Life and Death in Cambodia
I first met Cal on the restaurant balcony of the Mealy Chena Guest House & Restaurant six years ago. I had gotten in late the night before from Phnom Penh, had a few beers, and then retired to my room where I read a couple of John Cheever stories. In the morning, I headed over to the restaurant and found a small table overlooking the decaying relics from the French era and the many-colored bay and the islands beyond. I was about halfway into an English breakfast—eggs, baked beans, bacon, hotdogs and toast—when I noticed that a heavyset man with a full and unkempt head of salt and pepper hair and a huge beard more gray than brown had taken the table next to mine.
I finished my breakfast and had a second cup of strong drip coffee, all the while eyeing this man next to me, who as far as I could tell had not once turned in my direction. What I had noticed right away when he sat down is that he took out a plastic sandwich bag that had an ample amount of marijuana in it, and one of those tiny packets of cigarette paper for rolling your own. Meticulously, he made a joint, and then he began smoking, slowing tilting his head back as he inhaled, and then just as slowly moving his head forward as he exhaled. He didn’t order a breakfast, but he did have coffee and three glasses of orange juice, this peculiar habit of the moment more of a jolt to my sense of reality than what he was smoking.
I remember my opening words to him: You seem relaxed, like you’re unfolding all this around us on your own special clock.
He didn’t turn to look at me, and instead took what was left of the joint to his mouth and went through this ritual that did not vary, and would not change in the slightest when I saw him in subsequent years. The last of the smoke out of his mouth, he said, It’s easy here. That’s what you have to know about Cambodia. There’s never any trouble or hassles unless you’re stupid, a statement that in more recent times he amended to: or a Russian. The Russians had come, he and others would tell me, and I could see so clearly myself, as I have in Thailand. They have brought money to be laundered, and they have brought their famous penchant for heavy drinking, and most telling perhaps they have brought their disdain for even the most minimal standards of acceptable behavior, which more than anything gets them in trouble with the police who are amazingly tolerant, or demanding of no more than a few dollars for what in this part of the world might be called your run-of-the-mill f@#$up—no driver’s license, drunk while driving, beating the shit out of someone who deserves it.
He invited me to join him, and he said his name was Cal and that he’d come here a little over a year ago from a small town south of Austin, Texas. And west of nowhere you ever heard of, he added. I think he might’ve named the town he came from that first time we met, but I never could remember it, and it didn’t matter anyway. Geography of this sort is beside the point.
After taking up a chair across from him, he asked me if I wanted to smoke, and when I nodded he made one for me before he fashioned a similar one for himself, the second of what would be three joints on this our first day together. Or rather I should say the second of three that I saw, for he may well have had one or two in his room before I met him, and I have no idea how many later that same day. Then, and in later get-togethers, I would notice that as the day went on he would sometimes, for an hour or so, turn to smoking a local brand cigarette and drinking what seemed like an endless run of Angkor draft beer, before he’d again return to a joint. A morning, afternoon, and night desert, he once said to me when describing his habit. But maybe this isn’t being quite fair to Cal and even others that I meet from time to time in my aimless travels in this part of the world. One person’s joint is everyone’s joint, and maybe it has always been like this among weed aficionados—a way of bonding that visibly brings to the fore certain attitudes about this small life we all live, and in the long moments of sharing a way to make light of what others invariably take too seriously given that we all must face the inevitability of personal extinction.
In subsequent years, I would learn that Cal had had some run-ins with the law in Texas, though as far as I know he never spent any time in prison, nothing more than a few days or a week in a local jail. I gathered that none of these problems had anything to do with the marijuana he was growing in the general vicinity of the trailer he shared with his wife and three dogs in the years before he found Cambodia. The problems, I think, had to do with gun issues, and taking game out of season, and on one occasion threatening a neighbor with a shotgun because, as he said, the neighbor had gotten sassy and mean with his wife. I sensed that Cal had great respect for his wife, and women in general, and he didn’t like anyone treating her like less than an equal.
His wife, Holly, had gotten diagnosed with a rare kind of blood cancer at the age of thirty-seven, at a time when they had been making their first attempt to have a child. They never had the child because Holly was soon getting radiation and chemotherapy treatments for that kind of cancer that short of a bone marrow transplant or something similar is inevitably fatal. It was a tough time for Cal, all this suffering by his wife and thinking about the child he would never have, and about the only relief he got from watching his wife slowly die was the strong friendship he had developed over the years with a neighbor, Russ, who had been living alone for several years in a nearby trailer.
Russ also had been married, to a woman who worked as a waitress in the small Texas town not far from where they lived. Cal said that Russ’s wife couldn’t keep her panties on when she found herself around customers who gave her the pretty eye and sugary words and then wanted her for an hour or two in a hotel or in the back of the cab of a long-haul truck, followed by a tip of the sort she was not accustomed to getting serving meals. Russ knew about this problem with his wife and ignored it, claiming he loved her and this was just the way some women are—dropping their panties for all comers– and you have to accept it, just like some women have to accept that men are this way too.
He lived with this bad behavior by his wife until the day he found out that she had given him the clap on one of those two or three days a month when he needed a little relief and she was in a good mood, and, as Russ likes to put it, willing to spread her legs and take that f@#$ing cancer stick out of mouth long enough to give me a smile while doing it. But after the doctor told him the news and Russ knew that there was only one way he could have gotten the disease, he realized that he’d had enough. So one day when his wife was at work he rented a small U-Haul trailer and put all of his wife’s belongings in it and parked the trailer outside the gate coming onto the property. He took an old piece of plywood and wrote on it: Don’t Ever Come Back or You’ll Regret It. Like Cal, Russ loves guns, and he likes people to draw their own conclusions about what this might mean under certain circumstances. As Cal tells it, Russ never saw his wife again. He didn’t bother with getting a divorce, and he doesn’t to this day know whether she is alive or dead. He doesn’t care one way or another, and I’ve rarely heard stories about her when we sit around and smoke and piss away the day.
It was when Cal’s wife died that Cal and Russ decided they’d had enough of paying too much for electricity and paying property taxes that made no sense and always having to worry about being stopped on their bikes when high or drunk. Texas like everywhere else in America is just lots of people who don’t know what to do with their own lives but love getting into other people’s business all the time, Cal would often say. That just don’t happen here in Cambodia. No one pays any notice to what I do and that’s the way I like it.
From time to time I’d find myself around Cal and Russ, always in the same little bar on the street with all the bars with needy girls who come from even needier families, and always slouched in one of the bamboo chairs facing the dirt street, invariably drinking beer or a rum coke and enjoying either a cigarette or a joint. It became clear to me that this is where they spent most of their afternoons and evenings, obvious because they could tell me the names of all the girls on their way to work and how long they’d been here and if they had a kid or two; and how much the Russians across the road were drinking and who or what they had run over or smashed in their big cars; and all about the pretty and tall Khmer woman with the baby in arms who came around in the early evening with a plastic box full of the best apple pie you could find anywhere in Sihanoukville, maybe the whole of Cambodia.
Some nights we’d sit there for a couple of hours and drink and smoke and recycle stories, until it got really quiet and everyone had had too much and then we’d all go our separate ways. There were other nights when the only difference was the billiards we’d play, the stakes never higher than the half dollar or so for another glass of Angkor draft, and maybe not even that. Now and again I’d get lucky and someone I’d never met before would join the small nightly gathering of expat runaways and drunks and dope heads and I’d hear stories that I could then turn into one of my small essays or use in a short story that I’d write and be read by all of four or five people.
A couple of years ago, Cal and Russ bought some land a couple of hours to the west of Sihanoukville in the mountains. I didn’t have to ask what they’d be growing, but I was a bit curious about how much they’d have to pay the cops, corruption something that has always fascinated me, long working on the assumption that it gives one the real market value of a good or service. I never found a way to get this information, however, and as much as I sensed the two of them had come to trust me they didn’t reveal much at all about this venture. I would learn just this year that whatever they had been doing didn’t work out. I don’t know whether they had problems farming the weed, or with the cops asking for too much, or maybe it was just too damn much trouble and interfered with the easy life they’d come to embrace. What I did learn just a few days ago is that Russ is now into doing a little electrical work for the bars and restaurants when there’s an outage, which might come several times a day because no one has a clue how to run power through the ancient lines. Anyway, Russ gets enough from this talent he learned back in Texas to allow him to give a little more to the local girls with kids who no one wants to be with and then come to Russ asking for a small loan that he can’t refuse and knows will never be repaid.
Since I last saw Cal, a couple of years ago at about this time of the year, he’s slipped, and he’s getting worse by the day, and things are not looking good. He now can’t seem to get himself out of bed most days in the small room he has. He sleeps long hours, he reads novels, he goes to his weed habit as much as he ever did, and the depression that was there long before he came to Cambodia has gotten worse. He’s now chronically depressed, for days at a time. Unable or unwilling to speak, or eat much, or even drink like he has for so long.
A little over a month ago, Cal discovered a rash on his arms and legs, and it began to spread. It now covers a good part of his body. He has no explanation for what it is or where it came from, and he doesn’t want one. And he won’t go to a doctor, about this he’s quite insistent. He’d rather just lie in bed in his small musty room with the noisy overhead fan and the cockroaches feasting on the food on the floor and wait until there’s no more waiting to be done. No one can help on this, and just like all of us advice and what he might do to come out of the depression isn’t something he wants to hear, anymore than he ever wanted to listen to two words from a Texas cop or some bureaucratic ding-a-ling from the county coming around to reassess the value of the land on which his trailer sat.
Maybe it’s the memory of his wife and how she died that’s now killing him? Maybe it’s just a cancer like the one that got his wife, he believes. Maybe it’s just the Dark Hole of depression that has no explanation and needs none and now cannot be kept under wraps with another joint, another dozen beers, another game of billiards, or another repetitive comment on the familiar traffic on the dirt road where for so long you could find him seated next to Russ, two gentle and unassuming men with no goal other than to enjoy another hassle free day in what they see and know to be the best place they can imagine living. And dying too, that thing they really don’t care to talk about.
Sihanoukville, Cambodia (5/21/13)