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The kid reaches into his jacket pocket and pulls out a semi-automatic, cocks it, and points it at me.
“Give me your money credit card and handphone, asshole,” he says through clenched teeth. The vein on his scrawny neck is bulging. He’s trying to sound tough, putting on an American accent, but he’s not fooling anybody with his Thai twang.
Was it a stroke of good fortune or shit bad luck that I’d given Denise my wallet? The phone I don’t care about; I fish it out and hand it to him. I glance around the alley, wondering how I might turn this situation in my favour. There’s got to be a way. Everyone has a soft spot.
The afternoon sun is beating down relentlessly and the buildings on either side of us offer no shade. There is no one here. There is no one in the noodle bar behind me. There is only the smell of rotting fruit, which seems to follow you wherever you go in Bangkok. I’m trying desperately to remember the kid’s name.
“I’m glad we’re doing this,” Denise said on the plane.
I turned to look at her and was startled by how much she resembled my ex-wife. She had arranged her face into a pained half-smile that did nothing to conceal her discomfort. It had never bothered me that there was nothing of me in her. Once, I had even entertained the idea that she wasn’t mine. What a saint that would make me, raising another man’s child.
She leaned over and put her hand on my arm.
“You ok, Dad? Nervous? You’re jiggling your foot.”
“No, sweetheart. I’m fine. Just tired of sitting down.”
I’d been sitting down for twenty-five years.
Twenty-five years ago, when I first came to Bangkok, I didn’t have a backup plan or a return date. After half-heartedly trying—and whole-heartedly failing—at a career in computer sales, I saved up some money and had intended to backpack around Southeast Asia until it ran out. In the end, I stayed in Thailand for two years, and I probably would have found a way to stay longer if it hadn’t been for Thaksin’s opium den.
That place was something else. In Thaksin’s time Bangkok was a wild child, rife with whatever you wanted, whenever you wanted it, with few legal restrictions. But opium was hard to come by in the city, and Thaksin was a business man with finesse—very rare in the drug trade. He could have been dealing party drugs to backpackers but he wanted to find a niche. He knew a guy who knew a guy up in Chiang Mai whose family farmed the stuff in a village near the border with Burma. It was damn good stuff.
Later back in Vancouver I made it through the nineties without touching drugs. I was high when I left Bangkok that first time, and spent the next quarter century trying to forget what it felt like. I started a business, and a family—well, sort of—but on the plane to Bangkok with Denise snoring beside me, it all came back to me in a flashback that took over my senses. My hands twitched with the memory of lighting the opium pipe. When I breathed in the recirculated air of the cabin I imagined I was filling my lungs with the coarse white smoke. I felt it spreading its warmth through every millimetre of my body, relaxing every muscle, stimulating every nerve cell. The memory of it—the sweet, hedonic surrender, the hour-long kisses, her perky breasts in my face—made my eyes roll back in my head and nearly gave me an erection. She hardly spoke any English but she laughed at everything I said, which suited me just fine.
“Take Denise with you,” Karen had said. “And talk to her.”
Somehow I had let Karen turn this into a reconciliation trip, an apology gift from me, or whatever you want to call it. I’d had to announce to my ex-family that I was going away—going away to Bangkok for a week without telling anyone was not socially acceptable—even though I no longer had rights where my daughter’s upbringing was concerned, even though I was no longer a legal possession of my ex-wife’s. I still had what she called “moral responsibilities”.
On her eighteenth birthday Denise had shown up at my door, drunk, and told me to fuck myself. She didn’t need a father, she said. “You’re dead to me!”
So dramatic. She’d smashed a beer bottle on my doorstep and I had to send her home in a cab. A few days later, Karen called.
“You need to talk to Denise,” she’d said in a tone that suggested my daughter’s foray into alcoholism was somehow my fault. As if all those years it hadn’t been her and Denise versus me. As a child, Denise had had no interest in me. She’d looked at me like I was a mildly interesting stranger, while her life centred around her mother. Nevertheless, something was broken and I had to fix it.
There was one thing I could be proud of, though, and that was that I didn’t have to lie. Not really. I was going to Bangkok to visit an old friend who was very ill. Karen had never been interested in my life in Thailand when we were married, and she certainly didn’t care now. No one needed to know that the old friend was an ex-lover. No one needed to know the other details either. I thought of Thaksin and what he must look like now: old and frail. I could take him, if I had to. I didn’t like to think about him.
The opium den was in the basement of a noodle bar in a nondescript alley in Bang Phlat district. If you weren’t there for the noodles, you told the waiter you’d left your bag for safekeeping downstairs and that you’d like to go get it. You would be led downstairs and met by Madame Maprong—Maprong in a silk wrap skirt and cropped t-shirt, chopsticks in her hair, wearing pink lipstick the colour of bubblegum. Maprong wasn’t a madame in the accepted sense of the word. She was Thaksin’s girlfriend, or wife; it was never clear. Much younger than him, and just as sharp, she helped him run the place. You’d pay for your opium and Maprong would lead you through two sets of heavy curtains into a darkened room draped with tasteful fabrics and tapestries. There was a row of velvet couches against each wall, separated from each other by wooden screens. I spent many a blissful day reclining on the couch in the far corner, lost in a prolonged, sedated dream. The den’s windows were completely blacked out so there was no way of knowing what time of day it was, or how many days had passed. There was a little pocket watch that hung on a nail just behind the curtain at the top of the stairs, but the only reason you would pass by it was if you were leaving.
“Just put that thing down and let’s talk,” I say, taking a wobbly step toward him. He takes a step back, still pointing the gun.
“Give me your wallet and pin number! You owe me motherfucker!”
God damn persistent little punk. He must have followed me all the way from the hospital where he was lurking and heard me talking to the nurse. He must have followed me to this alley and now he’s accosted me outside the noodle shop before I can go inside. My heart had leapt at the discovery that it was still there. I had left Denise wandering around a shopping centre with my wallet, and had taken just enough cash for the opium, in case I got lucky. I guess I had known that I wouldn’t spend too much time at the hospital. Fate—or advanced pancreatic cancer, to be specific—took care of that for me.
A phone rings in his pocket. It’s a mock-vintage telephone ringtone underscored by loud vibrations. Mine. He ignores it.
“Listen…” I still cannot remember his name. “We need to sit down and talk about this. Let me buy you a beer. You like beer? Or ice coffee?”
Come on,” I plead, masking my mounting panic with calculated hand gestures. If the words of a dying woman are to be believed, then this kid is my son. He might even be serious with this gun thing. I don’t know what she told him. I don’t know what Thaksin knew. Until recently I didn’t even know if it was a boy or a girl. If I had come sooner, I could have seen her, talked to her, straightened everything out.
She had been pregnant after we broke up but I wouldn’t talk to her. She’d cried outside my door but I convinced myself that the baby was Thaksin’s, even though she’d sworn she wasn’t sleeping with him. Then the police started snooping around the alley after a guy was arrested on suspicion of dealing. I knew the guy, he was a friend of Thaksin’s who sold smack balloons to sex tourists. They let him go but three days later his body washed up on a river bank. I was young and dumb but I knew it was time to get the hell out. Actually, I had decided to get the hell out before the whole dead guy fiasco, but who’s counting.
Twenty-five years later, the letter arrives. She doesn’t want anything, just wants me to know the boy. She includes a photograph of a skinny teenager with a football under his arm. Now this teenager, a little older, a little rougher and more sickly-looking, is pointing a gun at my face.
The noodle bar has a new sign—yellow with green writing—but the interior, from what I can see, is pretty much the same: a counter in the back and a few plastic chairs and tables in front of it. I’m afraid to take my eyes off the barrel pointed at me, but I want desperately to catch a glimpse of the door to the basement. Holding both hands above my head in a gesture of surrender, I slowly sit down on the curb. He lowers the gun, still holding his finger over the trigger. My phone rings again. Denise must be getting worried. I think of her, alone at the mall with my credit card. What if she’s more like Karen than I thought? What if she is, at this very moment, going on a vindictive spending spree? What if she’s calling to tell me not to bother coming back for her? I welcome this possibility.
“She dead,” he says when the phone stops ringing. Dead to me.
“Yes, I know, I’m…” Am I sorry? What does sorry feel like?
“She dead because of you!” he shouts, now with tears in his eyes. The gun is once again pointed at me. Dead because of me? I consider asking for an explanation but there’s no need. He abandons the American gangster front and speaks to me in broken English.
“All her life she worry. She sad, she depress. She love you, you know? But you don’t take her, you don’t take me. Only this…” He pulls something out of his back pocket and waves it in front of me. A tattered photograph. I lean forward, take it from him and squint at it. When I see what it is, I suppress a laugh. I had let my beard grow out. Fuck knows why. Maybe just to prove that I could. I was wearing a cut off denim jacket, unbuttoned, with nothing underneath. She had taken that photograph with the camera we had bought together, which she’d kept. I remember that vest. Whatever happened to that vest?
“That you,” the kid says, and it sounds unsure, like it might be a question.
I shake my head sadly. “No, it’s not. I don’t know who that is.”
He takes the picture back and stares at it for a few seconds. I’m fifty-one and gray-haired now. There is no resemblance.
“Look, I think there has been a big misunderstanding. Perhaps your mother misinformed you. I knew her once, that’s true, but she knew many men.” I hear the words leave my mouth and my brain throws on the emergency brakes. Everything comes to a screeching halt, sparks flying, sweat soaking through my shirt. Too late.
The look in the kid’s eyes changes. All the emotion vanishes in an instant. I have seen that look before, in the eyes of men on the street. Drug dealers who don’t trust you. Homeless men. Men with no hope, who have nothing else to lose.
“Your wallet.” The voice doesn’t seem to come from him.
“Oh come on…”
“Your wallet, asshole, or I put bullet in your head.”
His gun is poised. This kid has seen too many American movies. My phone is ringing again, with the urgency of a third unanswered call. I’m glad we’re doing this.
I stand up slowly. He glares at me and tightens his grip on the gun. My mouth is dry but my mind is clear. Slowly, I turn around and walk into the noodle bar. The door is wide open and a guy in a red t-shirt has appeared behind the counter. He looks at me as I step through the door but then he looks at something behind me and backs up against the wall. Over the smell of stale grease and garlic, I can just about make out the sweet, flowery aroma of opium wafting up from the basement. What a smell. I inhale one last time.
Magdalena Krohn is a writer and performance poet. She has lived in London, Cambridge, Warsaw and Moscow, and currently lives in Malawi with her travel-writer boyfriend. She is working on a novel about Africa.