Wanissa doesn’t have an address cabbies will go to. Three of them shake their heads and drive off. The fourth thinks a long while before letting us in. We cross the river and the cabbie tells us he doesn’t often get a fare to this part of the city. People who go there, he says, take chauffeured Benzes. The ones that live there take the bus. This doesn’t strike me as an especially good sign.
Wanissa was introduced to me as a friend of my wife’s family. My wife’s family has plenty of fingers in plenty of rice bowls. That’s why I agreed to lend Wanissa the money. She said she needed it to buy new sewing machines. To keep her garment business afloat. So I could be forgiven for thinking I made a business loan. Seemed secure enough. Up until yesterday, that is. When I found out that by “friend of the family,” my wife meant “former maid.”
I wouldn’t have lent the money to Wanissa if I’d know she was or ever had been a maid. No, you can’t trust the poor. Especially here. A sad fact, but a fact all the same. Poor people with ambition, they find a way and don’t stay poor. The rest of the unfortunate bastards, they just don’t understand and you can’t make them. If you want to piss your cash away, let them touch it.
I have also discovered that by “come to Bangkok to see me as often as humanly possible,” my wife means “come only when I specifically ask.” She’s not very happy about my sudden appearance. I called her just before I caught my flight. She’s my wife. How much warning do I have to give her? But she acts like meeting me at the airport and spending the night together (our first in two months) is a long boring workday and she’s counting minutes till the five-o’clock whistle.
We’ve lived apart since we got married. My wife isn’t exactly rushing me to join her, I’m noticing. I’ve been planning to move here to Bangkok for a while now, but my declining fortunes are keeping me busy in Japan. Turns out, I can use those monthly installments on the loan. That’s why I’m here. Wanissa made exactly one payment. And nothing in the six months since then. So I’m going to see her. Have a chat. I’ve brought along Suthon. Suthon I trust. I knew him before I met my wife. I don’t have much practice at this loan-collection thing. Suthon does.
Now, not all that long ago, twenty-five grand in American dollars wouldn’t have been that big a deal to me. But my affairs keep heading south. You’d think the sex trade would be recession-proof. In hard times a man tightens his belt, lowers his eyes, and goes home to fuck his wife. Which creates problems for me: I recruit girls for the Japanese market. From hostesses to strippers to fetish girls to hookers, black and white and yellow and brown, I bring them in.
Willing girls only, mind you. I find as of late I have to clarify this point. I’m no slave trader. Hell, this business is how I met my wife. Her family owns a string of “massage” parlors. Hence their maids. Hence Wanissa. Hence me taking time off to come down here and chase down my money. And, as a sideline project, to see my wife. Slip back inside matrimonial bounds myself for a few days.
We creep our way through the choking traffic, and eventually get off the main streets. Christ on a crutch. Look at this. Like a war zone. Crumbly gray concrete tenements, half-covered in hanging rags. Laundry, I suppose, although nothing I’d put on my back; most of it looks unworthy of a toilet rag. I doubt any of these buildings have ever encountered a paint can They’re colored in creeping black decay and rusty streaks, with networks of spidery cracks for trimming. The streets are so narrow pedestrians have to step aside and bicyclists have to dismount so we can pass. The tires crunch over plastic and paper and rags and bricks in the refuse-packed streets. Sinkholes all over the road, jagged chunks of asphalt collapsing into them.
Young girls wander the streets. I watch them. Who knows? Someday I could be their conduit to a better life. Happens all time. Sort of rewarding, really. Besides, only the gutter snipes ever really appreciate what you do for them.
Half-naked kids sprint in front of the taxi. One little tyke’s attire consists of purple rain boots, useful for tromping through streams of fetid run-off and open sewers. The taxi driver slams on the brakes and misses his bald head by about a bumper. He’s lucky, after a fashion. The little survivor and the rest of his gang of semi-clad buddies gape as we go by. The side of his face is covered in purple boils.
The cabbie keeps going. It becomes increasingly clear he has only a hazy familiarity with the area. I just manage to stay quiet. The cabbie deserves a mouthful but there’s no point. Eventually, smiling while not apologizing, he stops in front of a dilapidated store. Which stocks, from the looks of it, used motor oil and beer. A bulbously fat Chinese-looking man, mole on his jaw sprouting a six-inch long gray hair, babbles some directions at him.
A few more twists and turns, enough to wreck my last notions of orientation, and we find the place. It’s not really a place. It’s a mud lot, where a building got torn down about a decade ago, now jam-packed with squatter hovels. One of them must be Wanissa’s.
So——I lent this woman twenty-five grand. To be paid back in generous installments, at a very fair rate of interest. And this is where she lives? Where’s the garment business, do you suppose? Those sewing machines? She’s running a sweatshop out of a tin hut, is she? I can call this a lot of things. I’ll call it the last time I take my wife’s word. My own damn fault. I should married a plain honest girl from, I don’t know, Cleveland. Tuscaloosa. Salt Lake City.
Suthon and I get out. I tell the cabbie to wait. Not likely another cab will be coming by any time soon. A crowd of filthy waifs gather around us. One of them has a soccer ball. He kicks it and the ball hits me in the shin, leaving a black imprint on my cream trousers. I don’t even want to think about where that ball’s been. Suthon scatters the kids with a few phrases and looks. They keep the staring up from a distance. I guess we’re a sight to be seen in these parts . Me: balding white dome awash in sweat, bulging belly hiding my toes, backs of my hands already going speckled, two-day beard disguising an ever-growing network of wrinkles. Suthon: stocky and dark, muscles rippling in the right places, slicked-back hair, tailored clothes.
Which hovel is Wanissa’s, then? Must be a hundred of them. I’m not going to pop into each one asking direction. Suthon gets on it.
Efficiently, he heads straight to the moms. A pair of them, to be exact. Fat, soon-to-be toothless, prematurely middle-aging. Wrapped in sarongs, flesh peeking over every fold, each with a listless baby that looks too old to be held but probably isn’t strong enough to stand. They tell Suthon six hovels back, on the left, past the tilted-over lamp post, next to the upright concrete slab with the obscene graffiti.
Easy enough. There it is. Maybe six foot by ten. Walls of tin siding, plywood roof. A rusting Iowa license plate and a Manchester United banner, edges frayed and streaked with faded red, hang over the entrance. A thin blue tarp hangs over it, stolen from a market or construction site. I rap on a wall. There’s shuffling around inside. I push the tarp aside and go in, ducking under the splitting two-by-four holding up the entranceway. Now’s no time to stand on formality.
After the slanting glare of the pollution-refracted sun outside, it’s pretty murky in here. A sickly lamp in the corner, sparking and dimming. With the notches of light coming in from the corners, there’s just enough light to mostly see.
A man is halfway standing up from a fruit crate. He’s staggered by our arrival. So much so that juice is running off his knuckles from the ripe mango he’s squeezing. He has two boys by him. Both under ten, probably, although so covered in filth it’s hard to tell. One has on a piss-yellow Winnie the Pooh T-shirt and checkered shorts. One has just the shorts, identical to his brother’s. The man has no shirt and his skin hangs in flabby folds off his arms and droops in greasy torpor over his belt. His cracked yellow fingernails are long enough to be spoons. Oily hair lanks around his dark face. His lips are flaccid meat curtains.
He looks petrified. I’ll bet he is. Right away he starts blathering. My Thai’s not bad, but it’s not up to deciphering his gibberish. I tell him to calm and sit down. I mention who I am, and who my wife’s father is. This makes an impression. I say that I’m a business associate of his wife Wanissa. I explain his wife and I have certain financial understandings, which may or may not concern him. Which isn’t my concern. I want to know two simple things: where is Wanissa, and where the fuck is my money. Suthon takes up a strategic position by my side.
The man sits back down on his crate. He calls the boys to his side. They kneel beside him and he puts his arms around them.
“I haven’t seen her in months,” he says. “Please. Believe me.”
“Are these your children?” I ask. “Yours and Wanissa’s?”
“Yes. Please, sir. Please.”
“Do you have any idea where your wife might be?”
“No,” he says. “She left us. She took everything. Even the electrical cords. I lost my apartment. My motorbike. Wanissa hadn’t paid anything in months. And then a drunk trucker wrecked the factory van I used to drive. I got fired. I owe the company damages. We came here. We have nowhere else to go. I’m the one who gave this address to your wife.”
I let him go through it. Hard to say whether to believe him or not. Though it hardly matters.
“My money,” I ask. “How about the money?”
“I don’t know anything about your money,” he says.
He puts his head in his hands and sobs. Well, there are any number of ways to usefully jog a memory. Suthon is stepping to it. Then, from behind the greasy curtain dividing the shack in two, steps a girl. Out of professional interest, I hold Suthon back.
My assessment takes about two seconds. This girl got pock-marked cheeks, crooked overbite, nose splayed like an over-the-hill heavyweight’s——I’m sorry her face happened to her. Although she does have fantastic eyes. Black as fired obsidian, whites like glacial snow. Steady as a crystal. Something primeval in them.
Piled on her face is a grimy layer of horrifically misapplied makeup. Which comes nowhere close to making her look any older. She could be thirteen or possibly fourteen. She’s wearing a uniform, gray, factory-issue. Stained with the chemical byproducts of a multinational corporation which likely has achieved product placement in your household. The trademark is on her breast pocket. I know all about it. A girl I got a gig in Japan used to work in one of those factories. For seventy hours a week, she was paid almost a living wage and managed to escape with no significant bodily injury and enough intact beauty to be a popular draw in a hostess club. Where, I might add, she makes twenty times as much.
Like the poor everywhere, at whom life has already tossed so much misery and bullshit that nothing’s shocking, the girl seems unsurprised by the scene. She goes over to her father. She put her arms around his shoulder. He takes his hands away from his head and wraps them around her waist. The sons snuggle in closer. They are crying, too.
She’s not. She looks down on these sorry males, for all the world like they’re her brood. She whispers something to them. Then she looks at me. Her eyes are smoldering finely. A few million years of evolution are plainly on her side. If anyone in this shack knows anything about my twenty-five grand, no one going to say now.
I repeat myself. For form’s sake. The girl shakes her head. Her father won’t look up. I can see Suthon would like to engage in more vigorous questioning. But no. You can’t put the squeeze on people who’ve got nothing, can you?
I promise to be back. Suthon and I back away. I trip on an empty bottle on the way. Nearly fall over. I have to clutch at a wobbly shelf to keep my balance. There goes the last of the fear and awe. The girl keeps staring. Her sorry men keep crying.
Winding our way back through the hovels, Suthon says he’ll stay on it. I can see he’s not happy about this. Nope, I can’t seem to please anyone. The taxi’s there.
“How about that?” I say to Suthon, back in the air conditioning.
He shrugs. “Possibly they know nothing,” he says. “But you are too kind.”
“Too chickenshit, you mean.”
Suthon doesn’t answer that. “I’ll go back,” he says. “When you will not have
Wish I could do something for the girl. Considering what Suthon’s going to do to her family. I think of asking him to refrain. He will if I ask. But I don’t. Like I said, times are tough. I need that twenty-five grand.
Court Merrigan’s work has been published in Night Train, decomP, Kyoto Review, Blackbird, Evergreen Review, Numero Cinq, Identity Theory, The Summerset Review, and others. You can find links at http://courtmerrigan.wordpress.com/short-stories/. He’s also a reader at PANK. After a decade of the nomadic life in East Asia, he lives in Wyoming where he works at Eastern Wyoming College and is having an American adventure with his wife Nalinee and two children.