Fathers and Sons
Until he came to Thailand, the best friend Max ever had was his son Brian, when Brian was about eight years old and they were in Cub Scouts.
Max had his children late in life. The style of hiking and camping that the Cubs did was just challenging enough for the little boy, while just easy enough for the middle-aged man. After a hike and a rehydrated dinner Max and Brian would lie in the tent side by side, or under the stars if the weather was fine, tell each other stupid knock-knock jokes and see who could fart the loudest. At that age Brian just assumed his Dad had all the answers, and Max was constantly amazed by how bright his son was. They adored each other.
A man’s relationship with his daughter never changes: from the moment of her birth until the moment of his death Max’s daughter would be Pookie-Bear and he would be Daddy. He would cut off his right arm if she asked him to and she knew he was her slave long before she could walk or speak.
But a man’s relationship with his son changes as they both age. By the time Max was sixty and his son nineteen Brian could not hide his frustration with his father’s inability to master any function on his phone beyond making a phone call. Max could not hide his disappointment that his brilliant son lived in a basement and divided his days between selling pot and playing ultra-violent video games.
Max retired to Thailand at sixty-five. He quickly became fascinated with, and then just as quickly bored with: scuba diving, Thai cooking, orchids, property investment, and women named Lek, Noi, Nit and Noot. Only a couple of years after arriving he was spending his evenings alone watching TV with a Burmese cat in his lap.
Just before noon on one hot, muggy day he found himself sitting on a plastic stool at a plastic table on the dirty sidewalk outside the Nam Khem Marine Diesel Engine shop on Soi Ngu Talay in Phuket City. The shop’s doors were locked and the stool was so short Max’s knees were touching his chin. A few stacks of similar plastic furniture were chained to the wall; apparently at some point in the day a street vendor would come by and set up shop. But for the moment Max was alone on the hot cement.
He had come, half-heartedly, to meet a man who wanted to convince Max to buy a small pleasure yacht currently moored in Chalong Bay. Max had never had any interest in the sea and really didn’t have enough ready cash to make such a purchase, but he was always looking for an excuse to get out of the house and the fellow had promised to buy him lunch at a nice place on the bay. They had arranged to meet at eleven outside Nam Khem Marine Diesel Engine, where they would pick up another gentleman who was supposed to be an experienced appraiser of sailing craft. But Max had been waiting for half an hour and there was no sign of the men he was meeting and no sounds of activity coming from the shop.
When he had first taken up his cramped position on the child-sized plastic stool he was in a narrow strip of shade provided by the wall of Nam Khem Marine Diesel Engine, but as the morning wore on and the sun moved across the sky his strip of shade had narrowed. He was up against the wall now, which was none too cool, and in a few minutes he would be in the full noontime tropical sunshine.
Max had been in Thailand long enough to know that there would be no surviving that. He had to find another shady place, and ideally something to drink. It had been five hours since breakfast and he’d had nothing to drink in that time. He looked up and down the street. It was a typical Phuket City business soi, dedicated as most are to a single industry, in this case fishing. There were windows that exhibited glass floats and sisal nets and canvas sails. Windows that displayed dried food in bulk, and teak hatches and doors. There was a window filled with solid brass propellers; the smallest could fit in the palm of a man’s hand, the largest had the diameter of a garbage can lid.
Max could see every imaginable kind of fishing and boating gear behind the windows on Soi Ngu Talay but no open doors. Every shop was closed. It is common in Thailand for the merchants on a street to all coordinate their days off, and apparently this was the day the merchants of Soi Ngu Talay relaxed at home.
When Max could feel the sunlight on his toes he decided he had waited long enough. He was never interested in buying the damned boat anyway. He knew a little restaurant on the traffic circle in front of the Metropole Hotel where they made a good bowl of noodles and had beer on ice. It was only four blocks away. Max stood up and felt a bit lightheaded. He began walking down the street.
He wore a hat but even so the sun’s heat came down on his head with an almost physical weight. He was walking slowly, but the air was thick and humid and it took some effort to draw it into his lungs. Once there it did not seem to want to give up its oxygen. There was sweat falling into his eyes and he couldn’t focus. He was afraid he’d miss a step and break a hip, so he paused and put out a hand to a streetlight pole to steady himself.
The pole was not where he expected it to be. His hand kept going with his weight behind it and suddenly his foot was slipping off the curb and he started to tumble into the street.
A pair of strong, skinny arms caught him. The arms were cool, wonderfully cool. Max swiped the back of his hand across his eyes to clear the sweat from them and said “Whew!”
His savior was a boy, no more than ten or eleven at most. He was shirtless and his skin was so dark brown it was almost black. The skin on the tops of his shoulders was so burned it was peeling away. He had an old red checkered rag wrapped around his head, the tattered remnants of a pair of swimming trunks clinging to his hips and cracked and desiccated rubber thongs on his feet. He was grinning broadly. He swiped the back of his own hand across his eyes in imitation of Max and said, “Whew!”
They both laughed.
Behind the boy was a block of ice the size of a small refrigerator strapped to a steel hand truck. That’s why the boy’s arms were so cool; he had been manhandling this behemoth down the sidewalk behind Max when Max almost fell into the street. The boy asked Max if he was alright. Despite the heat and humidity, despite his obvious poverty and undoubtedly painful sunburn, in spite of the disparity between his own weight and the weight of his burden, the boy’s face showed nothing but concern for the old man.
Like any sensible person, upon arrival in Thailand with intention to stay Max had invested the six weeks and four hundred dollars necessary to learn a functional command of the Thai language. “I’m fine,” he said to the boy. “Thanks for helping me. Can you tell me if there’s some place close by I can sit down in the shade? Maybe get a cold drink?”
The boy was taking the ice to the restaurant where he worked; the place was not open but the boy was certain the manager would let Max sit under the awning and have a cold soda. Max offered to help the boy push the enormous block of ice to the restaurant but the boy insisted on doing it himself. The two of them proceeded down the street and around a corner, the boy struggling manfully with the block of ice which always seemed just about to topple backwards and crush him, Max always seeming just about to crumple at the knees and collapse. All three, man, boy and ice, were sweating profusely. Together they limped and inched and creeped finally into the doorway of a placed called Blah Thong, the “Goldfish. “
It was a typical sing-a-song bar, dim and cool and funky with the odors of last night’s business. The concrete floor was still damp from being recently mopped. The ceiling was woven of palm on a framework of coconut tree trunks, the two cheapest building materials in the province, and the reasons why fire insurance has never been sold on the island.
The boy stopped his snail’s journey and pulled a chair off a table for Max. He continued through a doorway that Max assumed led into the kitchen. The sounds of a hatchet striking ice were heard, and a few moments later the boy returned with a glass of iced water. He placed it, gently, in front of Max with his left hand supporting his right wrist. Max noted the boy’s good manners and thanked him, adding an honorific to the sentence. The boy beamed.
The boy went back into the kitchen and left the old man alone. Max felt the cool air of the room sucking the heat out of his body. He took off his hat and fanned himself with it. There was nothing about the Blah Thong that he could see that set it apart from any of the other dozen or so sing-a-song joints in Phuket City. A bandstand at one end, bar at the other, tables around the perimeter of a small dance floor. Booths against the brick walls. Movie star posters and tissue paper goldfish and other décor Max could not identify in the gloom. Only a few fluorescent bars on the opposite side of the room were on and Max was thoroughly enjoying the dark, the cool, and the silence. Soon he was asleep.
After that day Max came back to Blah Thong often; it turned out they had a very good kitchen. He never developed a taste for Thai popular music but he did enjoy watching the pretty girls in their frilly dresses. He also enjoyed watching the Thai businessmen troop up to the stage and hang flower garlands on their girlfriends. In a place like Blah Thong the girls considered themselves performers, not prostitutes per se. To sleep with a sing-a-song girl you not only had to promise her money; you had to make a public expression of your respect for her talent. It was a very serious business and the girls never smiled when the businessmen, also with grim faces, marched up to the edge of the stage and hung the flowers around their necks.
The boy’s name was Thip, and he had no way to know for sure but he thought he was about twelve years old. If that was true he was small for his age. Over the next few months Max got to know Thip, who worked as a general laborer in the place in return for table scraps and a mattress in the kitchen. It turned out the two of them liked each other a lot.
The boy had had a very rough life so far. Orphaned as an infant, chased by hunger from some shtetl way upcountry, a place whose name he couldn’t even remember, to Roi Et to Bangkok and finally to this third-rate cabaret on a pot-holed alley off a side street on Phuket. He had started out with an older sister, but lost her somehow in Bangkok. Along the way he’d been beaten and raped. He’d never been seen by a doctor or dentist. He’d never been to school, but he’d been taught how to beg and taught how to steal and taught how to fight dirty. He taught himself how to earn an honest living, such as it was. His goal in life was to have a room of his own with a TV in it.
He carried a key he’d found somewhere on the road, like a talisman, practicing for the day when he’d have a key to a room of his own.
He didn’t tell Max most of this, of course. But Max had been in Thailand long enough to guess. Max was aware that it was possible Thip had saved his life out on the street the day they’d met. He continued to visit the Blah Thong in the early evenings, just after sunset, when they would technically be open for business but not have any other customers yet. He gave Thip some money to buy decent clothes and began to spend an hour each evening teaching the boy some English.
Thip was bright, and he was extremely motivated. Everybody in the peninsula recognizes that exploiting tourists is, by far, the easiest way to make money there is. There is no rancor in this; the farmer loves and respects the buffalo he drives in the paddy. To interact with tourists you need to speak English, just as you need to know how to use the whip to drive a buffalo. Thip threw himself into his studies with determination. English would get him his own room and his TV.
Max recognized Thip‘s dedication and added math and history to the syllabus. Eventually they were spending two hours every evening poring over notebooks and textbooks at a table in Blah Thong, and since Max was always buying food and drink for them both during the lesson, and since any business on Phuket, any business at all, can profit from having a farang seated on its premises, the manager always welcomed Max and allowed Thip as much time as he needed for his studies.
Time passed, as it will. Thip grew, as boys will, when they get enough food and a mosquito net to sleep under. The older he was, and the more he knew, the more responsibility the management of Blah Thong gave Thip. He learned to cook, wait tables, mix drinks, fix the karaoke machine, and even make change at the register. Eventually they gave him a salary, and then he had his own room with a TV in it, in a shophouse two blocks from Blah Thong.
The street was full of similar shophouses, all with rooms for rent, and all the rooms full of the sing-a-song girls from all the sing-a-song bars in Phuket City. Thip entered puberty surrounded by hundreds of women, by sad love ballads sung in a minor key, by tampons and condoms, by frilly dresses and lingerie hanging from laundry lines on the roof, in the bathrooms, bedrooms, and hallways. Laundry lines were everywhere, card games were everywhere, stuffed animals were everywhere, baby photos where everywhere, jars of skin whitening products were everywhere, and always there was talk of shoes, shoes, shoes.
Max had found his calling. He never did buy the boat. He got his TOEFL card from Phuket Community College and scoured the Web for the very best Thai-English text books. The manager of Blah Thong finally got tired of finding notebooks and pencil boxes and workbooks on every horizontal surface of his near-brothel; he purchased a small set of bookshelves to go behind the bar. Very quickly this was replaced by a larger set of bookshelves. Thip had grown up very poor and never learned any Buddhist philosophy beyond the basic rituals; he was a hoarder and could not bear to throw away a single completed workbook or nub of a pencil.
Max’s Thai language skills improved to the point that he impressed every Thai person he spoke to. He began to teach classes at a couple of primary schools on the island’s central plains. He realized at one point that it had been a year since he’d been to the beach. His whole life was Blah Thong and Thip. Thip was his best friend, maybe the best friend he’d ever had.
One night, a night that a monk at Wat Chalong had helped Thip select to represent his unknown eighteenth birthday, he came to Max’s regular table dressed in a bright red A-line dress with pleated skirt by Tony Bowls, gliding confidently on a pair of knock-off Manolo Blahnik pumps. His face was made up and he had long, red artificial nails on his fingers. If he was being honest, Max was not surprised. Thip had been growing his hair for a couple of years, and he had been practicing singing with the girls of the Blah Thong. He had a lovely true high tenor voice, just a smidge below contralto. It was not the life Max would have chosen for Thip, because it was not an easy life, but he knew it was not his choice to make. And Thip had experience dealing with a hard life.
“Do you want me?” Thip asked Max.
“Like a woman. Do you want me like a man wants a woman?”
“I owe you everything. I have nothing to give, nothing but myself. If you want me, I belong to you.”
“Oh. Yeah. Well, thanks, but no, I don’t want you that way. I love you like you’re my child, Thip.” Happily the Thai language offers a word that means child, with the affectionate connotations of “son” or “daughter,” but without the gender specificity.
Thip swept the back of her hand across her eyes and said, “Whew!” They both laughed and the tense moment passed.
“Well, gotta go to work. See ya later, Daddy.”
Max watched Thip climb the stage with her sisters and begin the first number of the evening. Halfway through the song a youngish businessman, apparently fairly well off judging by his watch and shoes, brought Thip a flower garland. Max was briefly uncomfortable but he managed to get through it. He knew she would be a lot of men’s girlfriend, and maybe some day some lucky man’s wife, but she would always be his Pookie-Bear, and he would always be her Daddy.