Water Under The Bridge by Burgess Stanley Needle

Jake’s evening started poorly when he realised his romancing of the only other American woman in the provincial capital wasn’t working. He’d plied her with Thai desserts and foot rubs for three hours before she languidly got to her feet and told Jake he absolutely had to leave. It was her house, he was a male visitor and all the Thai teachers in Buriram knew he was inside. If he stayed, her reputation would be ruined forever. When he’d first arrived at her house, the weather had been humid and the air redolent with the scent of tropical flowers. By the time he’d started moving his hands over her body,the rain was hitting her corrugated metal roof.
That’s when she had got to her feet and pushed him away.
Pissed, he stepped dejectedly through her doorway and found a samlaw driver humming to himself in the rain. He did not seem surprised to see Jake appear out of nowhere and calmly waved him to the back seat with its ripped and stained canvas roof. Looking back over his shoulder, the driver asked for a destination.
“I want something hot to drink,” Jake told him, “Or… take me someplace to get soup.”
No matter how much he squirmed, there didn’t seem to be any posture that was capable of
making the seat comfortable. He remembered the small bottle of Thai whiskey in his
back pocket. They were called guks by the Thai. He pulled it out, unscrewed the cheap plastic cap and took a swig.  The driver’s head swiveled around and Jake held out the bottle. The driver gave a perfunctory bow to Jake before raising the guk to his lips and sucked off two swallows. Jake gave him a nod and the driver finished off the bottle.
Within a very short time they were in the city’s central market. After thanking the driver, he gave him a bill from his pocket without even looking at the denomination.
The morning market was still immersed in the haze formed by cooler air that rolled down from nearby hills, mixing with the warmer populated centre with its  thousands of kerosene lanterns. Water buffalo dragged wooden carts loaded with fruit and coconuts slowly to the market centre; their skeleton-thin drivers loosely held leather reins and casually guided their shipments into place. The first children of dawn were assigned the task of spraying water on the newly-displayed fruit and vegetables and, naturally, sprayed most of the water on each other. Butchers, in blood-stained aprons, carefully dismantled carcasses of pigs, chickens and buffalo calves. Their ancient chopping blocks, criss-crossed with a million slashes, held congealed blood from the previous days’ work. The largest pieces of meat were cut and weighed into kilo and half-kilo chunks. Large Fargo trucks backed into stalls, dropped their tailgates and revealed loads of ice, fresh from the ice house across town. The ice was cut into large cubes and packed in mounds of sawdust. Laborers reached inside with metal picks to hook the ice and drag it cube by cube on to the loading dock. Through it all, feathers blew back and forth from a section of the market where older women, teeth red with chewed betel nut leaves, were plucking chickens clean before hanging them from hooks. A small puddle of congealed blood grew beneath the still beak of each bird.
Pyramids of exotic fruits with strange curlicue roots and rubbery skin broken by soft spikes waited for the first customer. Jake spotted an enormous black spider peek out briefly from a stack of bananas. He stared at the spider’s retreat for so long a smiling clerk plucked a ripe one loose and handed it to him. Jake thanked him and peeled it as he walked further along to the vegetable stalls. Bright red and green chillies (the Thais call phrik yai) looked like Christmas tree decorations hanging from wooden crates. As he was looking around for something to toss the peel in, he noticed a group of more formally dressed men wandering into the area. They carried clipboards which they carefully placed in a pile. One of them commandeered a long bench and they placed large bowls of boiled rice at their spots. Several of them cautiously stared at Jake, then quickly looked away. Their leader kept his eyes directly focused until it was Jake’s decision to drop his gaze. The group began to discuss what appeared to be their orders for the day. One by one, they retrieved their clipboards and walked off until only one remained. He looked to be in his early thirties, slim as a reed and of indeterminate race. Was he Eurasian? He was definitely taller than the others. Jake couldn’t help giving him an almost imperceptible nod. The man returned a brilliant smile, got to his feet, walked over and at the last minute, instead of sitting across from Jake, sat down next to him on the bench.
“Hi, how you doing?”
“You speak English,” Jake blurted out.
“After three years in Indiana I should be able to speak some English. I, of course,
immediately knew you were an American.”
“How’s that?”
“The way you all carry yourselves like John Wayne.”
“How come you’re not going off to work with the rest of the guys?”
“I’m their leader, in case you hadn’t noticed. I’m the one to decide when I leave.
The big question is why you are here at all?”
“I’m with the Peace Corps. We had a conference in town. Somehow I ended up by
myself and decided to get something to eat.”
“Oh, what a sad liar you are!” he laughed. “Have you seen your reflection lately? It would appear some young lady has had her way with you.”
“Is there lipstick on me?”
“Only here and there. The neck marks are more prominent.”
“Oh Jesus, how come nobody even gave me a raised eyebrow?”
“Foreigners all look strange. Besides, raising one’s eyebrow means you’re asking for sex. You’re very thin for an American. Have you been here long?”
“Long enough to get tong dyyn every other day.”
“Tong dyyn! Very funny. You know it translates as walking stomach?”
“Yes, it’s quite apt.”
“Quite apt! You don’t sound like an American, either. Are you incognito? With
the CIA or something?”
“No, I’m from Boston. We probably have a different locution than people from
Indiana.”
“Locution! Listen to you!”
“Okay. Knock it off. What’re you doing here anyway”
“Nothing very sinister, I regret to say. We’re field workers for the UN. Right now we’re gathering data for a malaria eradication program. They send us out to detect vectors for malaria and set traps for anapholes. A lot of cases drift over from Cambodia. Hopefully, we won’t end up killing all the silkworms along with the mosquitoes. How about you? Community development? Poultry and swine expert? Civil engineer? No, you have the aura of an English teacher!”
Jake nodded.
“My name is Wirarat, by the way. Americans call me Will.”
“I can handle Wirarat,” Jake said, extending his hand. “I’m Jake.
Natural illumination balanced the artificial lights bobbing above the vendors. A last wisp of fog lifted as watery-streaks on the pavement dried. Fruits and vegetables reflected the beams of morning sun and with the last vestiges of dew they glittering like small diamonds. From the outlying villages, peasants wandered in carrying snacks of fried rice wrapped in banana leaves.
“I wish I had a wide-angle camera,” Jake said. “This scene has so much color and
texture.”
“With scenes like this it’s better not to have a camera,” Wirarat said.
Half a dozen skinny kids burst into the scene wearing tight, blue shorts. They scurried about with a water hose splashing each other.
Wirarat calmly recited … “…the sun shone as it had to on the white legs..”
“That sounds familiar. Where’s it from?”
“When I first arrived in Indiana I was assigned to an international dormitory where I met my roommate, Sammi. Although we were both there for nursing degrees and southeast Asian diseases, there were times we had to break free. You know what I mean? Of course you do. I introduced Sammi to Thai desserts and Sammi introduced me to Indonesian curries. Preparing meals became a reason to break from our studies. In the evening, I read portions of the Ramayana to Sammi and he read the poems of Auden to me. Sammi’s mother was from Sumatra, but the father was English and tried his very best to instill a love of English poetry into his child’s head. The line is from Auden’s Musée des Beaux Arts. Are you familiar with it?”
“Yes, I remember it now. But hadn’t he been picturing Bruegel’s Landscape with
the Fall of Icarus? The boy falling from the sky in that painting had white legs. These legs
are brown.”
“Yes, yes, of course,” Wirarat said, not seeming to mind the correction.
Jake noted that his hair glistened with its own chemistry and fell in place along his ears and against the nape of his neck with a composed recklessness. Although his own brow was moist with the air’s humidity, Wirarat’s entire face was smooth and dry.
Winking away a drop of perspiration, he realized Wirarat had turned his attention away
from the children to him.
“Auden’s one of my favorite people,” he said. “I never agreed with those who spoke about how sad it was his beauty disappeared into so many wrinkles and lines. That was the way Sammi thought of aging. Beauty disappearing into the beast.”
“Nam nai,” Jake said, repeating a Thai phrase he’d heard at school. It loosely translated as water under the bridge.
“You know all these apt phrases,” Wirarat said.
“In all honesty, you’ve heard about a third of my total vocabulary.”
Wirarat remained silent for a moment as if gauging some aspect of his dialogue.
“I wonder if Auden regretted no longer being attractive to all the pretty boys. Do you suppose he thought about the falling boy as a sign of his own mortality? His own Fall from grace?”   “Yes, I think so. Perhaps even the Fall of man in general.”
“Yes, of course, you have a broader understanding of his art than I; still, he wrote on so many levels. That awareness must have been some consolation. The moment passes and all even Auden could do was write a poem, albeit a brilliant one. Perhaps only a poem could re-capture an instant such as this. There are too many elements. Film would only get you a tonal collage. Perhaps something useful for a coffee commercial.”
“Is that the voice of the artist mixed with a tinge of Buddhism?”
“More likely it’s a background of Buddhism laced with a shot of Indiana commerce. And how about you? Has world travel left you open to unexpected adventures? I was thinking of my friend, Sammi. You would have liked him. He had that same slightly stand-off quality I get from you.”
“I have a stand-off quality?”
“Oh, yes! Your eyes and your body language say ‘Here I am. Come closer.’ But, I sense that when someone actually closes in on you, you throw up a shield. Listen to me! I promise you, my degree is in nursing, not psychoanalysis.”
“Did you and Sammi ever consider returning here together?”
“Oh, no! Everything is much too apparent here. Sammi is from the past. Let’s get back to us.”
“Is there an ‘us’? Am I in the middle of some sort of unspoken interlude?”
Wirarat looked down at his lap, but didn’t answer.
“What happened to Sammi?”
“Ah, you wiggle about so fast!” he looked back up with a sad smile. “There was enough freedom for Sammi in the West to inhabit all the personalities he wished to try out. Over there, there is enough wealth, time and opportunity for almost everyone to live several lives. In third world countries, you are what you do. I mean, here I am, married, a successful medical technician, somewhat respected for who I am and what I do, and yet, that is all I am or could ever be. It is far more difficult to live here in more than one reality. Do you follow?”
“Maybe.”
An image came to him of Rosalie, the only woman who’d discovered his aroused response to pain, slapping his face until he was able to perform.
Wirarat slowly raised his right hand and held it in front of him as if testing to see if he could hold it that way without shaking. Within seconds, a large mosquito settled on his flesh and inserted a proboscis. They both watched it satisfy itself and then fly away.
“I hope that wasn’t an anapholes.”
“No, of course not. Didn’t I tell you what I do for a living? By the way, did you know that only the females take blood? Now part of me will soon become part of someone else.”
Jake said: “Mark but this flea, and mark in this, How little that which thou deniest me is ; It suck’d me first, and now sucks thee, And in this flea our two bloods mingled be….”
“Once again, very apt. Didn’t John Donne run off with someone he wasn’t supposed to?
“Yes, his Lord’s daughter, Anne.”
“Did they have a happy life together?”
“Not if we believe the little verse he put together after their capture: ‘John
Donna / Anne Donne / Undone’,”
“Tragic,” Wirarat said, and reached into his jacket to withdraw a silver letter opener which he used to skim his already clean nails, then placed it on the table.
They were in full morning light. Jake felt a hand rest lightly on his thigh. He sensed the day’s emerging illumination was about to reveal more than words.
“Sammi fed me chocolates.  My family’s home is in Bangkok, but I have a small place not far from here. I lied when I said places like this only allow one life. I realize you have lipstick on your face, but believe me when I say I know how to make you feel as if you were still with a woman. Trust me, you will have no regrets.”
Wirarat silently exhaled. Jake’s interior lens was smeared. This scene had to remain out-of-focus.
“I ask myself,” Wirarat continued, “have I found another responsive soul by accident in Buriram Province of all places? I ask myself, is there any chance he understands?”
He gave Jake a tender squeeze before removing his hand.
“I have to tell you it’s more your hope than my reality,” Jake said, feeling disoriented. The words seem to have been plucked more from the air than from his insides. He wasn’t even sure he’d spoken truth or the self-protective words of fear and exposure. The sharp letter opener held his attention. He could imagine Wirarat running its tip slowly across his naked chest.
“In that case, please forgive me for foolishly acting on mere intuition.”
Jake willed himself to simply stay still.
“I’ll suppose,” Wirarat said, “what is best for me to do is slip into my Buddhist nature and hope I will see you again in another life. Listen to my excess verbiage. Nervousness will do that.”
Wirarat slowly got to his feet, walked a few steps toward the fruit stalls and paused as if waiting for Jake to say something. In the silence that followed, he walked away. Wooden wheels creaked and groaned over uneven soil, there was a muted trill of morning birds and the light metal sound of a coin being dropped on a counter. Wirarat disappeared into the maze of stalls.
Jake was surprised at his own sadness. He inhaled a whiff of freshly boiled rice seasoned with a handful of chopped chives, a dash of vinegar and a shot of fish oil. It was called khao tom and was a typical early-morning breakfast, especially for those who had hangovers. He waited in line to get his own bowl before settling back on the bench. The same kids who’d been playing with the hose now scrounged the area for cigarette butts. Samlaw drivers sipped one last cup of Ovaltine before work. They stood near the lottery tables, calf-muscles bulging, pursing their lips between drinks for drags on limp cigarettes. Jake took his empty bowl over for a refill and then sat at a small table. Growing crowds walked by, but only occasionally did anyone pause to stare at the foreigner who’d invaded their space. A waiter asked him if he wanted anything else. Jake asked for a hot Ovaltine and a duck egg. He was surprised when the waiter returned with a tall glass that had both ingredients stirred together. Delicious. He glanced over at the Chinese calligraphy and Thai script covering a back wall and understood the numbers alongside each line was a price list. In the middle of it all were color portraits of Thailand’s King Bhumipol and China’s Sun Yat-Sen. The large, hacked butcher’s cutting block displayed several more pig heads propped up facing the passing crowd. Their pale, unfocused eyes remained resolutely fixed in place. Jake motioned to the waiter and spoke the few words he knew in Cantonese when asking for a check. The man chuckled, and after returning with his change sat at Jake’s table and spoke with him in a mixture of Thai and English about his job, his family and how difficult it was for him to pay for his son’s education at a teacher training college in Khon Kaen. They wai’d each other farewell and Jake strolled away through corridors of red and green chillies full of the scent of damp coriander.
It was then that Jake heard the voice from a narrow alley urging him to slow down and he paused long enough to see Wirawat standing there with the glittering letter opener. All the buttons of his shirt were open. A trickle of sweat ran down his hairless chest.
“I said, are you looking for some excitement?”
“Maybe some other time,” Jake said, fixated on the tip of the opener.
“This is some other time,” Wirawat said, and reached out to lightly poke Jake’s shoulder with just enough of a push to make him wince.
“I can’t do this. I have another life.”
“That life is nam nai. Water under the bridge.”
“I can’t swim,” Jake said.
“Don’t worry,” Wirawat said, painfully poking him into the darkness. “Leave everything to me.”

 

Burgess Needle’s fiction has appeared in Connotation Press and 10,000 Tons of Black Ink while his poems have appeared in Blackbox Manifold, Concho River Review, Raving Dove, Boston Literary Magazine, Decanto, Centrifugal Eye, Iodine,  Kritya, Prism Review,  Blue Lake Review, Minotaur, Nutshell Magazine and DeComp Magazine among others. Diminuendo Press published his poetry collection Every Crown In The Blue Sky in 2009. His second collection, Thai Comic Books was published in 2013 by Big Table Press. He taught English for two years in Nang Rong, a small village in northeast Thailand for the Peace Corps, been a co-director of the Southern Arizona Writing Project and was a school librarian for thirty years. He lives in Tucson with his wife, Barbara. Find out more here.