Boys in the Morning
by John McMahon
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Somkid sits down at the table where Sumchai and he sit every morning.
They exchange a long and exceptionally polite greeting in spite of their lifelong friendship, then burst into giggles and snatch at each other’s crotch.
Sumchai already has a cup of strong coffee with a tablespoon of sugar and a long pour of condensed milk. Somkid calls to the ancient woman who opens her food stall each morning before sunrise. He calls her "mother" and asks for a cup of the same. She stands hunched over her collection of huge stainless- steel vats, stirring a soup of offal that smells of cinnamon. She responds with a long string of half-understood singsong words, calling the thirty-year-old Somkid “baby boy.”
Neither have to listen to her; they know exactly what she says, what she has said to them every morning since they were in school: ‘Don’t talk so much that flies come to live in your head.’ Samkid answers her the way he has for most of his life, ‘Excuse me, mother, but I am hungry for it.’ ‘Wait, wait…’ the old woman mumbles as she unhurriedly prepares the coffee with her gnarled hands. The fingers are bent and twisted like some lone desert brush distorted by the hot winds.
“Where are you coming from?” Sumchai asks Somkid, taking hold of his hand lightly as he makes himself comfortable on the cement bench.
“I went to see my mother when I woke. She is old but slept well. And you? Did you sleep well?”
“I am comfortable, no mosquito bit me.”
They laugh together.
The old woman hobbles across the scarred earthen floor packed hard by decades of her shuffling, battered, plastic sandals. The food stall is no more then four flimsy tin tables with concrete benches surrounded by bamboo walls, corrugated plastic, patches of tin and wire, holding up a roof of mixed corrugated fiber glass and plastic sheeting. The place is a work forever in progress.
The old woman has a collection of pots and pans with which she makes the same organ soup and greasy omelets every day for as long as anyone can remember. She has never been any younger or older. By ten in the morning she will be curled up on one of the hard benches, sleeping soundly in the dense, hot smells of the late morning.
It is barely seven, but already the day is hot. The cool earth below the tables swarm with tiny biting insects the clucking chickens hunt slowly in their scratching progress.
“Sir, you have a new magic amulet?”
Sumchai removes the long gold chain that holds a small glass box which in turn holds a triangular fragment of ceramic or stone picturing a monk in meditation surrounded by some ancient script. “I stopped this morning to buy. 28,000…expensive?”
“It’s very powerful, is it?”
Somkid removes a jeweler’s loop from his pants pocket and examines the amulet. He hands it back to Sumchai, who hangs it around his neck with the strings of others flashing gold and glass in the morning light.
The old woman brings them a large bowl of brackish peat-colored soup, a three-egg omelet stuffed with pork and shrimp fried to a crisp, a pitted brown slab in a slick of its own oil. A plate of fiery cabbage submerged in pungent, cloudy gray oyster sauce is sprinkled with fried, minced pork. A large serving dish holds a mound of white rice. Two small plates are set in front of each man. They didn’t order, and she hasn’t asked what they want. She brings them the same food every morning.
The two men take some rice and then eat slowly, taking in turn from each dish. They eat silently, only adding brief comments and commonplaces as they look over the newspaper spread out on the table. They discuss the day’s headlines and agree about the importance and futility of the ongoing political strife of their country, laughing at the contradictory statements made by politicians while at the same time lamenting the fragility of their king.
As the morning passes the two men greet and make passing conversation with friends and neighbors who come through the stall. It’s a familiar ritual they have all come to know over the years, a ritual that evolves gradually as local events and current gossip meld with the past to become part of the shared knowledge of the neighborhood.
Each baby carried by is fawned over and each passing child playfully chastised by name. None of the neighbors stay to eat, carrying their food away in plastic bags and Styrofoam containers. Others don’t order at all, offer the traditional greeting with palms pressed together, bowing slightly. Sumchai and Somkid return this wai, offering a perfunctory invitation to join them.
After two hours of eating and greeting their neighbors the two men get up and offer the same bow and pressed-palm salutation to the old woman along with elaborate thanks. Then they stop by the spirit house, this time offering the wai to ancestors and Buddha as they wave thick spirals of smoldering joss sticks over their heads, finger-combing the smoke through their hair as a blessing for the day.
The old woman watches with her one good eye as they walk slowly away, pulling their shirts up over their full bellies, clutching the worn ladle in her hand fiercely for a moment before returning to her endless stirring.
Sumchai and Somkid separate to return home for a nap. The morning has been a full one: they have eaten and seen to their family obligations. As the heat settles in earnest over the town it is time to retire to a shaded hammock or air-conditioned bedroom to sleep away the afternoon and be ready for the evening and night ahead.
Somkid sits in the cab of his idling truck parked more in than out of the back road where Somchai lives. He sits listening to his favorite soft-rock compilation, taking small hits from his glass pipe. Between his knees is clenched a forty-ounce bottle of Leo beer. In the back seat are ten more Leos slotted tightly into white plastic bags. He leans his head against the seat rest, exhaling a lean funnel of smoke, imagining the night ahead and the fun and profit to be had.
Somchai breaks open the air-conditioned barrier between the interior of the truck and the outside world. Somkid smiles wide and palms the glass pipe to make the wai greeting. Somkid wais him back. They inquire about each other’s nap while Somkid fits a fresh rock into the pipe and hands it to Somchai in the manner of offering something of value to an elder, right arm fully extended, palm open, left hand resting against the upturned wrist, elbow bent, head bowed slightly.
Somchai thanks him profusely, sparks the lighter and holds the flame to the little rock, watching its surface darken, bubble and begin to give off gasses. He sucks on the pipe as Somkid finishes his beer, reaches over the seat and retrieves two more.
“How do you know this mouse?” Somchai asks as he hands the pipe back to Somkid. Somkid sparks the lighter and demolishes the remaining cinders of the rock. He holds the acrid smoke in and coughs once before letting it out.
“I don’t know her. I know her older brother. She respects and loves him very much. I gave him a gold ring for her time.”
Somchai swallows his beer and nods. “I think this is a good price for us and a good price for him. Was he satisfied?”
“He seemed satisfied.”
The two sit quietly finishing off their bottles of warm beer, listening to the music.
Some say love, It is a hunger,
The Leanna Rimes classic.
In front of the vocational college the two men sit in the big truck watching the stream of female students exiting through the gap between two huge, polished black granite slabs. The girls exit in groups of twos and tens, all dressed identically in white shirts and black-check pleated skirts, their blue-and- maroon ties jostling in time with the bounce of their eighteen-year-old stride.
Somchai takes a deep breath, drawing the air as if on the trail of a wounded animal. He shakes his head, licks his lips, takes a short sharp draw on the glass pipe. “I love the little mice. I love the way they squeak. But how can we know which one is ours?”
Somkid exchanges a yearbook-size photo for the pipe. Somchai examines the girls, studies the photo again, then hands it back to Somkid.
“We will have to have the eye of the hawk,” Somchai sighs.
Somkid shakes his head, exhales. “Our mouse is supposed to meet her brother here, now.”
They see her on the sidewalk looking up and down the street, rocking back and forth in her black buckle shoes. The little muscles of her calves bunch and relax. The longer muscle of her thigh shows firm where it runs under the hem of her skirt.
The truck inches forward until it's between the girl and the road. Somchai powers down the window. “Mouse,” he calls.
The girl looks questioningly at him. He waves, inviting her to approach the truck. She steps forward, her palms pressed together, bowing in the polite manner of well-brought-up young woman. “Good afternoon, sir.”
Somchai holds out the note. “We’re friends of your brother’s. He asked us to pick you up.”
The girl takes the note, recognizing her brother’s hand.
Little sister, my friends will bring you to your father’s house safely, as I am indisposed at the time. Please trust and give the highest respect to these two good-hearted men.
Your older brother, Chan.
The girl squeezes onto the seat between the two men, then watches the street outside with an expression of demure curiosity as the truck pulls blindly into traffic.
“What year are you in?” Somchai asks.
The girl answers without turning her head.
“How old are you little sister, sixteen?” Somkid asks, drinking from a fresh quart of beer.
“Ah,” Somchai replies. “And do you enjoy your school?”
The girl smiles shyly, nods. “My teachers try hard...”
“Yes,” Somkid agrees. “But you must always show your teachers respect.”
Somchai holds the freshly loaded pipe in front of her. “Do you like this?” She shakes her head, staring down into her lap. “Never tried it?” Somchai chides. The girl shakes her head again and winces. “Mouse” Somkid says sternly, “your uncle wants to give you something. Is it polite to refuse?” Somkid grips the girl’s face until she whimpers in agreement. When he releases her his hands have left a thumb-size dimple that instantly swells into a red welt. Somchai fits the pipe between her lips, holding it steady. “Relax. Just wait a second. Now, inhale a little bit.”
The restaurant is empty except for the two tables of police officers who have continued drinking far past closing time. The rough wooden tables in front of them are laden with whiskey bottles, glasses and plates of picked-over food piled into a heap of plastic chaos. The men are still in uniform, still armed, intoxicated. The vehicles in the parking lot are the official law-enforcement pickup trucks.
Somchai and Somkid enter slowly looking over the inebriated faces, searching for the highest rank. They approach the table and are greeted with raised glasses, accepting each and taking a respectful sip from all but the highest- ranking. They wai deeply to the officer with the most gold stripes on his sleeves and the most gold around his neck. The Major Colonel returns a perfunctory wai and motions to the bodyguards who book-end him to give up their seats. Glasses of drink and plates of food appear while the men go through a litany of greetings and mandatory inquires. The chief sits impassively as Somkid and Somchai bow and scrape their way into his favor.
When they are through and have taken some bits of food and tasted the drink, Somkid hands the man his camera. The Major Colonel examines the image on the screen, forwards to the next image, continuing through the twenty that follow, grinning wider and wider.
Somchai hands him a small parcel. The officer pats the folded paper inside, judging its weight, then turns back the fold to reveal a pair of white panties. Somchai whispers into his ear. The officer inhales a long appreciative whiff of the damp fabric.
The officer gathers up his men and leaves the restaurant, dropping a wad of small bills among the plates and bottles. A phalanx of red-and-white pickups follow Somchai and Somkid under the streetlights, pushing aside traffic, rolling through red lights.
At the hotel the vehicles pull into the empty lot. Somkid and Somchai lead the police to Room 36. Somkid unlocks the door for the officers, then take up sentry duty with their little glass pipe.
The small concrete house is dark when the truck settles in front. The dome light goes on, showing the effects of drink and narcotics in the two friends faces. They are both sweating despite the air-conditioning. In contrast, the girl is composed, distant. Her neat school uniform is a bit wrinkled but hardly more so than usual at the end of a school day. She doesn’t seem to notice she is home. Somchai puts the pipe to his mouth, sucks hard on it, then holds it to the girl’s mouth, which accepts it without resistance.
Somkid slides a folded five-hundred note into her shirt pocket. “Mouse, thank you and thank your brother for me and my friends.I want to give this to you.”
The girl nods blankly. Somchai opens the door and stands aside so she can get out.
“Good night, sleep well.”
She wais stiffly to both of them before walking slowly into the dark.
Somkid and Somchai sit at their usual table eating the same assortment of food they eat every morning. They talk and look over the paper according to their usual routine. The old woman stands stirring her vat of organ soup. The dark greasy liquid swirls, some gray-veined strands of pig intestine emerge caught against the spoon. She listens to their chatter as she stares into the broth. At her age her capacity for pity, empathy, indignation have worn away with the years.
When the two finish eating Somkid folds the newspaper into the same form in which he found it and with Somchai wais the old woman and thanks her for the meal. They pause on the way out of the stall to pay respect to Buddha and the ancestors, both wai at the spirit house and smooth the sandal wood smoke trickling from joss sticks through their hair.
The old woman watches them saunter towards their homes, shirts pulled over their bellies, laughing and yawning and ready for sleep.
(J. McMahon Esq. is an ex-pat living along the Salween mountain range in Thailand. Former lover of the legal art, he fled America under the harsh laws preventing his kind from walking free. He currently resides on the banks of the river Kwai, writing, brewing bath-tub toddy and dealing with his retired racing buffalo. )