THE ONE THAT GOT AWAY
From the book: Murder at the Horny Toad Bar
& other Outrageous Tales of Thailand
Bill Spencer had flown to Bangkok on business several times without once having ventured outside the often unbearably hot city. Everything he needed was right there in the capital and he had no interest in touring the countryside of the Land of Smiles. In fact, he seldom ventured from the luxurious, air-conditioned splendor of the Oriental Hotel except when accompanying his Thai agent to a factory. This, he supposed, would have continued indefinitely had it not been for something directly related to his export business.
He had braved the heat long enough to search for an ATM machine when he noticed a display of teakwood carvings far superior to the run-of-the-mill type he had been exporting. As usual, there were the pedestrian carvings that flooded the city: fighting elephants, water buffaloes and bowls of various shapes and sizes; but at the back of the store, he came upon foot-high carvings of Thai women which displayed expert craftsmanship. Women at the market, women on elephant back, women paddling in klongs (canals), even a few go-go dancers. Bill studied them carefully and realized that even the facial expressions had been meticulously delineated. He had never seen anything in any type of wood from Southeast Asia so well carved.
Although feigning only polite interest, Bill had soon managed to charm the vendor into giving him the address of the man who had carved the women. A block from the shop, Bill waved a taxi to a halt, showed him the directions the man had written down, and set out on his journey.
Somewhere north of the city it became clear to Bill that the driver had trouble following the directions and they spent over two hours fruitlessly searching back roads until the taxi developed engine trouble. The driver protested when Bill paid partly in American currency, the value of which he did not understand. But Bill just shrugged and slung his jacket over his shoulder.
As he began his walk, he loosened his tie and wiped the sweat from his forehead with his already drenched handkerchief. A child’s head appeared above the grassy bank at the side of the road. Two children rode slowly toward him on a water buffalo. The animal glistened in the heat as it climbed out of the small canal. The two children stared at Bill from beneath their wide straw hats until they were two small dots against the green rice fields and areca palms. Bill was surrounded by the clean flat land and nearly even vegetation on all sides. And only the deep blue of the cloud-streaked sky challenged the color dominance of the lush green fields.
A large, gaudily-decorated truck sped by loaded with Thai workers. One pointed to Bill and yelled the only English word he knew: “You!”
They all laughed and waved. Bill wearily waved but his sweating features refused to smile. How, he wondered, could anyone actually live day after day in this heat and humidity?
A small bright spot of reflected sunlight to the west soon revealed a temple’s orange-and-green tiled roof rising from the surrounding bright red-orange blossoms of a dozen flame-of-the-forest trees. But as these trees advanced westward beyond the temple toward the city, now directly under the sun, they became imbued in a bluish-gray tinge, bereft of individual color and pattern.
The rice field on his right began to give way to large trees separated from the road by a small canal. Just as the canal began to wind in a northerly direction away from the road, Bill saw a small vegetable store with the omnipresent faded Coca-Cola sign. As he walked along the narrow path to the store, he heard the soft murmured sounds, “farang, farang,” which, somewhere Bill had learned, meant: “foreigner.”
Three motionless, naked children stared at him as he cautiously crossed the unsteady wooden planks of the small open porch. One white-haired woman, unmindful of the chunk of betel nut held precariously between blackened teeth, spoke quickly to another, a woman about forty, whom Bill guessed to be the owner of the store. No men were present. The younger woman spoke to him in Thai. He smiled and pointed to the sign: “Coke,” he asked, “Cola.”
“Ah, Cola,” they remarked to one another, stressing the second syllable of the word. This successful communication animated the woman and children toward the soda. The woman smilingly opened the bottle while the old bare-breasted woman, with lips stained a bright purple from a lifetime of beetle nut chewing, brought a straw and pointed to a small, wooden stool. Bill sat smiling at the staring children. He turned to watch the Thais paddle the small boats upstream and downstream. Some would stop at the store and buy or sell vegetables and fruit. All would talk about the “farang” on the porch.
For a while Bill watched the younger woman cut fruit by rolling the sharp edge of the knife toward her fingers. He wondered how long it took to learn to control this movement and why she didn’t move the knife in toward her thumb as is done in the West. Something about the action reminded him of his fiancee in New York. And the heated arguments they had had in the kitchen of her Midtown apartment before he’d left for Thailand.
Bill decided to finish his Coke and continue hiking toward the highway, or until he could hail a taxi. He had almost stood up when he noticed an attractive young Thai woman paddling from upstream approaching the store. About fifty feet from the porch, she stopped paddling and stared intently at him as her boat drifted out of the tunnel of overhanging trees. She reached out to the porch and steadied her boat before getting out. She looked again at him with a slightly bemused smile, them smiled broadly.
Her light brown skin was drawn tightly and smoothly over her slender body. A beautiful mane of long black hair cascaded downward, hanging freely in front and in back of her well-worn white blouse, reaching the top of the bright red and black sarong-like pasin wrapped around her waist and legs. Perfectly rounded cheeks formed by her smile gave even greater depth to the natural beauty of her dark brown eyes. Bill stared in silence at her delicate features even as the children continued to observe him.
The girl left several small green mangoes on the old woman’s table and talked swiftly to the owner of the store. Bill strained his ears to hear the sound “farang,” but heard nothing he could understand. As the barefoot girl returned to the boat, her pasin showed clearly, and, to Bill, provocatively, the graceful form of her slender waist and legs. As she began to paddle away, she looked at Bill and again beamed an innocent, unaffected smile. This time, Bill smiled broadly and waved promptly, almost knocking the Coke bottle into the canal. Only after she disappeared around the bend of the canal did he notice the women and children smiling at him. Despite his embarrassment, he felt a strange sense of exhilaration. This, he knew, was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.
Bill made careful notes on his location and the next day, he met with Somnuck, his partly American-educated agent in Thailand. Somnuck listened without comment to his story about the women he had seen, smiled wryly, but agreed to accompany him to act as interpreter.
As they walked from the road to the store, the same hot sun burned into Bill’s reddening skin. “Sawasdee,” Somnuck shouted, placing the palms of his hands together before him in a Thai wai. The two smiling women returned the gesture and also the verbal greeting.
Again Coke was brought to the small wooden table. Sliced areca nuts lay on a cracked porcelain plate drying in the sun. Bill shifted uncomfortably on his low teakwood stool and turned to Somnuck: “Ask her the name of the woman who brought the mangoes here yesterday.”
Somnuck complied. “Her name is Vilaileka Rangavara. The people here call her Miss Thailand because she is from Nakorn Chaisri. It is believed that area of Thailand has the whitest rice, the sweetest pomeloes, and the most beautiful women.”
After a moment’s silence Bill said: “Ask them if she will come today.”
As Somnuck spoke to the woman, one of the children, bald except for his topknot, peered around the corner at Bill. Bill turned and watched the canal.
“Yes, they expect her to come very soon. She lives with her mother and sister about two kilometers downstream. She has already gone upstream to market so she will return soon. They say she is very poor but has a good heart.”
“I have seen many beautiful women since I came to Thailand, Somnuck. But I never wanted one until now.”
“Yes,” Somnuck answered quickly. “This one must be like your fiancee, I think. Not the carbon’s copy.”
“How do you know about my fiancee?” asked Bill sharply, looking directly into Somnuck’s startled black eyes.
“Her picture is on your desk in your hotel room. I noticed it during our last meeting. She is beautiful, is she not?”
Bill returned his attention to scanning the canal and spoke as if to himself. “Yes, beautiful.” And, thought Bill, educated. And a woman who loves to babble for hours about empowerment and relationships and every other American cliché; the type of cliché which as time passed Bill found more and more boring.
After a moment’s silence Bill said: “A carbon copy.”
“You said before this woman is not the carbon’s copy. You mean she is not a carbon copy.”
“Oh, yes, of course, thank you. American idioms still cause me some trouble.”
Bill watched a middle-aged woman, clothed in a long red pasin, walk to the opposite bank of the river. White foam began to appear on her hair as she walked into the canal to wash. In a moment, a toothbrush appeared between her dark fingers and she began brushing her teeth.
The children continued to imitate the cries of the birds as Bill watched for the girl. Sunset produced a twilight in almost complete stillness. The gray hue he had seen in several sunsets did not appear. The colors of the boats, trees, grass and water seemed to fade within themselves without merging. A small boat with a sluggish motor moved slowly downstream barely keeping ahead of floating weeds. After it passed, Bill heard only the occasional sound of a paddle slicing the water.
Somnuck motioned to Bill. “The woman says that boat is the first to have a motor on this canal. Many residents here do not like it. Probably not unlike your countrymen’s reaction to the appearance of the first car before automobiles replaced horses.”
Bill smiled briefly and lit another cigarette. “If she doesn’t come soon we’d better go,” he said.
“She will come, Khun Bill, Somnuck said softly. “You must be patient. ‘A white elephant,’ we say, ‘is found only in the deep forest.’”
Directly across from Bill a woman walked out on a horizontal wooden ladder that protruded over the side of the canal. A large fish net, hanging from the ladder, dipped into the water as she walked. After a few moments, she moved slowly toward the shore. The leverage again raised the dipnet above the water. She began pulling the ropes attached to the sides of the net.
“Only one fish for all of that work,” Bill said.
“Ah, but it is a beautiful fish; well worth the trouble,” Somnuck replied. “Although I hate to see a beautiful fish in a net, I think one can forgive the woman when catching for necessity.” After a pause he continued: “Fish are intriguing, aren’t they? Their environment throughout their lives is water. Yet, lacking a conceptual level, they do not even realize such a thing as water exists. It is so close to them they cannot see it. They even fail to realize that to leave it is to die.”
In the darkness that was steadily devouring the canal’s bright colors, Bill saw the light from a small fire behind several trees on the opposite bank. Soon the lights of many cooking fires appeared along both sides of the canal and into the countryside beyond. The same countryside that had seemed nearly deserted during the day now had flickering eyes from all directions. Bill was about to ask for some fruit when he noticed several flies alighting on almost every variety. As he replaced a mango his arm knocked his Coke bottle off the table. Only Somnuck’s quick catch prevented it from pouring into the canal. For a moment Bill sat silently, then turned to Somnuck. “Do you think I could live with her?” he asked.
“Excuse me, Khun-“
”You heard me. Would she come into the city?” He noticed the women staring at him and he stopped talking and turned to the canal.
Somnuck allowed a full thirty seconds to pass before answering. “You know, Khun Bill, some day all this will be gone. The canals, the peasants, the small boats. The government is quickly filling the canals to build roads. And it is good. This poverty cannot be allowed to remain in an age of progress. These conditions and low standards of living cannot continue for long. In twenty years, perhaps thirty, in the Bangkok area, it will all be gone. But gone with it will be the innocence of the people, the ready smiles, the unique customs, the quaint setting. It will be easier then for us to be with one another. Yet, I fear, easier because so many of the attractive differences will have disappeared. Progress demands so much of human relations. You see, Khun Bill, once a fish has gained the ability to conceive of the existence of water, it has lost the ability to communicate with those who have not; for it is no longer a fish.”
A small child leaned over the low railing. Suddenly he darted across the porch and pointed upstream. He spoke softly but excitedly to his mother.
Somnuck turned to Bill. “She is coming,” he said.
Bill tossed his cigarette onto fresh red splotches of beetle juice staining the rickety wooden porch and watched the red blotches extinguish it. He rose. “Let’s go. We’re leaving.”
“Leaving? I don’t understand.”
“You damn well understand!” Bill stared into Somnuck’s unsteady gaze. Then with a slight trace of a smile he added: “There’s a new bar at Nana Plaza. We’re going to drown our cultures in drink while I curse you for helping the one that got away.”
Somnuck walked quickly behind him. “Yes, Khun Bill, he smiled. He waved goodbye to the children, then walked quickly to Bill’s side. With a grin large even by Thai standards, he said: “Drown in drink. This idiom I understand.”
© Dean Barrett 2014
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