My Retirement Plans
There’s a beach somewhere on the Andaman coast of Thailand. The sand is as white as typing paper and as flat as the Daytona speedway, long enough to walk for miles but not so wide that the coconut trees can’t shade the width of it. When the monsoons push a band of trash to the high tide line there’s no Styrofoam at all. No plastic water bottles. No tar balls. No seafood restaurant plate scrapings. Just coconut fronds, sea shells and beautifully twisted ash-gray driftwood. There’s a small tavern right on the sand, really just a thatch roof supported by driftwood logs over a bar knocked together from bamboo. A few old farang men like me gather there at dusk to gossip and argue and trade books. There’s no plumbing so nobody washes the glassware; we regulars have china mugs with our names written on them hung from pegs. There are no shot glasses and no mixers. Drinks are poured straight from the bottle into an unwashed china mug. There are no ash trays. At night the lights of the fish traps offshore compete with the impossibly brilliant stars; when the moon is full it’s like pale blue daylight and young couples promenade slowly up and down the strand until well past midnight.
At the southern end of the beach there’s a market town. A single cannery on a rocky promontory attracts to a rickety pier a small fleet of chunky wooden craft, brightly painted with prows wreathed in massive flower garlands. There’s an old Sino-European hotel two streets off the beach with a fantastic Chinese restaurant that’s open late. I can still smoke tobacco in that restaurant. There are tables outside on a second floor balcony where I can smoke whatever I like and, in dry weather, sit over the street unobserved and watch my neighbors go about their business. There’s a small casino on the sixth floor where an ugly man with a scar and an eye patch deals “gang of four” and a slinky sad woman in a sequined dress sings torch songs in Mandarin. There’s a massage parlor without a name on the fifth floor where the girls earn bragging rights if they’ve been with a farang, but the girls in the barber shop off the lobby will give a better neck massage and also clip the hair from a man’s ears and nostrils. Their talcum powder is mentholated and they sweep the brush around inside my collar and down my chest with a giggle.
In the center of town there’s a fresh market under a galvanized tin roof as big as a football field where young men with bodies like Adonis carry sweating blocks of ice on their backs and young women with faces like Venus whack the heads off monstrous fish on solid chunks of teak as big as automobiles and slick with blood. In the market I can buy rambutan and rice, papaya and pineapple. A pharmacist with a pigtail four feet long sells balls of raw opium in the section devoted to traditional medicines. A whole section of the market is devoted to insects, another to religious iconography, another to bladed weapons. There are tables piled high with fireworks from China next to tubs of Indian curry paste in a dozen different shades of ochre. Walking down the aisles you have to push your way through the stink. Around the corner and down an alleyway too narrow for automobile traffic is a small store that caters to the few yachties who know this port and inside its dim shoulder-wide aisles I can buy peanut butter, powdered milk, taco seasoning, goose pâté in cans, ketchup in plastic bags and used copies of Mad magazine.
There is a bus station where the highway brushes up against the edge of town and the kitchen there serves the best plate of pad Thai in the world at three in the morning. On any night of the week there will be somebody interesting at the table next to mine. One night it’s a sixty-year-old North Korean arachnologist and his SSD minder planning their escape, the next a pair of Vegas show girls taking a year off to circle the world, the next a priest from California who has lost his faith and become addicted to prescription pain killers. Sometimes I’ll stay and talk to a stranger until the sun comes up and his bus rolls on down the road, and our parting is like that of brothers because we know we’ll never meet again in this life.
There are four cops on the night shift at the brick and stucco police station and I know them all. I am the warden for the American consulate and periodically I am called to translate for Americans who end up behind the bars of the town’s single jail cell. I know the post mistress, the librarian, the principal of the high school and every merchant up and down both sides of the quiet and quaint main street, where the loudest sound you hear is normally the clack of mahjong tiles from the Chinese surname society. I was an honored guest at the wedding of the guy who fixes my motorcycle; I attended the funeral of the mother of my landlord. I tutored the college-bound sons of the mayor, the guy who owns the cannery (the richest man in town) and the guy who owns the karaoke bar and the bowling alley (the most dangerous man in town).
I attend services most mornings at the little temple on the hill. There are three monks and two of them like me. The lay leadership won’t let me cook for the monks but the women who do count on me to wash the pots and pans. I find that hot, soapy water and repetitive manual labor aid meditation, and the temple hides a hot spring and sauna facility where I spend an hour after the kitchen is clean.
I have a little house on a bluff over the sea upwind of the cannery. Bedroom, living room, and kitchen, everything screened in and shaded by century-old casuarina trees hung with banyan roots as thick as my thigh. The big hardwood deck serves as dining room if the weather is nice, tiny birds steal sugar from the kitchen and in the evenings the soft red sunlight shoots horizontally through the whole house. An old dog named Yoo-Yee lives under the porch. I’ve never locked the doors. You can drive up the driveway or climb the path from the beach, but call first because I’m not home most of the time.
I imagine that home is where they’ll find me when it’s over. In a perfect world nobody would die alone, but I would not want some poor woman to have to witness my death mid-coitus, nor would I want it to happen in a bus depot or bowling alley. I’m not lucky enough to check out at sunset on the beach so probably one of the temple people will find my body on the living room floor when I don’t show up to wash pots a couple days in a row. My son and daughter will fly out from the States and scatter my ashes over the sea and that will be the end of it. But I hope the funeral will be well attended, and the people of the little town by the sea will be sad to see me go. After all the bullshit and the struggle, after all the opinions and arguments and animosities, after all the missed opportunities and failed ambitions and lost loves, being remembered kindly by a few folk in a quiet town by the ocean is all I desire. In fact, I’m planning on it.