Click here for a story (The Maroons) inspired by the building materials (not granite) of a hotel constructed recently one block east of the Custom House.
Click here for a story (The Maroons) inspired by the building materials (not granite) of a hotel constructed recently one block east of the Custom House.
“I’ve lost my way, a bit, Batman. Where can I do some good?”
“Get small, Joe.”
“That again!” It’s not easy getting small. Like dying—the death of your defenses, your importance. Batman’s normal size is two and a half inches; he doesn’t have this particular problem. His advice regarding the big picture is dependable, but the details are up to me. I don’t know what to do. That’s part of the death.
One of my buddies from the 19th century is Anthony Trollope. He wrote two thousand words a day, published 47 wise and cheerful novels, and liberated himself financially. He was a contemporary of Charles Dickens, which indicates that he did not lack self confidence. At this point in the story, Trollope might say, The reader will allow me to note occurrences in Joe’s recent past which, I hope, may be helpful in understanding the events to follow.
I fell for a beautiful woman. She was not spectacular in the way of Sophia Loren or Bridget Bardot or the superbly sexual let-it-all-hang-out Marilyn Monroe, movie sirens of my youth. She was clear, direct, hopeful, and flawless. Moreover, she had been raised in what seemed to have been a happy family and had been educated in the finest schools.
Children excepted, life after twenty offered little for her. She coasted into a slow and gallant decline which only added to her appeal. She lived alone in a marriage of convenience. Why not be happy, I asked. She warned me away. I didn’t listen.
The resulting three years found me crushed and muttering on the other side of the world where, with the help of two kind women, I began to rebuild. And now I’m supposed to get SMALL?
It must be done. I walked to the Writer’s Club Wine Bar, the one place where I’m sure not to meet any writers. I am Joe Burke The Tiny. I forsake all claims. My books were written by someone who isn’t here any more. The curve of the chin of the Thai bartender is what matters. The clock is ticking slowly, clearly.
At the next table a French mother in her forties shepherds her four children and husband with quick smiles, short exchanges, hints of disapproval, and loving glances, especially for her son Alpha Male, his broad shoulders and muscle shirt. Pere is pleasant, bemused, enjoying his drink. He has another life or an inner life. Maman is attractive, dressed tastefully and casually, at the top of her powers. She notices me watching. If I could, if it would help, I would tell her about the shadows gathering in the faces of her children.
I am smaller. Not there yet. If you are proud of being small, you are moving in the wrong direction.
This morning: barefoot construction workers installing sewer pipe.
In a cafe, the son of unhappy parents raises his voice until he is rebuked, any response better than none.
Japanese visitors walk by, protected by their breathtaking good taste, each a different version of the same dream. You don’t want to disturb them; a vengeful guardian of beauty might appear and do who knows what?
Lila Thai’s masseuses learn their trade in the women’s prison; they know something about humility. I went in to get more bigness pushed and kneaded out of me. As the masseuse worked on my neck, I opened my eyes and saw the underside of her chin, the chubby, flattened, non-judgemental face that watches, carved and gilded, over much of Asia.
Afterwards, on the street, fear began leaving, brittle moths flying out from beneath my shoulder blades. I crossed over to say hi to Goose. “Ronk” is actually what I say.
“Ronhnnnk.” Goose seemed down (hmmm).
“Ronk, ronk.” I was encouraging. Goose is usually in a good mood, resting, cleaning his magnificent feathers, or looking for bugs to eat. He is kept in a yard separate from the ladies and is lonely at times. I noticed a hole the size of a small coin in the webbing of one large yellow foot. Did he step on something sharp? Or had it been made to use for tethering? A sad thought. “Ronk.”
When I returned home, Batman was gone. There was a note, “Trouble in Bangkok.”
In the morning, he was back at his post on the window sill. “What happened, Batman?”
“No problem, Joe. Not as fast as I was, but I can still get it done.”
This was a major speech. I checked the Bangkok Post. There was a brief story about a robbery foiled by the collapse of the escaping burglar who claimed he’d been hit in the eye by a bird. A newsprint photo showed a gray-haired woman bowing to the police.
Give away all credit. That was one of Batman’s maxims.
I walked outside and headed for the market. Sunny. Fresh and cool. Suddenly I was small. The odd thing about smallness is how much room there is to feel grateful.
“The conduits and habits of love vary widely, but the need is universal. We can forgive each other…” Joe looked up from his notebook. “Sadder but wiser—what do you think, Batman?”
“No need for the Gettysburg Address.”
“Ah, mmm. ‘Good luck. Thanks for everything. Aloha.’ More like that?”
“It’s all in the tone, Joe.”
“Right.” Count on Batman. Stay in the groove, no time for bitterness. “How about some Bach? Or, Cyril Pahinui?” He thought of Cyril’s father, Gabby, sitting in Shipwreck Kelley’s, strong head and neck, a handsome man, a survivor, talking excitedly to a female fan. The Pahinuis were keepers of the groove.
Cyril’s guitar filled the room with open booming music. When the island boys got hold of Spanish guitars, they hadn’t taken long to trade flamenco for the Pacific. Love and loss were small pretty birds above the endless rolling.
“I’m feeling better. Think I’ll go for a walk before dark. Want me to shut this off?”
Joe put a flashlight in his pocket and left. He turned down Soi 2, the first lane he came to, getting away from the bikes, cars, and tuk-tuks. The one bay machine shop was already closed. Two older Thai women were drinking tea at a metal table in front of where they took in laundry. It had been hot earlier, but it was cooling; the sewer smell was beginning to abate.
He came to an intersecting lane, narrower, unmarked, and followed it around a curve. A middle-aged man was clipping a green plant hanging in front of a wooden house with tall paneled doors that seemed from another time. “Sawat-dee kap,” Joe said.
A few minutes later, he followed another lane, new to him. It was nearly dark. He hadn’t gone far when there was a burst of high pitched barking, followed by a woman’s scream. The sound came from ahead, around a bend in the lane. Joe hurried forward, moving to the side and taking the flashlight from his pocket.
The woman screamed again. Joe shined his light on her. She was leaning toward a dog who was attacking and retreating. The woman looked at Joe and pointed, “NgO! ” A short thick snake with diamond markings was coiled just out of striking distance from the dog. The dog jumped back and forth, challenging closer and closer. The snake struck; the woman screamed; the dog leaped sideways. The snake fell forward. Before it could coil, the dog was on it, jaws gripping behind the head. The dog bit and hung on, growling and shaking, snapping the head back and forth until the snake stopped writhing.
The woman put her palms together and bowed her head. The dog’s fast breathing was loud in the silence.
After a moment, she motioned to Joe. He followed her to a house where her husband listened to the story. “Thank you,” he said to Joe. He fired off instructions. His wife went into a car port and reappeared with a cardboard box and a shovel. He took them from her and gave Joe the universal come-with-me wave.
When they reached the snake, the dog was curled on the other side of the lane, resting. It was smallish, short-haired, white with yellow patches. The man handed Joe the box and stood still, assessing. He stepped forward and smashed the snake twice with the flat of the shovel. He took back the box. “Dead for sure,” he said.
He shoveled the snake into the box and closed the top flaps carefully. Joe pointed at the dog. “Your wife almost stepped on the snake. Is it your dog?”
The man smiled. Nothing in the universe belongs to anyone. “Soi dog,” he said.
“What next, Batman?”
“That fruit plate looks pretty good, Joe.”
“Right.” Joe Burke examined the purple flesh and tiny black seeds of a cut piece. Large pointed scales protected its exterior. “Not to be eaten before its time.”
A young woman two tables away looked at Joe. Don’t mess with my silence was her message. She had multiple tattoos on her upper body and was writing in a notebook. She was a regular presence after the cafe opened at seven. Joe hadn’t spoken to her; he also wrote in cafes, taking comfort from the presence of others for whom he had no responsibility.
“Sorry. I was talking to Batman.”
Her irritation flickered and returned as she bent over her notebook. Probably has a speech defect, he thought. Or doesn’t speak English. He took a bite of mystery fruit. Pretty good. Delicate flavor, for all that fierceness.
Joe had been in Thailand for two weeks and hadn’t talked to anyone. He avoided conversation with ex-pats, enjoying this language privacy. It was as though a thought balloon floated freely above him that no one could read. He finished breakfast and opened his own notebook. When he looked up, the young writer was gone.
“Evil lurks, Batman. We must go forth and contend.” Batman’s resolve was unwavering; that was what was great about him. Many were the mornings when Joe might have laid about, but Batman would have none of it. Evil has many masks, but it can be recognized by an absence of kindness. “That’s how we sniff it out, Batman. The dog that didn’t bark.”
It was one thing to find evil, another to do something about it. Corporations, for instance, that run advertisements touting their contributions to society while they wrecked the environment for profit—how could he change their behavior? Trying to counter their false advertising was like throwing stones at the Roman army. You might score a few hits, but you were not going to prevail. You were, in fact, doomed. Reform, if that’s what it was, or rebirth would have to come from a deeper level, be more basic. “Is puzzle. Is puzzle—” he said to the empty lane. At that moment the woman from the cafe pedaled a gray bike around the corner.
“Do you have Tourette’s Syndrome?” she asked, slowing.
“I didn’t think so.” She stopped.
“I haven’t talked to anyone for awhile.”
“That will do it. I used to talk to my bird.” She looked down.
“I left the front door open. He got out of his cage.”
“Too bad—where was that?”
“I hope he flew south.”
“Me, too. Have a good day.” She raised from her seat and pedalled forward.
Her expression hadn’t changed while they talked. Her mouth was controlled and determined. Her eyes seemed anchored in memory, round gray-blue eyes in a long face. Probably in her early thirties, maybe thirty-five, he thought. She might have been taken for older if it weren’t for the tattoos and her exuberant body pushing to escape from a scoop necked t-shirt and black pants. Remember Algren!
Joe had disregarded Nelson Algren’s famous advice (Never play poker with a man named Doc; never eat at a place called Mom’s; and never go to bed with a woman who has more problems than you do.) and regretted it. Not that he was at risk—he was twice her age, and she was quite possibly gay, in any case.
He stopped walking and took a small camera from his day pack. On the north side of the lane, just before the intersection with Ratchaphakinai Road, there was a standpipe, waist high, painted red. It was mostly hidden (or looked after) by a life-size wooden Goddess, smiling peacefully, wearing pieces of jewelry, attended by a few flowers.
Why shouldn’t the ugly and practical have beauty beside it? In the west, those who care try to make the practical more attractive in itself, declaring “form is function,” and so on. Sometimes this works, but usually beauty and utility dilute each other. Joe took several pictures that failed to express what he felt. He tried the next day and the day after that. The smiling wooden face began to come alive in his mind. My best friends right now are Batman and the goddess by Blue Diamond, he said to himself, surprised.
Batman had been a part of his life forever. They had a clear understanding, a mission. But the goddess was complicating the situation. She smiled and forgave and was happily silent. Batman spoke rarely, but you knew that he was thinking, that when he did speak he would encourage right action.
Joe was staring at the goddess one morning after breakfast when the mysterious writer came by on her bike. “Off to work?” Joe suggested, distracted.
“Five minutes early. What’s happening?”
“I don’t know. I think I’m falling for her.”
“You need to get out more.” She had a wise and bored expression. Maybe she was a bit older than he thought. Or, older in matters of the heart. She wasn’t flirting. She was probing, challenging.
“Mmm. Bye.” She rode off slowly. She was wearing a heavily studded black belt with holstery things on it, biker’s bling. It occurred to Joe that she might be one of those whatchamacallits—dominatrice? He had submitted to her judgement and felt an immediate rise in her attention. Maybe she had a wounded sensitive soul and got her balance back by disciplining power types who needed humiliation for their own balance. Joe was squarely normal in this regard, but he was fluid and could move a certain distance in either direction to satisfy, to keep a good thing going.
“Idle speculation,” he said to Batman who was riding in the top pocket of his pack. “Wait a second.” He brought Batman out to see the goddess. “What do you think?”
“Would you marry her?”
“Me, too,” Joe said.
A week later, the tables were all taken at Blue Diamond. The writer was alone at a table for four. Joe approached. “I’m sorry—could I share your table this morning?”
“I don’t want to hear your problems,” she said.
“Fine. Thank you. Anyway—” Joe removed his pack and sat down. “I don’t have any right now. It’s Batman.”
“You mean that little doll you put on your table?”
“He’s not a doll. He’s a—force.”
“So what’s his problem, in twenty words or less?”
“He’s in love.” Joe leaned forward and lowered his voice. “He’s been listless, not himself.”
“Bitten by the love bug, huh. Who is she, or he?”
“The goddess by the standpipe. At the corner. I’m sorry, I can’t talk about Batman behind his back.” Joe reached into his pack and brought Batman to the table.
The woman studied him for a moment. “Poor Batman,” she said. “It happens to everyone, even heroes. Especially heroes. He’s strong; he’ll get what he needs.”
“Time alone with his honey.” Joe stiffened. “Don’t want to let him go, huh?” She was world-weary, disdainful. “I’m running along here. Give it some thought.” She pushed back her chair and left the patio without looking back. At Blue Diamond you pay inside. Joe couldn’t see her from his table, but a few minutes later he watched her pedal away, steady and determined as usual.
Joe walked to the corner and stood for some time holding Batman in his hand. “We’ve been down many roads,” he said. No one was coming. He stepped forward and placed Batman in the crook of the goddess’s elbow, leaning against her. “Good luck.” He walked quickly away.
It was unthinkable, what he was doing. The street turned dark. He couldn’t cry; he couldn’t speak; he could barely see. He leaned helplessly against a portal to Wat Lam Chang. Batman … A black elephant on top of the portal stared impassively ahead. Get yourself together, boy, he told himself. A little dignity, for God’s sake.
The next day Joe came near enough to the corner to see something shiny in the goddess’s arms. He turned back, reassured, not wanting to disturb them. He’d seen the writer at breakfast and told her what he’d done.
“You’re only as rich as what you give away,” she said. But Batman wasn’t his to give away. It was the caring for him that had become so habitual.
On Saturday, four days later, Joe was lost in thought as he left Blue Diamond. When he reached the corner, he remembered and looked back for Batman. The goddess was gone! He thought he was at the wrong corner. No. There were signs in Thai on the shop fencing. No goddess. He looked frantically on the ground around the standpipe. No Batman.
Blue Diamond closed on Sundays. Joe walked over anyway and searched again. The goddess and Batman were gone.
“Maybe they eloped,” he said to the writer. On Monday he’d gone to her table and explained in a rush of words.
“Such a romantic.” She reached into her bag and put Batman on the table.
“Oh!” Joe was speechless.
“Friday, I think it was—I saw signs on that shop saying closed and sold. I asked, and the owner told me everything was going to a new location. I wished him luck in my best Thai, and when he wasn’t looking I nipped off with Batman.”
“Fantastic!” Joe began to recover. “How do you feel, Batman?”
“Are you sad?”
“Yes. But she told me her spirit takes many forms and we will meet again.”
Joe looked up at the writer. “I can’t thank you enough. What’s your name?”
Joe’s eyebrows went up in surprise. “Hawaiian?”
“I married a surfer,” she said, closing the subject. “I’ll say goodbye. I’m back to Maine next week—after two years.”
“I get to Maine once in awhile. My name’s Joe Burke.”
“Look me up in Portland, Joe. Bye, Batman.” She stood and departed with her customary abruptness.
When Joe eventually did get to Maine, he could find no trace of Eva Kalena. After saving Batman, she had disappeared as completely as the goddess.