the overhead sun beating down, Calvino headed in the direction
of hundreds of people who huddled around a long row of concession
stands with volunteers hawking everything from lotto tickets,
hot dogs, hamburgers, to Budweiser beer. Kids rode on the Ferris
wheel and the merry-go-round. An image of his own daughter, Melody,
flashed through his mind, leaving some guilt, some pain as it
screamed on through his consciousness. A few feet away, an American
Chamber of Commerce guy in baggy shorts and Washington University
T-shirt pressed a bullhorn to his mouth and announced that substituting
boiled eggs was, once again this year, against the rules. And
no rolling of eggs. You had to toss them in the air. This guy
was obviously a veteran of a number of Bangkok Fourth of July
celebrations. The crowd of Thais and farang dressed in shorts
and T-shirts looked relaxed even though they were sweaty, hot
and hungry. Behind this superficial informality were the serious
players on the local scene, the lawyers, bankers, doctors, embassy
types, merchants, journalists, NGOs, preachers, and Peace Corp
workers. This was the crew of America's Starship Enterprise lost
in the vastness of Asian space and time.
he saw Harry Markle waving at him to come over to his table.
Markle, his Thai wife, nicknamed Noi, and their two kids occupied
a table. Occupied was the right word. There were few tables with
umbrellas and if you left one for a moment some Hell's Angel,
Mormon or preacher would pounce on it and you would need a loaded
assault rifle to get it back. Noi was a registered pharmacist
and had her own shop which stocked New Age herbal remedies. The
shop, the only one like it in Bangkok, was listed in a couple
of the travel guides to Thailand and she was thinking of opening
a second branch at Seacon Shopping Mall. Harry Markle was a telecommunications
expert, linking companies and people to the Internet, setting
up nodes in places like Hong Kong and Finland. He laid down software
so complex and sophisticated that, once it was hooked into various
networks of computers, the effect was to grant Harry lifetime
job security; he could never be fired from his job because no
one could replace him, and all that transmitted data would go
over the side of a cliff like a spooked herd of buffaloes in a
sat down in a plastic chair as Markle pulled the tab on a can
of Bud, beer foaming through the hole and down the side of the
weather today, 99 said Harry.
of his daughters, the fourteen-year-old, came to the table with
one of her friends, eating a hot dog, the mustard squirting onto
Penguin, dressed in a dinner jacket with a toy penguin head shaped
as a hat which he wore pulled down over his ears, removed an egg
from Harry's two-year-old daughter's ear. Her eyes got real big.
like that, Honey?" asked Harry, picking her up.
looked at Dr. Penguin with the kind of face that looked like it
could go either way: cry or laugh. She started to laugh as Dr.
Penguin pulled an egg from Calvino's ear.
private eye shouldn't go around with eggs in his head, said Dr.
a penguin should keep out of the sun," said Noi.
looked at the egg. "At least it's not scrambled, " said
hard-boiled," said Calvino.
the loudspeaker system a midwestern accent read off a list of
lottery announcements, mispronouncing most of the Thai names.
At the next table, several Soi Cowboy bargirls in shorts and tank-tops
were decked out in gold chains and bracelets. They were trying
to keep out of the sun. Bar girls hated getting a tan. Most of
them were village girls from Isan and were sensitive about the
darkness of their skin. Dark skinned wasn't cool. White, white
skin was the meaning of beauty, along with lots of gold to set
it off, according to the Comfort Zone standard of desirable.
bar girls never miss a Fourth of July," said Harry Markle,
as Dr. Penguin wandered off.
like fireworks," said Noi, who was university educated, and
was doing her best to deflect the conversation about the girls
at the next table.
said Harry. "They are like Willie Sutton. Why do you rob
banks, Willie? That's where the money is. Ladies, why do you come
to the Fourth of July picnic every year?
that is where the money is. Inside every bar girl is a little
Willie Sutton voice screaming out."
at the stands people stood three or four deep gorging on the free
popcorn, ice cream, and soda. Eating ears of corn, leaning over
with the butter running over their hands, giving them a shiny
lacquer, and running off-into the grass.
have any trouble getting through the airport security at the gate?"
showed his badge. No problem," said Calvino.
helps to be connected. Some guy with a bar girl set off the alarm
at security. That made for fun. Some logger chick arrived with
a SWAT team to rub him down. He was clean but his girl had one
of those toy gun lighters," he said, drinking from his beer.
"The logger chick asked her what it was. But her English
wasn't so great. So the guy said, 'Look, my friend is a vice challenged
person. 'And she squinted and asked, 'Vice, what's that mean?'
'Vice as in vice squad, 'he said. 'The toy gun makes her feel
safe.' The logger chick nodded, gave her back the toy gun and
waved them through."
chick was the current expat-speak for overweight middle-aged white
women. Someone in a Washington Square bar once defined a logger
chick as a woman with the biceps of an axe swinger and the legs
of a mature redwood.
me, it happened. Ask Noi, " said Harry.
my sister..." Noi said, sounding sheepish.
had phoned two days earlier and said Calvino just had to meet
Meow. She was about eight years younger than Noi smart, beautiful
and available. And Meow would be at the Fourth of July picnic.
couldn't make it," said Harry, finishing his wife's sentence.
"One of those Thai things."
always covered a lot of ground. As it turned out, Noi's sister,
Meow, had cancelled the picnic because she had a call from her
astrologer saying under no circumstances was she to leave the
house. The alignment of the stars had forbidden her from going.
didn't say she wasn't superstitious," said Harry.
you are right. "
hope you aren't too disappointed," said Noi.
drank his beer. "Maybe we can get together on the next full
to let you completely down, I have some work for you. A personal
came each year with the expectation of getting an assignment.
What he hadn't expected was that, instead of getting fixed up
with Noi's sister, Harry Markle was going to hire him for a job
at the Fourth of July picnic. He wished he could wash off the
cologne. Pratt was right, it was not such a good idea. Everyone
was keeping their distance. The astrologer had guessed that smell
from the movement of the stars and moon and had warned Meow away,
he thought. In the heat he could not help feel a sadness as the
expectation of meeting Meow fell away, drawing him over the edge
into doom and disappointment. Shifting his expectation from the
personal into a work mode was hard at first. The idea of possible
romance was like a loose piece of string; it could be shaped in
any way to fit the imagination until the spell was broken and
the realization set in that he had deceived himself, strung himself
along. He pulled himself together, smiled, and opened another
beer. "A personal case," he heard Harry say again. Case
assignments at the Fourth of July picnic had a habit of always
being an omen of bad karma. Lt. Col. Pratt was right. It had been
his primary reason forgoing year after year. One year he was going
to break that string of bad Fourth of July cases. He knew that
Harry Markle wouldn't let him down.
year before last, he had gone after a missing son who had run
off with a local girl to Koh Chang. He brought the kid back by
the eighth of July and left the girl on the island; she had already
found a replacement farang with more money... The kid fell on
the ferry deck and broke his arm. The parents blamed Calvino for
not properly looking after their son. It was a good reason to
stiff him for the bill.
had clients and friends who expected him to be at the picnic.
It was bad for business to miss the Fourth of July in Bangkok
and it was bad to take an assignment at the Fourth of July picnic.
No one ever said it outright, but it was a loyalty thing. In the
middle of Bangkok, forgetting the Fourth of July picnic was an
act of expat treason. The American Chamber of Commerce, he thought,
kept some kind of unofficial blacklist of those who didn't show
up. This year an old friend had phoned him. Harry Markle, said
he had a beautiful present for him.
at the picnic he was singing a different tune.
got a problem, Vinee," said Harry.
doesn't?" asked Calvino.
had known Harry Markle for a half dozen years. In other words
enough time to learn the basic catastrophes which had blown through
his life, the trail of ghosts left behind.
my little brother in Saigon," said Harry.
was there for the twentieth anniversary?" asked Calvino.
didn't know you had a younger brother."
left home before he was born. So let's say we aren't all that
close. Now he's working as a lawyer in Vietnam," said Harry.
far it didn't sound like much of a problem. But cases which started
soft lipped like this often had steel jaws and sharp teeth.
his problem? Other than he's trying to follow in his big brother's
footsteps," said Calvino.
has the usual paranoid feelings of any American thirty-year-old
who has never been out of the States and is trying to make a go
of it in Saigon."
in the office is up to the usual monkey shines. Drew says there's
something unethical going on. He kept using the words professional
smiled at the word.
know, I know, " said Harry. "The American delusion.
It's what got us into Vietnam in the first place. Drew hasn't
found out yet that American ethics aren't as popular as American
junk food and movies. But give him time. He will learn."
was ex-special forces and had done two tours in Vietnam. In Asia,
every other guy over forty-five claimed to have served in the
special forces, or was a Green Beret, a Navy Seal; someone who
was a mean motherfucker in the past and who had lived in the jungles
on slugs and slit the throats of Viet Cong until dawn. Harry Markle
was the only guy Calvino had ever met that actually had done it
and survived, with a sense of humor, his life intact. He had a
family and had settled in Thailand.
nudged Harry's arm. His eyes followed her to a dozen Marines dressed
in T-shirts and shorts picking up one end of a thick, long rope.
Next came a dozen Mormons, looking like they had just flunked
the physical for army boot camp. They picked up the other end
of the rope. For a moment, Markle's brother in Saigon was just
a slice of conversation left hanging in the air.
you betting on?" asked Harry, grinning from ear to ear. "God
or the Marines?"
there were a God you wouldn't need the Marines," said Calvino.
was nothing scientific about this. But American Marines from the
US Embassy in Bangkok had standard issue bull-like necks. The
average Mormon looked as small as a fridge magnet next to the
Marine guard. Belief in God had caused men to believe that miracles
could overcome neck size differences. So in most years the Mormons
entered the tug-of-war contest in Bangkok, meaning they would
have to face the Marines and hope God was listening. And each
Fourth of July picnic in Bangkok it rained like hell just after
the US Marines wiped the playground with a dozen skinny Mormons
holding on for dear life as the Marines dragged them through the
mud in a tug-of-war that was never a contest. Was it the rain
which followed God's wrath? Or was it just the rainy season weather
with all those black clouds and claps of thunder in Bangkok that
time of year?
Markle said, "The Mormons did it once. It was like carrying
an elephant up the side of a hill. It can be done. But it's always
difficult and messy."
aren't Mormons," said Noi. "That's AT&T."
was right. She was Thai but she could still tell the difference
between the Mormons and the telephone company. One paid dividends
in this life, one promised dividends in the next. Thais were forever
crossing the boundary between last, present and next life. It
made perfect sense in terms of continuity and prevented the uneasy
sense in the Christian West that you only got your ticket punched
once; it was either up or down, and never back. for a repeat of
crowd gathered and they could hear the side bets being made. A
small group of old Asian hands of all nationalities were drinking
beer and watching the Marines, all that muscle and short haircuts
looking down the rope like it was the barrel of a gun. All those
black clouds which had accumulated over the playing field opened
up and it started to rain. The Marines didn't blink an eye. The
AT&T team was one man short, and no one was volunteering to
take on the Marines. A vice president found a consultant hiding
behind a table of bar girls and ordered him onto the field. Then
the contest began. Everyone at the table was on their feet. And
the rain came harder. Harry was right; one year the Mormons actually
won the tug-of-war. And it still rained. This year it rained before
the contest was decided.
eight in the evening the fireworks display started with the whistle
of a rocket shooting high overhead, which was followed by a blinding
flash and a shower storm of white feathery bursts of white light
lit up the black sky. Calvino glanced to his right and saw how
the light from the fireworks illuminated Markle. His face looked
different, rigid, immobile but alert. He looked like someone caught
in the open as a flare floated down on a tiny parachute and guns
opened fire. This was the old mask that Harry Markle and a lot
of other vets wore every year at the Fourth of July picnic. Vietnam
was a one hour and five minute flight away from Bangkok. For a
few minutes they remembered something, thought Calvino.
beats me why my little brother who was doing perfectly well in
New York City would want to try and play lawyer in a communist
regime, " said Markle, his head turned toward the sky, his
mouth slightly ajar.
a younger brother feels that he has something to live up to. Your
two tours in Vietnam and the drawer full of medals is a whole
lot to live up to for anyone."
as a lawyer?" Craning his head around, Harry pushed the black,
horn-rimmed glasses onto the bridge of his nose.
it was the only way he could get himself a way to Vietnam."
flash burst lit up the sky in red, blue and white. The colors
of the American flag draining down the edges of the night sky
want you to go to Saigon for a few days. Check that he's okay,
you know. Give him a talk about ethics and business in this part
of the world. Three hundred a day plus expenses, right?"
thought about karma as he watched another star burst of rockets
overhead. "Do I go or stay?" he asked himself.
go myself, but I have this assignment..." said Harry Markle,
breaking off as Noi handed him another beer.
three days should be enough time," said Calvino.
than ample," said Harry Markle, "Take an extra day and
get out in the countryside. Let's call that a bonus."