A Haunting Smile

Third in the Land of Smiles Trilogy


ISBN 974-92214-8-6
Trade paperback 6" - 9 1/4"
2004, 320 pages

 

 

 

 

 

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Excerpt

Chapter 15

The place he went for information about Daeng was a girl who was more than just an old friend. They had been lovers many years before. She had a child that she never told him about. He found himself walking into Bunny's Bar on Soi Cowboy, a strip of go-go bars, which closed at two in the morning. It was here at Bunny's he had discovered he had a daughter. Asanee. In the years since that discovery, it seemed impossible not having her in his life. Bunny was sitting at the bar, nursing a black eye and a Bloody Mary. She had descended to a bar girl who now had a drinker's sagging body and falling face. She had gained twenty pounds since he had last seen her. It wasn't even ten in the morning and she was on the booze. A go-go bar by morning light had the shock value of a strange bedpartner staring eye-ball-to-eye-ball the morning afterwards. Ught played the world of passion in a far more stark, hard, and relentless vision, with the dark passion shelved.

'Tut, I'm happy you come," she said, not having seen him for months; it was as if she had seen him the night before. "This is terrible, terrible. Killing for what?"

"What happened to the eye?" He sat on the stool next to her, reached over the bar and poured himself a soda.

"Don't want to talk about it," she said.

"A customer?"

She shook her head.

"The Army?"

Not likely. She shook her head again. "I told you I don't need to talk about this."

"Which means the husband."

"He's a bastard. I say to him. 'No good staying open. No business. 'And he say, 'Customer come. Don't close the bar.' I say, 'What you gonna do to me?"'

"Where is he?" asked Tuttle.

"Upstairs sleeping. He drink too much. It make him mean. Man drink all the time get mean like a dog kicked oil tile street everyday. Why don't Army shoot man like him? Shooting these kids makes me angry." Her fleshy, soft face turned red as tears filled her eyes. She bit her lip and slowly shook her head, looking into her Bloody Mary. "What did you come here for, Tut? It sure wasn't to see me."

"Asanee's safe. I thought you'd want to know that," he said.

She looked up at him, her lips tight. "He shouldn't have hit me like that Tut , she said, as if news about her daughter's safety didn't matter much one way or another. Asanee had become her father's daughter; his problem, his worry his responsibility.

"I know that. You're the only one who can fix it. Divorce him," said Tuttle.

"Easy for you to say," Bunny said, raising her Bloody Mary to her lips. She swallowed real slowly, letting it flush her throat of the lump she felt would never go away. "Life ain't organized for women. You know that. We grow old. And look at you, Tut. Even when you're seventy you'll have some twenty-year old to take a long bath with. I got a mail. I I e's not the best. Yeah, he hits me now and again and he drinks too much. But he's my husband. You think there's another one out there waiting to take his place? If so, send him in. The interview starts in five minutes."

Personal misery extinguished all other misery. It didn't much matter about the killings once she started talking about the wreckage of her own life. The images on the TV were abstract. Sure they made people cry a little while but tile pain didn't last much beyond the tears. Real pain was one's own personal hell. The suffering of a life which never was going to right itself.

"I need your help, Bunny," said Tuttle.

She lit a cigarette.

"Here it comes. The reason why you came around. Not some bullshit that Asanee is okay."

She had him cold. She always had that ability.

"You're right. Can you help me?"

"Depends on what you need."

"I was upcountry on the Nan River. I spent some time in a village. There's a villager worried about her daughter. Named Daeng. She's nineteen. Has a small half-moon shaped scar on her right cheek. Her mother said Daeng's working the bars on Soi Cowboy. I know that's not much to go on. She could be anywhere. I don't know where to start. Where to look. But I told her mother I'd try and find her," said Tuttle.

"So you can screw her?"

Bunny regretted it as soon as the accusation hit Tuttle. She saw him flinch and go all sad.

"Okay, Tut. I'm a little fucked up this morning. Never mind. You're not angry with me? You want to give me another black eye? Can. I would deserve it. Sure."

"Bunny, I'm not angry. Can you help me?"

"Girls come and go all the time." She gave a long, frustrated sigh. Tuttle rarely got angry, she remembered that. He was mister jai yen. The cool-hearted man, climbing over the walls for a sweet woman's dreams just long enough to make certain that he'd be remembered before slipping away. It had happened to Bunny with him all those years ago when she still had dreams. "I can't keep track of who comes and goes in my own bar, Tut. None of my girls are from Nan," she said, running her finger through her graying hair. Yeah, this was the man who had touched down during that moment of youth. She smiled. 'It's good to see you, Tut. Did I tell you that?"

"It's good to see you, too, Bunny."

Tuttle made the rounds of several more bars. He came up empty until he met up with a bar girl in plastic sandals with a T-shirt reading-The Bullet is the Target - Crazy Eight Bar. She was buying a bag of fried grasshoppers. Tuttle gave tile vendor a twenty-baht note before the bar girl could react.

"You good man," said tile bar girl, smiling and offering the bag. She brushed back her short hair, and looked Tuttle over. Then gave him a crooked-tooth smile.

Tuttle pulled one of the perfectly preserved grasshoppers out of the bag. Fifty or more tiny bodies had been poured into the bag. Likely the grasshoppers had been killed with lethal insecticides then cooked in rancid oil; but there were upcountry girls who shrugged off the health risk and couldn't get enough of them. He ate the head first, then slipped the slender body into his mouth. It made a crunching noise like granola.

"Geng," she said, admiringly. Skillfully done.

Then after a couple of minutes she told him that her boss hired girls from that region of Thailand. This was her first week on the job. "Boss in a bad mood," she said, as she walked back to her bar with Tuttle.

Crazy Hank, the owner of Crazy Eight Bar, wasn't in a bad mood; he was in a hysterical rage. His fat gut exploded over his belt, swelling and bloating the graphics on his T-shirt. Below the words -The Bullet is the Target - Crazy Eight Bar - was the picture of a standing naked girl, her buns facing out, looking over her shoulder, and a bulls-eye target around her ass. On Crazy Hank, the legs of the girl stretched over his huge bulge, making the girl on the T-shirt look like she had double-jointed legs. He bellowed at the girl behind the bar, who was cleaning up broken glass with a broom.

"I'm docking your pay for that glass," he shouted.

The girl with the bag of grasshoppers fled to a corner and tried to make herself small. Tuttle walked over to the bronze bell hanging over the bar, and rang it. Crazy Hank spun around on his stool.

"You know what that means?" asked Crazy Hank. "You buy drinks for everyone in the bar."

The bar was empty except for Crazy Hank, the grasshopper eater, the girl sweeping the glass, and two other girls squatting on the floor and eating sticky rice and fish paste with chili sauce.

Tuttle put a purple on the bar, not taking his eyes off Crazy Hank who was expecting this guy to start an argument.

"This round is on me," said Tuttle.

Crazy Hank made a crumby, gurgling sound - half smoker's cough and half nervous tic - when someone caught him wrong footed.

"Make mine a double Jack Daniel's," said Crazy Hank, who looked to be in his early 60s. He was from Indiana. Drinking double Jack Daniel's until he became abusive, violent and stupid with mindless rage had resulted in Hank Galan's nickname - Crazy Hank.

"Make mine a double orange juice," said Tuttle.

The girls ordered beer and Mekong whiskey.

"Before I started this line of business. I was in the snake business. I exported big snakes. The biggest mistake of my life was to believe that running a bar with these girls was more profitable than selling snakes. Now the fucking Army's shooting up the town."

"So I hear," said Tuttle.

"You know what that's gonna do to the tourist business? It's flushing it down the goddamn toilet. Who in their right mind is gonna come to Bangkok this year? At least with snakes, it was all export. The Army can shoot the hell out of people on the street, and it don't for a minute affect the snake trade. Snakes don't break your glasses. Snakes don't quit and disappear on you. Snakes don't come down with VD. Snakes don't bite your balls. You know what I'm saying?"

Tuttle had the basic idea that Crazy Hank was disappointed in his career move. In the corner of the bar, near the door, where his friend ate grasshoppers, was a bulletin board of polaroid photos of girls with their nicknames written below. There were four rows and each row had six photos. Tuttle scanned each row, looking for a photo of girl with a small half-moon scar on her right cheek with the name of Daeng.

The double Jack Daniel's had softened up Crazy Hank.

"You looking for a girl?" asked Crazy Hank. "I can tell you now, most of them aren't showing up. I've got ten, twelve living upstairs. They're still sleeping. And snakes don't sleep all-night neither."

Tuttle described Daeng. Afterwards, Crazy Hank leaned over the bar, and pulled out a shoe box containing about a hundred polaroid photos which were in no apparent order. "These girls once worked here. But have fucked off. To where? Your guess would be as good as mine." He shoved the box across the bar.

After twenty minutes, Tuttle found a photograph of a girl with a half-moon scar. "You remember her?"

Crazy Hank didn't remember. But one of the girls who was drinking Mekong looked over Tuttle's shoulder.

"That's Daeng."

"Daeng from Nan province?"

The girl nodded, sipped her Mekong dry and put the glass on the bar.

"One thing to remember, Hank. Snakes don't have much of a memory," said Tuttle.

Tuttle leaned forward, reached up, and rang the bell again."

Peels of laughter rang out. The girls liked any excuse for a party, some excitement in the middle of all their boredom.

"Yeah, I remember her. She was a good earner. Strange but good. Fucked off a few months ago. I ain't seen her since.

"She work HQ" said the girl who had spontaneously remembered Daeng.

A bar girl had remembered - the girls had developed a memory for faces and names. There was little slippage among the girls. But not Crazy Hank. And not Tuttle. How could that be? Why had Crazy Hank and Tuttle mortgaged their memories? Tuttle had more questions than he cared to find answers for. The reality was plain, and not one Tuttle could ignore. Daeng was not a stranger; she had been working the crowd at HQ. She had been at HQ night after night, for all those weeks before Tuttle had gone upcountry. It stood to reason he had seen her but at the same time he had not seen. Nothing was more disturbing, unsettling. Looking for someone that he had seen and never recognized. He had done much the same when he had bought his own daughter out of Bunny's bar on Soi Cowboy years before. He had learned nothing, he thought. History was about to repeat itself. If only Daeng had gone to another bar. He could search with noble aims of paying back the kindness of Old Uncle and the others in his compound. It was no longer that simple, the motive no longer so pure.

The full weight of responsibility for Daeng's whereabouts doubled up on him like Crazy Hank's double Jack Daniel's which pushed him over the edge. Hardcore HQ regulars were woman blinded; it was like a whiteout in a snow storm, up and down no longer had definition. There was a big difference - one would recover the ability to see the landscape separated from the sky once the snow storm blew itself out. In HQ the sexual storm winds never stopped blowing, leaving the HQ hardcore blinded and without memory. If he could find this Daeng, another throw-away prostitute, someone who came and went without a flicker of recognition, Tuttle knew he had a chance of recovering the kind of vision necessary to witness humanity. Without that vision, he saw people no differently than the generals. This was the broken continuity he had gone upcountry to discover. Daeng was one more HQ girl who yielded. Those who yield are faceless, meaningless, and without purpose, Harry Purcell had said. But Tuttle didn't want to see Daeng through Purcell's eyes. He wanted to start seeing people again; not in Denny Addison documentaries which were entertainments for those permanently damaged by sexual whiteouts. Daeng would pull him back; let him recover the person his neighbors had prayed would return or be released from the wheel. Daeng was the reason he had gone to the Nan River. He had been looking for what he hadn't seen before his own eyes.

"Why did Daeng quit?" asked Tuttle.

The girl slumped over the bar, her head propped on her hand. She shrugged, as if there needed to be a reason. "She bored. Daeng not like other girl. Not drink. Not smoke. She save, save money customers give her. She tell me that she want to buy water pump for her mother. Daeng has very good heart. She have a hard life. Father die. Dog eat her face. She talk to ghosts." She giggled a fearful laugh. "She have good heart. Buy water pump very good."

Having finished his second double Jack Daniel's, Crazy Hank exploded. "Water pump! Fuck, that's a new scam. It's usually a TV, VCR, or a motorcycle for their boyfriend. Or a gold chain to show off in front of their friends. Most of them gamble the money away as fast as they make it."

Tuttle put another two purples on the bar counter.

"Her mother showed me the water pump, Hank," said Tuttle, rising from the stool. "I saw it."

Crazy Hank ignored the information. Hard facts had a way of being wired into the hardcore circuit board of gossip, double-crosses, and double Jack Daniel's.

"Another thing about snakes. They never bullshit you," said Crazy Hank, belching as Tuttle walked out of the bar. He was in a hurry like a man who had decided he was lost and now had the chance to find and recover himself.

(back to book main)

 

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