew about proper care of tropical fish remained a problem. The staple diet of the fish consisted of slender and threadlike worms — both white and red varieties — tiny fish, chopped liver and mosquito larvae, lettuce and ground shrimp. Despite my warnings, the girls were unselfish in sharing the leftovers of their own meals, and the fish were often inundated with the remains of fried bananas, slices of pineapple, pieces of durian, partly crushed locusts, piscicidal bits of red-and-green chilies and the down-on-his-luck cockroach.
After each new display of generosity, several bloated carp and other abnormally large scavengers got to work and cleaned up. Of all the specimens of fish in the tank, the carp and other scavengers were the most frequently replaced.
Among the favorites with the girls were the extravagantly colored goldfish with their sinuous swimming movements and darting splashes of red, gold and yellow, particularly those with bulbous eyes such as the Telescopic-eyed Moor and the protuberantly globular-eyed Celestial Goldfish.
The fish were appreciated for brilliant color, unusual shape, humorous activity and even curious sound. The sole Lionhead Goldfish boasted a fluffy, red-orange head covering resembling a lion’s mane; the Indian Algae-eater employed its sucking disc to remain anchored in strange positions and served well as the aquarium’s janitor; the Glass Catfish was favored for its two prominent whiskers and its transparent, skeleton-revealing body; the Croaking Tetra gulped air and gave the girls enormous pleasure with its soft croaking sound caused by tiny bubbles expelled through its gills.
Without doubt, the most favored of all were the Kissing Gourami which would usually be surrounded by girls who should have been dancing or entertaining customers, the remonstrations of Ron and the mamasans, Ning and Noy, being only reluctantly heeded.
A few fish had been chosen by nomenclature regardless of looks. All of the girls could identify with such names as Celestial Goldfish and Angelfish, but no amount of money was spared in keeping at least one specimen known as Slippery Dick in the tank. And, indeed, the long and slender Slippery Dick did at least resemble a male organ more than other fish which diverted attention from their basic phallic shapes with large and exotic fins and tails.
Unfortunately, despite the best of intentions, in addition to overfeeding, providing improper temperature and mismatching community members, the girls had made other mistakes. Fish with fragile scales and swaying fins soon ripped themselves to shreds on the sharp edges of stones a few of the dancers had placed at the bottom of the aquarium for shade and decoration. These were replaced by smooth, round stones as soon as the mistake (in the form of dead fish) was discovered.
Pla (herself a Pisces) enjoyed watching the antics of some of the fish swimming to the surface and opening and closing their mouths in what she imagined was their way of saying, “Hello, you buy me drink!” It was only later that she realized fish which tend to gulp repeatedly at the water’s surface are suffering not from lack of ladies’ drinks but from lack of oxygen usually from overcrowding or polluted water. Such fish, she decided, were in fact saying “goodbye” rather than “hello” and she belatedly thinned out the tank.
And those goldfish which kept to themselves lurking alone behind rocks — those most admired by the dancers for their “independence” and “non-conformity” — were, on closer examination, found to be in extremely poor health rather than off contemplating the state of the world (or tank). Nevertheless, the girls learned from their mistakes and their piscine community stabilized and prospered.
Three nights before Ron died, Pla and a few other girls were dancing on the stage. Suddenly, Wichai rushed from behind his enclosure, jumped up onto the stage, and pried open Pla’s fist. He grabbed something from it and held it in front of her face as proof of her guilt. Pla tightened her chin and folded her arms across her chest, which she thrust out in defiance. Ning, the older of the two mamasan’s, began scolding her, and, while bearing the brunt of her scolding, Pla looked more sullen than ashamed. She stared at a point off to the side of the stage as if she might suddenly jump down and leave. Finally, though, she nodded. Ning said something and Pla nodded again. The mamasan leapt from the stage and the girls resumed their dancing.
Ning threw the offending object onto the table of our booth and continued to grumble in an angry voice as she walked off, still upset by what had happened. Ron picked up the object and handled it as a scientist might examine a slightly unusual specimen — curious but calm — and handed it to me. I leaned forward to examine it in the light near the fish tank. I placed it near my nose, sniffed, and wrinkled my face. “A ball of cotton-wool soaked with enough paint thinner to supply all the artists in Thailand.”
He seemed about to respond but grew silent so I continued: “Some girls sniff it while they’re doin’ their dancin’; relaxes them; makes them forget about the angry boyfriend, unfaithful husband or some other trouble. Good at first, but then they keep it up. Pretty soon they don’t want to eat, and then they turn as yellow as a piece of pineapple and then the fumes from the thinner destroy their nasal cartilage and pretty soon they’re young-old hags back in the ricefield or worse yet in a Chinatown brothel.” I threw the ball of cotton-wool onto the table. “If they want to mess with yaba or paint thinner or whatever, they all know better than to do it here.”
I looked at Ron. We had a no-nonsense policy in the bar toward any kind of drugs and had already fired two dancers because of their use of amphetamines. Pla’s use of paint thinner had been seen by everyone in the bar. Both of us knew what had to be done.
I spoke to him quite matter-of-factly. “Pla has to go, Ron.”
He stared at me for several seconds then turned to stare into the fish tank as if looking for a way out of the dilemma. Whatever the reason, in the year that he’d been in Bangkok, Ron had visibly aged. Almost alarmingly so. His blue eyes were dimmer, his wrinkles deeper and his attention less focused. He had gained no weight but moved as if he had. His manner -- once confident and resolute -- was now hesitant and uncertain. Even the once warm and ready smile had been replaced by one far less genuine.
Wichai had stopped the music, and the gulps of the Croaking Tetra punctuated the room’s silence like an exhausted percolator. Finally, Ron turned back to me. In the light of the tank, it looked as though he had become a very weary old man. “I’ll let her know after work.”
Three nights later, the night he died, Ron still appeared to me to be either in ill health or else sick over what he’d had to do. He hadn’t said a word to me about how Pla had taken the news of her dismissal.
I sat with him in the bar as he began speaking about his concern for the girls who came from upcountry farms and small villages and who were suddenly confronted with the bright lights of Bangkok. I remember he kept emphasizing that a lot of them had had very bad experiences, and while they might be tough on the outside, inside they were very vulnerable. It seemed to me he was to some extent using metaphors to defend Pla.
As he spoke, I leafed through the dual-language English-Thai edition of Tropical Fish Care, a well worn and heavily stained book, kept near Ron’s position at the bar. “You see, when these girls first get to Bangkok, some of them are taken straightaway to the bars and they start workin’ right off! Which ain’t right!” A fish should never be plunged suddenly into a new environment.
“The problems come when a girl just in from upcountry starts workin’ and right away some drunkin’ slob starts pawin’ her and she don’ know how to handle it.” Hands have been known to damage even the toughest specimen by tearing off scales. “And if they’re pretty, which lots of them are, some of the older girls get jealous.” In a properly maintained aquarium, care must be taken to ensure that various species can co-exist peacefully.
He smiled at remembering some of the dancers we’d had. “Then again, we have had one or two gals up from the south who were hot-tempered as hell, haven’t we?” Naturally pugnacious and naturally vulnerable fish should never be kept in the same aquarium. “Remember the one from Surat Thani? “Went after everybody’s boyfriends and all hell broke loose.” Some species are particularly disruptive in community tanks because of their fin-nipping proclivities.
“Well, I’ll say this for our staff, Ning and Noy do a damn fine job teachin’ ‘em about avoiding pregnancy and what to do if they do get pregnant.” The breeding habits of certain species are the subject of considerable controversy; some are amazingly quick to breed. “We’ve seen every type, haven’t we? Some just come to dance and make some money,” largely nocturnal and rather shy specimen, “some seem to love to get it on,” small but very active sexually, “and some are just dick teasers,” an amusing fish to watch as it devises elaborate games.
As I ordered my fourth beer, Ron pointed at the fish tank. “You see that sorry looking son-of-a-bitch? That’s a celestial goldfish. It is the only livin’ thing that can stare into its own eyes. If a bar owner ain’t careful, he’s gonna’ end up lookin’ the same way.”
For a few minutes we just drank our Singha beer and silently stared at the fish tank in which our tropical fish swam amid coral formations, colored stones and vegetation. I gazed at the small plastic figure of a diver trapped in the tank bed’s compost. Molded in the form of the traditional hard-hat variety, the diver had one foot permanently poised to take his next cautious step. He peered out from inside his cumbersome helmet and constantly emitted bubbles which expanded gradually as they slowly, gracefully made their way to the surface of the water.
The tubing from the closed air valve attached to its plastic connector was unbroken, and the diver functioned perfectly as the tank’s aerator; yet, something in the ornament’s mechanism had malfunctioned and the diver remained forever motionless, with arms outstretched, unable to bend over and pick up the treasure chest of jewels and gold bars which lay at his feet. He reminded me of foreigners who come to Thailand and buy a bar and reach out for profits which are never quite there. But he especially reminded me of what was happening to Ron —right before my very eyes.
I had not seen Pla since she’d left the bar that night. I thought she might show up to say goodbye or to clear out her locker, but she hadn’t. While we sat talking about the fish, Wichai stopped by our booth and whispered into Ron’s ear. Ron gave him an uncertain smile, then nodded. He looked at me then glanced away. His lips stretched into one of the saddest smiles I’d ever seen. And I knew Pla was gone. With Ron’s money.
I decided the best thing would be to let Ron bring the subject up and if he didn’t bring it up in a few days, I’d sit down and talk with him. Find out how much of his savings was gone. Maybe if I hadn’t waited I could have done some good; but I doubt it.
Later that night I found his handwritten note inside an envelope on my office desk; an elderly vendor of fried bananas found his body on the small soi, the side street below his 14th floor apartment balcony.
To my partner & best friend,
When I was selling stuff in the States, I wasn’t even living. Nothing more exciting had ever happened to me than getting a best salesman award. It wasn’t until I came here that I came alive. This has been the best year of my life. And I want to thank you for that. If it hadn’t been for you, I’d have ended up retired somewhere playing shuffleboard and eating early bird specials without ever having had this incredible experience. I have no regrets and you sure as hell shouldn’t have any.
Most Thai girls are lovely; you should find the right one for yourself some day. Pla had a bad life and she had lived in poverty far too long to trust a man or to really believe she didn’t need to reach out and grab anymore. By the time fortune got around to favoring her, she just couldn’t make the leap. Please don’t blame her and above all don’t try to find her or have her punished. Her ex-husband did a lot of that while she was still married. I’ve seen the scars.
The irony is I was leaving my savings to her, anyway. I lied, my friend. The cancer is malignant and they found more clusters inside my skull than bar girls have excuses for being late. So I think you can understand that I have no interest in hanging on for a slow, painful, death.
Take care of the fish tank, my friend. And the bar. It’s all yours now. And thanks again.
Later that night, Wichai and I headed for the building known as the police hospital morgue near Siam Square to identify the body. It was Ron, all right. And I still wish to this day that that hadn’t been the final image I had of him. I kept remembering what he’d said about the Celestial Goldfish looking into its own eyes.
I’d known the manager of the local Bank of Ayuthya for some time and kept my own accounts there. He was cooperative and friendly. What he told me was exactly what I suspected. Ron had set up a joint account with Pla. The account had been emptied.
I had Wichai check with a few of the car dealerships in Bangkok. He found the one Pla had taken the Camry Solara to. She had sold it the day after she was fired for six hundred thousand baht.
One of the regular customers in the bar worked with a Thai lawyer/detective and asked if I wanted Pla found. I just shook my head and smiled. To an extent, I knew exactly how Ron felt: when a man reaches a certain age it’s pretty difficult to blame a woman in her early 20’s for making mistakes; even bad ones. If there’s no fool like an old fool it’s because the old fool is happy with what he’s getting in return for being thought a fool. And I knew that for most of his time in Bangkok Ron had been a happy man.
I chipped in what money was needed and, thanks to the assistance of the American Citizen Services section at the US embassy, Ron’s body was sent back to Louisiana for burial. I wondered if the preacher there used Ron’s fate as a perfect example of what happens to good Christians when they are tempted by the devil and head off to a sin-filled city like Bangkok. I didn’t mind; I knew Ron would have laughed his head off.
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