"Boogeyman in Paradise"
This story recounts an adventure on an otherwise dull night in a quiet town in the south of Thailand.
This story has never been published.
Boogeyman in Paradise
by Steve Olson
March 10, 1998
"You should just go to Thailand," Scott said. We were sipping King Fisher beer in the dining room of our latest guest house, one that we’d reached after a day-long drive in an open jeep through the gauntlet of Indian weather. That day, India, an erstwhile gracious hostess to a month of wandering, got sick of our company; that day, Kali kicked our ass. First, the morning grew hot enough to scorch my Californian forehead to a Scandinavian red. Then, for the first time in three days, it monsooned, sploshy drops forcing us to seek refuge in a Hindu temple, through which I trod in my boots until a saddhu bellowed. Chagrined, I stood outside on the berm of Highway Zero and listened to the whimpering of the Most Pathetic Dog in the Whole Wide World, its skinny back hunched as if it slept in a shoebox, one leg destined to kick at the air forever, hopping in circles from the cold that wasn’t there. And there we sat, burnt and wet and bored, with a free view of abject misery. When we got back on the road an hour later, so did a dust storm, to drive away the rain and paste us with flaky ox shit and needle-sharp sand. Just miles from where we curled around our King Fishers, we had taken in the face handfuls of purple powder and doughy mud from revelers in a marriage procession. Instead of celebrating the marriage, the wet entourage celebrated two white targets on the move. We became the muddy victims of the dark side of Tourist Celebrity, the usage fee for whitey on parade in the Third World. That day, a town called Deeg collected toll. Fucking Deeg: Scott promised that if he ever became President of Anything, he’d level Deeg--surgical strikes to settle the balance of payments. It’d been a long day, the kind that clouds judgment, makes one dismissive of entire provinces and is best forgotten over a cold beer.
"You should just go. Get on a plane and go to the south of Thailand. You’ll have a great time," he said. Scott extolled the virtues of the southland, its fantastic beaches, spicy food and relaxing massages. It sounded like the life of Riley, twenty feet from the beach, at ten bucks a day. We finished our beers and nan, went to bed, and caught the train back to Delhi the next afternoon. A day later, Scott went back to the States, leaving me to contemplate a long plane ride back to…what? In America, I was between jobs and not on anybody’s wanted list. With days in Delhi to mull over the decision, to let the concept of the South of Thailand grow in this urban morass of rubble heaps, yapping tuk-tuks and diarrhetic trucks, I realized that it was no decision at all. I was off to the beach.
The night in question found me in Krabi, a large and growing junction at the elbow of the Thailand peninsula. Krabi-town is known for the beaches that you can reach near it: Ao Nang by bus, Pra Ngang by long-tailed boat and the renowned island of Ko Phi Phi, two hours away by fast boat. Krabi itself wasn’t much. Tourist season, I learned, began the following month. With no one to ship to someplace better, Krabi had cocooned, leaving the silly farang who came at the wrong time to pick among the scraps. In my three days of notes, I was sensing the traveler’s trap. Since I had arrived with no specific agenda, with no contacts to take me deeper in-country, there was a core set of experiences that I could not escape. I could do some stuff, and I could watch some stuff. But I could not meet Thais in any way other than as a tourist. In fact, as a white man, I was once again a Tourist Celebrity, recognized only as a tourist, greeted in the hopes of some exchange of Bhat for prefab fun. "Hellloooo!" friendly faces said, and before I could reply: "You want taxi?" I was trapped in the tourist loop, an underwater tube ride through a nation’s carnivals whose only audiences were other tourists. And the tourist hates to see the tourist because the tourist reminds the tourist that he is a tourist: a feeder, a struggling baby who must be coddled with air conditioning, pampered in outdoor-adventure clothes and medicated with Pepto-Bismol in his search for the snapshots of a lifetime. So the tourist, who cannot go native and is irritated by his fellow tourists, often ends up alone. Maybe that was it: I was just lonely. Whatever the case, that night I went to dinner, having already decided that it was my last night in Krabi, that I would push on, in hopes of finding some nugget of authentic experience. As I wrote in my journal, "No, something’s got to happen."
As I finished my meal of prawns in vermicelli with ginger, a musician started to warm up his synthesizer on stage. Writing through dinner at my table in the back, I had failed to notice the elevated stage piled with musicians’ gear: a drum set, the synthesizer, a couple of electric guitars, and metal stands turned sideways to accommodate the instruments. The musician, dressed in a black vest and white shirt, moved a music stand to the far corner of the stage and into a blue pool of light. He flicked switches on his synthesizer to test its beats. He twisted knobs to adjust levels. He checked the echo in the mike, mumbling an incoherence that sounded like, "Tuning." In the corner, a table of women hurried through plates of noodles. One finished a slurpy soup and moved to the stage, a sheet of music in hand. Then, I put it together.
I'd heard of these places. These night cafés, a variation on the western-oriented go-go bars, catered to older Thai men who came to see these young women sing songs in front of a live band. Thailand, of course, is known for its western-oriented prostitution, for the adventures of the crotch for the Tourist Celebrity. But that bump-and-grind prostitution is not something of which Thais are proud; like the Brazilian bikini, it’s an imported heritage, an industry imposed on a people too poor to choose. This coffee house, where the entertainment stayed in dresses, where I was the only white man in the place, suggested something sweeter, perhaps a look at how older Thai men chastely flatter young women.
The first woman on stage sang a weepy pop song of swooning portamenti, the blue spot freezing her like a doll in a shop window, the cabaret siren yearning for true love. Pale and thin-voiced, she sounded like she’d given blood every day this week. The campiness would’ve been eaten up by American audiences, provided they could laugh. But it was straight-serious to the Thai men who had begun to gather at tables closer to the stage. As she finished her song and headed back to the women’s table, the singer bowed to the clapping from the audience, wai’ed the vested musician and placed a few Bhat in his tip jar.
Another woman got up, and thereafter followed a steady rotation of women to sing two songs each, payment expected at the end of each round. Incapable of understanding Thai, I began to apply names to these women. There was Big Sal, the stewardess and Miss Punk among others. Round and round they went--Big Sal, the stewardess, Miss Punk. It dawned on me that this was an audition of sorts, a parade of merchandise for the audience. Perhaps this flattery wasn’t so chaste.
There were ten teenage servers to handle the twenty-odd customers, and soon the final bill was dropped in front of me. Before leaving, I wanted to get a picture of one of these women bathed in blue. I moved to the table closest to the microphone and twiddled with my camera.
"Hellloooo!" Two tables away a sloppy paw waved in the air. Two guys were beckoning me over. They were Prayat and Zsa Zsa, and they peppered me with the usual Tourist Celebrity questions: where are you from? How do you like Krabi? They were quite drunk, and I, having had a couple of beers with dinner, stood at the crossroads in an evening of booze, where one either commits to the night or goes home to bed. Writers share a long history with drink, a love-hate relationship that extends back to the birth of beer itself; we did, after all, write the first bottle labels. Booze allows a writer, a natural observer, to commit to the moment, to be one of the gang. But--and this is news to nobody--booze clouds judgment. A drunk misses the details. What was on their table? I don’t know. What brand of cigarettes did Zsa Zsa smoke? I don’t know. What were these guys wearing? Except for vague impressions of color, I don’t know. I do know that I did stay, that I did commit, that I did go along for the ride.
Zsa Zsa was pouring beers, while Prayat hung on to the table with his forehead. At 9:30 at night, theirs seemed just about finished. Zsa Zsa, it turned out, was Vietnamese, and Prayat was Thai, and they could only communicate in French. How quaint, I thought, and how great: I had learned some French in college. Zsa Zsa and I agreed on a cultural exchange of sorts; he would practice English which he’d been studying for a year, and I would fumble through my rusty French. Zsa Zsa and I babbled in two different languages, asking the other for the words we didn’t know, gesticulating where words failed. It was a great challenge, a rush that still intrigues: to communicate with someone from the other side of the world. Energized, I let them pour me another beer.
It took some time to ascertain that they’d met as teenagers in the south of France (hence, their communication in French). They had been in France to train as kickboxers. Zsa Zsa, who stayed, later became a champion in France but deferred to the superior skill of Prayat who returned to Thailand to win many tournaments. Prayat produced a yellowed photo of himself, much younger, as a sturdy athlete holding a big trophy.
Over Prayat’s shoulder, Zsa Zsa said, "In France, I am champ. I am zee top. But France is nothing in Thailand. In kickboxing, Thailand is everything."
Prayat grunted. He was not so interested in this praise. I tried to ply him with questions, but he was furthermore not interested in my bad French. "Speak English, please," he muttered, his head inches the table. They were an odd pair. Where Zsa Zsa was tall and skinny, Prayat was squat and thick. Prayat forbade my bad French, and Zsa Zsa insisted that I use no English. Zsa Zsa did the talking, his lank hair pulled back into a pony-tail around his almond-shaped face, a shape, I thought, that seemed to draw attention to the mouth. He was a talker, all right, and Prayat was a mutterer. While Zsa Zsa spoke with easy-going garrulity, Prayat made noises, ran his fingers through his hair and avoided eye contact. How these two guys had remained friends for fifteen years, over a distance of seven thousand miles, I didn’t know. They could hardly drink together; Zsa Zsa ordered two more beers which Prayat and his slumping shoulders did not want.
I told Zsa Zsa that I was in computers which was partially true. It’s the easiest explanation, but maybe not the right one at the time, For Zsa Zsa asked, "There is money in computers?"
"Pour quelques gens," I said. For some people, yes, but I wasn’t in the millionaire-nerd set. I looked like a hippie ("You are holy man?" I’d been asked in India.) and liked the respect it afforded. The hippie on tour doesn’t get fucked with; hippies of today are tough, willing to eat mangos from a bowl of rat shit to save a buck, ready for someone to swipe at their backpacks. I was not one of them and did not want that difference to be perceived; among the Tourist Celebrities, the rich were marks, indeed.
Zsa Zsa nodded and seemed to buy this line. He was in trucks, he said, he drove a truck in Paris. He was forty-two and hated to get up at six am every morning and "go like zis": he hunched over, grabbed an imaginary steering wheel and clenched his teeth. It sounded like his marriage was not much better either. Babette, his French wife had changed when they got married. She wanted things, like a home for their child. Zsa Zsa, however, wanted to carry on their old life; he liked the clubs, he liked visiting his friend in Thailand. He thumped Prayat on the back, hard. Prayat bounced like he’d been shocked by cardiac paddles. There proceeded a shoving and hollering in rapid French, a Simian bonding. The teenage waitress brought us another Singha and scurried off, in fear that their slap-fight might expand. Prayat cuffed Zsa Zsa once more and trundled off.
"Où va-t-il?" I asked.
Zsa Zsa smoothed his hair. "He goes to use zee telephone. You see, Steve, you and I, we speak from zee heart. Du coeur, you know? Him, Prayat, he worries about zee job." Zsa Zsa said.
"Qu’est-ce qu’il fait?" I asked.
I stared. The Mafia? He’s in the Mafia?
"Oui. All the time, he worries about money. Money, money, money." I didn’t know anybody associated with the Thai Mafia, or any Mafia, or even a self-admitted criminal. Prayat returned and flounced down into his chair. He was built almost square, like a set of blocks stacked together, with flat shoulders, a cube-top head protected by spiky hair, his pupils barely visible behind recessed lids. His pug nose was beaten flat. Yes, I thought, you were built to hit and to be hit.
"You are Mafia?" I asked. A big grunt.
"Is rough life, yes?" I stayed with the pidgin.
Yes, yes, yes.
"You are tough." I smiled. A smile and "hello" can get you anywhere in the world; they can also get you out of jams. Paul Theroux notes that pervading travel is the fear of death; on the road, one cannot escape the recurring thought, "What a terrible place to die." To gain the world’s magic, the traveler must suffer wretched places. But this place did not qualify. In the crowded restaurant, with Big Sal swooning on the mike, thick support columns guarded by flower pots, matched cloths over each table, I was not nervous. It was a large, downtown hotel in a pleasant resort town, a safe and public place. Prayat was not a wealthy man, I could tell. If he was Mafia, he was a soldier, a doer--a working man drinking beer with his buddy. I was curious about the Mafia, and even more curious that he would brazenly admit his involvement to a white stranger. I filled his glass with Zsa Zsa’s beer and asked more questions. I compared the Mafia in American film to an opera, but it was more like a job, n’est-ce pas? Yes, yes, yes. He spoke in gassy grunts, like a weightlifter doing his repetitions. He ran his fingers through his hair again. He did this a lot. He seemed stressed. I asked: pourquoi?
"La vie en Mafia?" I asked.
"Non. His wife," Zsa Zsa said. "Tout le temps, Prayat needs money." Both of their wives, Zsa Zsa said, were in nearby Phuket. Prayat and Zsa Zsa had come to Krabi for the night to escape the carnage of a shopping spree. Prayat apparently needed dough all the time to keep his wife happy.
Zsa Zsa said, "Yes, he is very tough. Is kickboxing champ." Zsa Zsa kicked him under the chair. They played slap-ass while I turned to the stage. Big Sal was in full croon, as I pointed my camera at her.
"Hi, where you from?" she interrupted her song, mid-note, her audience of many reduced to one. For the Tourist Celebrity, the song remains the same. The song was irrelevant and, for that matter, so was where I was from. The song is the come-on; what happens after, at the tables, in the parking lot, back at the hotel, that’s what this was all about.
Zsa Zsa took the cue. "You want girl, Steve?"
"Combien?" I asked.
"How much is for Mafia girl?" Zsa Zsa needled Prayat. A big laugh. For the Mafia, prices were negotiated exclusively by the Mafia. Indeed, Prayat and Zsa Zsa rousted the girls on stage at their leisure, like louts at a strip club, where the spice of money in the sex cocktail negated all courtesy. Yet these guys weren’t buying anything but beer. They hollered, they shoved their chairs around, they stumbled between tables to and from the bathroom. We were becoming a nuisance. I wondered where the manager was--hiding in the kitchen from the Mafia? No one had to say it, but the wait people wanted us to leave and so did the girls.
Prayat nevertheless called one over. Miss Punk sat down in the chair next to me, her athletic thighs barely concealed under a brown mini-skirt. She did not look like the friendly, dark Thais that I admired; her hair was short and professional, cropped almost butch. She was a northerner, pale, perhaps Chinese, and the kind of girl who could hang with Mafia guys. In her eyes, she was not here for the love of song. This piranha spoke no English, and though I tried to gesture, her small teeth remained closed to my drunken overtures, giving me no more than a contemptuous once-over. She turned to Prayat and asked a sharp question. He grunted and she was dismissed to the table of aging Thai men next to ours. When I looked over again, all of them were gone.
Prayat got up to make another phone call. Zsa Zsa refilled our glasses.
"His wife," said Zsa Zsa.
"Qu’est-ce que sa femme pense de son travail?" I asked. His wife didn’t think much of his work. Nor did Zsa Zsa: "I do not ask." Zsa Zsa showed me a picture of his wife and their child, a tiny faded photo like Prayat’s boxing snapshot. Babette was a redhead with a sweet rounded face, framed in curls, her arms protecting a darker child sprawled on the lawn in front of her. "We are young. All, yes?" Zsa Zsa said, fingering his photo. He was getting slow-eyed and sappy, the evening coming to a close. "Young. Nous parlons du coeur, n’est-ce pas?"
"Bien sûr," I said and we ching-chinged glasses. I thought of how nice it would be to visit France, to speak French in France and to speak it from the heart--but it was too expensive. Maybe next year, I would visit Vietnam. Around the restaurant, tables were beginning to empty. The group of kids in the corner left with their friend, one of the singers.
Prayat returned. He and Zsa Zsa exchanged a blast of French which I could not understand.
Prayat: "You want to go to Mafia bar?" I looked at both of them, all of us bleary. Prayat tottered on his feet, a warrior in the last round. I did not want to give out on my new friends. There seemed so much to talk about. At the least, it was more beer.
"One drink," Zsa Zsa said.
What a great story that would make, I thought, a drink in a Thai Mafia bar. Just go to Thailand, Scott had said. You’ll have a great time. One drink, then. We tried to settle the bill, but Zsa Zsa would not let me contribute.
"Vous avez une famille," I protested.
"No, Steve! What is money? We have spoken from the heart." Zsa Zsa laid down 600 Bhat, a sizable bar tab in any country, and we headed for the door. I nodded and smiled at our waitress. It was not returned.
In the hall outside, they started another slap-fight, pawing at each other. They squared again and Prayat gave Zsa Zsa a vicious side-kick in the thigh, a direct connection that didn’t even buckle his leg. They both laughed and stumbled for the door. Up and down the block, all the shops were closed. Through the dark, I could not see the jetty across the thoroughfare. Moths and bugs plunged face-first onto the hot bulbs overhead, casting a shadowy flicker of death over the street.
"Où est le bar?" I asked.
"Not far," Zsa Zsa said. Prayat had already walked around to the driver’s side of a grey Toyota sedan, its mag wheels lowered and cambered. A muscle car. A drunk in a muscle car: a bad combo in any hemisphere. My buddies, my good-good buddies, were about to drive drunk. Those were my thoughts.
"Il est trop ivre. Il ne peut pas conduire." I said. But Prayat was already behind the wheel.
"It is not far," Zsa Zsa said.
"Pouvons-nous marché?" The French was coming easy now; it felt good; easy and loose, like I’d been here, hanging with these guys, for weeks.
"Non, nous douvons conduire." He piled into the passenger seat. My backpack, burdened with a camera, a jacket, my notebook and traveler’s checks, had grown heavy. It was not far. It was one drink. I shoved my backpack down between the seats in back, Zsa Zsa filling the air with a steady patter of du coeur, as we weaved into the light traffic on Uttarkit Road. Prayat was not steering well. Lane lines are loosely observed in Thailand, and Prayat was even looser. His slow-motion slides back and forth forced other cars away. While Zsa Zsa playfully cursed at him, I wondered where the cops were, for there were none, and soon there were no cars, the others having peeled off onto side streets, followed by the streetlights which disappeared altogether, and it then occurred to me that we were heading out of town, into the jungle for all that was known to me, trapped in the backseat with two Mafia kickboxers at the helm. Mafia bar, I thought. What the fuck am I doing? My goodwill, le parlant du coeur, fled like a fart, and I wanted out. Now.
"Je dois me lever au matin, Zsa Zsa."
"C’mon, vous êtes aux vacances. One drink."
"Ah, mon ami, Je dois aller." I said. My voice maintained the monotonous slur of a tired drunk. For some reason, they pulled over. I got out, patting Prayat on the shoulder and giving Zsa Zsa a "comme les Américains" bear hug, him kissing both my cheeks, and I walked off, feeling that I’d left on good terms. My hotel was at least a mile back. I walked at an even pace, glad to see the streetlights re-appearing. What a knucklehead, I thought. I had broken some rigid rules of travel. Perhaps I’d missed a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but the world is a hungry parasite when it knows you’re alone.
And then in the periphery of my vision I saw the grey Toyota pull a U-turn from the other side of the street. It slowed alongside, trawling near the sidewalk. No window came down. No familiar voice called in the name of du coeur. The street was empty; overhead, the streetlights buzzed an alarm. They just watched me walk, a fish flopping on a desolate beach. I did not look. I did not even break stride. Still they did not call. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed the tinting, how dark it made the interior, how well it disguised the occupants. I could not escape the thought that according to myth, a Mafia killer always comes as a friend. My good-good buddies had come back for more.
But they roared off around the corner. I high-tailed it. Empty lot after sleeping block, I ran and ran, slap-slapping my sandals on the sidewalk. I thought of all those posters that I had seen in India, of lost college kids, the wail in the parents’ words, the trusting faces gone forever. I did not want to commit to the road forever. The clues in the evening came back in a rush, that on second look, it was a con, the good cop and the bad cop, both showing photos of things near and dear, humanizing the looming violence, easing my guard, and that maybe Prayat’s wife and his job were one and the same. I had teased the shark myself. If they came back again, something would go down.
Whack! A hot lash across my face. My glasses flew up and I barely caught them before they crashed on the sidewalk. I turned to see a taut wire support vibrating, its imprint under my nose and across my cheek. In my hand, a smattering of blood. I ducked into a hospital parking lot and, breathing hard, ran up to the security booth.
"Is there someone here who can give me a ride?"
He looked up, vacantly, a man in the middle of a shift at the end of another year. He must’ve seen the blood; he did not respond and turned away, searching for a distraction in the empty street. I looked deeper into the lot; it was a white building, three-stories, lightless, anonymous. Two days previous, I had wandered past a hospital in Phuket and had seen a stab victim, his yellow soccer shirt dyed maroon in the chest, hauled to the door on a cart by two buddies. That parking lot and this one--they were both bad places to die.
"I pay! Fifty Bhat! Can someone give me a ride?"
A guy on a motorcycle pulled up out of the lot. I asked him. He looked at the guard. But the motorcyclist spoke no English, and the guard simply said no, he could not. The motorbike roared off.
"Is there a back way out of here?" The guard turned back to look at the road. He was getting anxious; I was in trouble. He shook his head, side-to-side.
Shit. I hustled into the street. Had they gone on to the Mafia place? Or had they gone to get friends? Or a gun? I was churning in the current, completely ignorant, and blind to the sharks out there. And when I saw them pass again on the other side of the street, heading back into town, Prayat driving fast and straight, I was not relieved, for I knew that the Mafia bar had been abandoned, that, in one form or another, it had been a con. I ran and turned up the street to my hotel, churned through the open lobby, startling the tv watchers, and did not stop until I crashed onto the bed, lights out, door bolted twice. And I did not move until construction drills scattered like a cloud of butterflies a dream in French.
* * *
Many writers set out across their first pages to rectify a juvenile sense of justice. For young men, the first story is usually a variation on the fascist Earth Federation in a battle to the death with the man-eating Klorgs from Nebula 5. On the female side, it is a tale of a tea-sipping hemophiliac who's been abused in emotionally complicated ways by an Aryan count whose tuxedo hides a hairy back. That kind of truth, with the attendant luggage of blame, is a boring backpack. And as I hitched mine and headed for the jetty to catch a long-tailed boat, the sun sneaking through the morning haze, another day beginning at the outdoor stalls, I did not know the truth of the previous evening. The truth, in the absolute, was that two rolling drunks invited a white man, a Tourist Celebrity, to join them for a beer. But what of the other truths? Were we merely having a good time? Or was I a mark? And if I was a mark, when had I become one? When I said that I was in computers? When they saw the Casio on my wrist? Did Babette exist? How about kickboxing in France? Evil would be an easy foe if it came with a hook for a hand. But evil drives a truck in Paris. It is a banal segue, a slide-step into the jaws of the carnivore. Whatever the case, I did know that I had been marked: a laser-scratch across my face and the memory of a dream in French. And wherever those guys were, I wanted to thank them for un affaire du coeur. For I did find the life of Riley at the end of that boat ride, landing at a beach pronounced much like "Riley", in fact. And those were blissful days, twenty feet from the beach at ten bucks a pop, filled with attractive farang women, smiling Thais, wonderful curries and with hikes and with books. But what I remembered about Thailand, what I needed to write about, was a brush with the Thai Mafia, the boogeyman in paradise.
I owe them a beer.