|Jul/Aug 2004 fiction|
In the century after the Great Crash of 1997, Bangkok drivers shared a bond that may well be considered unique. For an outsider, the sight of motorcycles swarming at the Lumpini Park intersection or the circle at the Democracy Monument with twenty-wheeled trucks charging like elephant ballerinas, the overpass throbbing under their weight—these give the impression of bedlam. You could study these deafening scenes for months without noticing the countless signals passed from driver to driver—the flash of a ring, a nod in the rearview. You'd see the odd private car giving no right of way, but real drivers like Kam dismissed these as amateurs, outside the order. Sooner or later they'd come to harm, Kam would say. He passed capsized buses without rubbernecking, not a glance. Punctured chrome, glass shards and gray-faced motorcyclists with missing jaws didn't move him or any other traffic professional, except to embarrassed titters.
The embarrassing absurdity of thinking you could skirt the order of how things were.
The city's explosion of roads and other measures by the authorities had forged the drivers' order. As the number of vehicles mushroomed in the new century, highways stacked up on top of each other in a way that mirrored the city's hierarchy. Key arteries rose five levels high. On an entrance ramp, a driver often had just milliseconds to detect which level suited the status of his vehicle's owner (in Kam's case, the governor). The examination to obtain a license became a torturous combination of dexterity, rote memory, and protocol. Mastering it required an apprenticeship. Few passed. Hanuman, at the driver's shelter, said it was "a matter of mind-numbing intelligence," but that's Hanuman for you.
By the time he banked the cruiser in front of the Parliament offices, Kam's hands were twitching and his neck was stony from the pre-holiday onslaught. He had nearly murdered one deserving motorcyclist in an alley shortcut between two arteries. And he'd missed being destroyed himself only by a hand's width—a tanker ran a light in Klong Toei, where buses heading up-country shifted with lurching, rutting groans. The tanker's slipstream had rocked Kam's Cruiser on its shocks.
Along the sidewalk he passed talisman vendors with their umbrellas raised against the sun. The few, brown tamarind trees left beside the Mall gave next to no shade. Kam's mouth went flat with distaste as he passed the hawkers with their heads shaved, a mockery of the order.
He sped up, reached the blinding marble of the Parliament steps, and crossed them in a crab-like ascent. He rolled his head from side to side to release the iron spring of his neck. It spasmed, shooting a red flame up the back of his skull. He let the pain and heat pass. Let it pass.
Below, the grassy Mall, still dewy in patches, made a wide base for the golden stupa in the distance. Its bell shape glimmered above the feathery tamarinds and the flat waves of buses, cars and auto-rickshaws. Its gold stirred a rare flash of awe in Kam.
In his head, Kam heard Durian's annoyed growl again: "How should I know why? The order comes from upstairs. Just do it. You know Parliament, right?" Kam had watched Durian's sloping back return to the driver's shelter. In the years he'd worked for Durian, Kam had seen him so upset only once before. Kam had no clue what the envelope held, or why the Governor would assign the delivery to Kam and not Durian. It had been two years since Kam had last made a delivery to Parliament. These things can be just a fluke of the Governor's memory, or they can mean something in the slippery hierarchy. Kam hoped it was a fluke. He hoped he could finesse any tension with Durian by quietly leaving the envelope with a secretary, without disgracing himself, and be gone in ten.
Kam glimpsed a guard squinting in his direction, so he hurried up the last few steps and between the columns that straddled the entrance. Covered in a mosaic of spangled glass shards with white marble behind, the columns still struck Kam as they had when he first saw them as a boy—like a giant's pyjama-ed legs against gilt bathroom tile.
His ribcage tightened as he yanked open the heavy door.
Many were outraged by the changes that forged the drivers' brotherhood. Mid-level civil servants and corporate raiders staggered out of the Department of Vehicles, squinting and numb, clutching their rejection slips. But the city adapted. Demand for qualified drivers grew, and many positions went empty. Paradoxically, employers cut back in other areas, grafted chores onto drivers' positions—sometimes menial jobs, in some cases, middle management. From time to time Kam found himself in charge of sign painting or a riverside cremation. But being in the Governor's service with four other drivers generally guaranteed Kam was not overworked. He could count on at least one game a day at the chessboard behind the drivers' shelter. And the pay gave Rada and the kids a feeling of well-being.
Kam and Rada had met on a bus—one of his few encounters with public transport, back when he was a traffic cop. This was years before. His moped had sputtered dead on the way home from "his" intersection. Rada was struck by how snappy the brown uniform looked on the man standing in the aisle. The same uniform looked sodden and shapeless on other policemen. He stood next to her seat for a long mile through monsoon traffic, fuming. When they both descended at the same stop near Democracy Monument, he gallantly let her pass first. Then, standing on the pavement, she asked if he were lost—perhaps seeing how abandoned he felt, feet planted with no wheels. They both laughed. One thing led to another. They had been together now eighteen years.
The Parliament lobby yawned like a watery cave. Echoes lapped and rippled against the high dome ceiling—an icy white surface inlaid with a mural of the king surrounded by figures from all the provinces (pale northern herders, swarthy fishermen from the south).
On account of that ceiling, Kam had humiliated himself when he was here two years ago. In thousands of errands here, he had never let himself look up to see what the mural showed. Two years ago, he had decided to examine the ceiling long enough to describe the figures to his five-year-old. But the moment Kam craned his head back, he felt the eyes of all the functionaries in the vast lobby register the waste of human capital. He sensed their heads cock to one side. The needle on their internal hierarch-o-meters slid as he kept gawking. Their first assessment of him as a manager (his clothes and bearing) fell quickly to underling (still gazing up like a monkey!), then riffraff. The talk had gotten back to the Governor's office. "In Parliament, of all places!" Durian fumed. "Angels of heaven!" Actually, that was the first time Kam had seen Durian upset.
(They said Durian had been a hellraiser once, a snakehead's enforcer. Not hard to imagine sometimes, when he tossed darts against the back of the driver's shelter or set leaves on fire. Or the pleasure he took in assigning cremation duty. Drivers never had to do the dirty work of erasing political rivals, but for some reason—maybe their spotless reputation, the aura of service—they ended up doing the cleanup.)
The episode with the mural had curbed Kam's curiosity. He approached the reception desk now without a glance anywhere else.
The blood-red carpet soaked up his footsteps. A clutch of doormen and guards stood yakking at the near end of the gilded counter. He made for the far end. When he saw the receptionist's green insignia, the state of her nails and eyelashes, he summoned urgency into his voice and, trying to ignore the electric jolt of her onyx eyes, said, "I must take this to the Speaker."
Back when he started at the Governor's office, co-workers had teased Kam about his exquisite taste. ("Who's the movie star?" Hanuman had said, or "I heard the governor ask for your tailor.") As a young man, he had spent hours trailing the big-spenders on Indra Road, and he would stop at a clothing store there on his way home or between errands. The remarkable fact, which the Deputy Governor's housekeeper indeed remarked on every morning as Kam arrived, was that his trousers kept their crease through the moped ride from his house across the river. Starting the car at the Deputy Governor's residence, he looked as if he had just stepped from a store window display.
The receptionist picked up the phone and spoke in low monosyllables, her eyes on Kam. He pressed a finger to his eyebrow to recall the location of the Speaker's office. He looked down the counter and considered various forms of address. Because getting to the next stage would require he make no mistakes. It had been so long. Why had the Governor—?
The uniforms at the other end were caught up in some tale, the women were smiling. The man speaking glanced in Kam's direction, as if searching for storytelling props.
Someone laughed, "—because it was so awkward."
Kam prepared statements for three ranks: senior guard, doorman, and clerk. He shuffled several phrases in his head.
"Is he expecting you?" the receptionist said, cupping her hand over the mouthpiece.
Kam spoke just past her narrowed eyes: "The Speaker awaits a message from the Governor."
One of her eyebrows tremoloed and she relayed his words into the phone in a voice of cool water. She was exquisite.
Behind a blank face, Kam again recalled the angry exchange behind the drivers' shelter just before he left. He had been at the chessboard under the tamarind tree. Hanuman had just pulled a fast one. Suddenly Durian stepped out the back door and barked at Kam about a delivery to Parliament, the Speaker. Kam scoured those minutes again—the speculation on his errand (why him? what did this mean for his standing?), Durian's furious silence. As the Governor's driver, Durian was understandably put out, even though, with the holiday traffic coming, he wouldn't want the assignment. Kam had given Durian a quick, deferential smile, a nod and a shrug. How had Hanuman reacted? Kam couldn't remember.
The flicker of the receptionist's eyebrow said that she'd be discussing it later, too, probably with the Speaker's driver, who would question why he hadn't gotten the call. Her lower lip puckered ever so slightly. Kam briefly imagined her grasping the counter with both hands as he stood behind her, pumping away.
From the inside, Kam's face felt starched, but he was flustered by the woman's lips and the tone of Durian's words, and he still had to work out several scenarios for the upcoming exchange. To reach the Speaker's secretary, he would have to appear impatient, but not so impatient as to make them think he was an official. On the other hand—
"This way please." The woman's hand wafted down the counter. The circle of uniforms turned to her, laughter and smiles fading.
Her hand fell toward the older guard. "Teng, show the gentleman to the Speaker's office," she said.
"I know the way," said Kam with a nod.
She mirrored his nod and said, "Teng will show you."
The guard, a balding man with starched maroon shoulders and back, bowed deeply. Kam saw the weedy crown of his head.
"This way," said Teng. He turned and started down a wide corridor, his footsteps sounding like distant gunshots.
No sign of recognition. Maybe Teng didn't even remember coming to blows with Kam in the sour-smelling restroom at the arena. But then he probably wouldn't show even if he did remember, thought Kam. After all, this guy hadn't flinched at losing five blue notes when his man went down that night in the ring. Kam had been sober enough to recall the third knockout, the cruelty of it, the crowd gone wild, the monstrous clanging of the ringside cage.
It was a Tuesday, Kam and Hanuman had gone to the kick-boxing arena for the Starfeather bout because it offered good odds. Kam's run-in with this Teng fellow happened on his way to the men's room (more like a trough of urine barely out of view of the steps). Kam had watched the man lose over a thousand, twice in quick succession. "Nice shirt," Kam had said as he passed. With no expression, the man had turned and slapped Kam across the face.
"Crazy," Kam said, and let him have one back. The baldish man was drunk, or nearly drunk. Their slapfight went into the men's room, against one wall, where after some fumbling Kam managed to end it. "That's it," he said.
"I disabled bigger men than you back in Mendon," Teng had slurred. "Smartass."
Kam just looked at him. "Go back out and lose some more money," he said. The fellow gave him a hard look, and weaved out.
Rada had been disgusted by the bruises.
Now Kam followed him down the corridor, felt the group at the desk watching their backs. Life is strange, Kam thought. Panels of deep yellow wood passed on either side. They approached a large, gilt doorway at the end of the corridor. To the right, a row of vermillion arches framed the sunlight as it scorched potted caladiums and long, drowsy banana leaves.
That reminded Kam of the caladium he needed to get for Rada. Rada was a good woman, but she got evil after his boxing nights. Her questions and suspicion smacked him as he woke bruised the next day. And again this morning. Don't forget the caladium, a peace offering.
Teng's pace continued to the end of the arches, straight to the lift. He pressed the button and turned to Kam, arms folded. His face was wide, the color of a kiwi.
"So," said Kam, "big holiday plans? You've got family up in Mendon, right?"
"Yes," said Teng. Still no sign. Not even puzzled. "Not going there for the holiday, though. It's no good being close to a border these days. Burma's going to blow."
Kam nodded. The nod and his memory of the family in Mendon should count for something. Life was a matter of rebuilding and patching networks. The lift yawned, and they stepped inside.
At the fourth floor's checkpoint, Teng smiled and told Kam to have a seat. Kam thought of the caladium. He remained standing.
"I just have a few minutes before the Governor needs me for another errand, thank you," he said.
It was a gamble. Either Kam would leave with just enough time for a frenzied stop at the market for the caladium before returning to the driver's shelter, or melonhead Teng would have him cooling his heels here for another hour, and Kam would miss the Governor's next appointment. He remembered Rada's look.
Melonhead glanced down at a pad on the counter. "Please take a seat," he said again.
"Thank you." Kam remained standing.
Over the man's glare, Kam pasted a vision of the temple garden where he would take his family for the holiday: the silk-cotton trees, the quiet of the monastery paths, his little boy's hand. Then Melonhead's face burst through, the eyes pulsing slightly. "Please, take a seat," he said again.
After just twelve minutes (ha! he would gloat to the others later) Kam was summoned. At the top of a tight spiral of stairs (made from the same golden jackfruit wood as in the hall below), Melonhead presented Kam to a youngish woman with a wedge haircut and shapely hands. She was at an awfully large desk for a secretary. Kam prepared several phrases.
"Miss Yanapol, this gentleman has a message for the Speaker," said Teng with a slight bow. "He comes straight from the Governor." He said it straight, gravely, and only Kam could hear the sly doom in it.
This, of course, was hugely inappropriate and upset what Kam had planned to say. Before he could set her straight, the woman's eyes dropped to the floor and she was saying, with an embarrassingly deep bow, "Pleased to be of service."
Melonhead disappeared down the stairs. Kam searched the room for a phrase that would set things right. But the woman's eyes were still on the floor and her mouth was forming another (no doubt more embarrassing) sentence, so Kam blurted out, "It's our joy to serve his Excellency!" This wouldn't correct her mistake about his status, but it leveraged focus away from himself and raised a firewall of humility.
It was the best he could do. He felt his face burn as he struggled for something better. His shirt suddenly felt much too large, as if the long sleeves were flopping around ridiculously beyond his reach. This could mean his job, perhaps much worse. Hanuman told a story about one cremation he was sent to handle, where he found a body in the weeds of an empty lot. It had no head, but on one finger was the ring of the order. Who would've thought a driver could incur that treatment?
"Right this way, sir," she said.
"I can leave the message with you." He swallowed, hoping his choice of pronouns, if not the tremor in his voice, would signal his true station, but goddamn Melonhead had already fouled her gauge.
"I'm sure he would like to receive it from you directly, sir," she said, her hand resting lightly on the burnished, molded handle of the door behind her. With a swift twist of her hand the door flew open, and a vastness of green crushed-pile carpet lay before Kam's feet. His floppy sleeves swayed back and forth. His cloth shoes crinkled where his toes were curling under themselves. From the far shore a man astride a massive desk beckoned him with one raised hand.
It was a swift motion, but for Kam it seemed to hang suspended like a Hong Kong action hero's gesture.
Kam sucked in air, stiffened his back, and imagined he was Durian. Durian could get away with this. He started across the carpet to where the Speaker waited. Kam's peripheral vision disappeared; he fixed on the carved motifs of the desk to keep the deep green pile from swallowing him up.
He didn't breathe again until he reached the far side, actually let his fingers rest briefly on the smooth desk. He handed the envelope to the Speaker with bows that were deep but not so deep as to reveal the secretary's blunder at letting Kam through.
On the wall behind the desk, looking down on Kam with a face composed and compassionate, was the king. Above his red sash and the bank of medals across his chest. His majesty's eyes conveyed resignation, fortitude, and almost apology that Kam should find himself in this position.
"Wait," said the Speaker as he ripped open the envelope. He frowned, preparing to reply on the spot—maybe to show his decisiveness. Then he changed his mind. "I'll reply later," he said.
Kam's insides cramping, he bowed with all the grace as he could muster, and forded the carpet once more, not breathing till he gained the open door.
The edges of his vision were flickering with anopsia like fireflies. He gave a stiff parting nod to the secretary. At the bottom of the spiral stairs, alone, he sat for a moment and put his head between his knees. He tasted the first bitter drops of adrenaline on his tongue.
He managed to get out of the building before the full load hit his system, and he became once more a furious, reflex-driven member of traffic.
"You've gotten soft!" he screamed at the windshield. In the four years since he started with the Governor, he had all but lost the resilient shell he'd acquired as a traffic cop. He cursed that melonhead Teng. He dragged his eyes back and forth, his shirt now hardened around his collar like a yoke. It rubbed against his neck with a not-unpleasant, grating sensation. A turtle's protective motion.
The queue surged forward, and he was swept into the flower market at Chatuchak, a square of nine blocks surrounded by a fence. He rode the wave of cars past the furniture shops with their overstuffed chairs, past the electric hum of the tailoring shops. When he saw the plant racks on the sidewalk ahead, he braced his legs and, at an opening, launched the car at a parking spot—there was no more than a half-second of sunlight on the pavement in the interval. He scanned for any orange metermaid uniforms and dashed into the nearest shop. In moments he was out cradling a red and white caladium.
"He's come, he's come, he's come," said Squirrelly, the drivers' dispatcher, in a childish singsong from his desk. "Kam's back!"
"That was fast," said Durian. He frowned at his watch, his tight body slouched in a chair next to Squirrelly's desk. "The Speaker didn't ask you to stay for tea?"
"I explained I was busy," said Kam drily. "Why aren't you playing?" He pointed to the back.
"Hanuman stole my queen and tortured me before finishing me off."
"You should've seen it, Kam!" Squirrelly's voice burbled. "Tut! Durian didn't have a clue!"
"Because he was tapping the table, you know how he does?" said Durian, annoyed. "I couldn't concentrate. That's his level of play."
Kam's eyes shifted to the back door. He leaned slightly forward.
"Kam could play through an earthquake, couldn't you?" the dispatcher said.
"What of it?" snarled Durian. "Is something up?" His voice was full of authority.
Kam shook his head. "Don't ask me."
"You're the one who just rejected the Speaker's tea!" cackled Squirrelly.
Neither driver looked at the young dispatcher. If they paid attention to a third of the things Squirrelly said, that was too much encouragement.
"Anything moving?" said Kam.
"Nothing. Not a peep."
In the pause that followed, the dispatcher and Durian stared at Kam's white cloth shoes, silently amazed at their refusal to collect street grime.
"Go back and wait for a game," Durian said. "I'll tell you if something comes up."
Still leaning forward slightly, Kam looked like he was about to say something. He decided against it, started toward the back.
"Did they ask about me?" Durian said.
"They were confused," Kam said. "I think with the holiday—"
Just then Hanuman appeared in the back doorway. "A cheap ploy!" he yelled over his shoulder. He stopped and braced himself against the doorjamb. "Try that in a tournament! You'd pay!"
"Keep it down," Durian said.
"Sure! If he'd tried it on you, they'd be hearing it at the Palace!" Hanuman was broad-shouldered and thick-gutted, and his face was the color of bamboo. "Next time, you're down in three moves!" he barked out the door. His hands slapped together like a thunderclap.
"Hanuman," Durian said. "Let Kam pass."
With a deep, sarcastic bow Hanuman stepped aside. "The messenger of the gods I would not delay," he singsonged.
"Wise," said Kam.
"Just a minute," Durian called sharply.
Kam turned around.
"Don't just swish out of here because I tell Hanuman he's in your way." Durian paused.
"I had your orders to wait for a game," Kam said stiffly.
Durian swatted at a fly. "Go on," he said.
Kam walked through the shade of the tamarind tree to the chess table. He craned his neck to loosen the tendons. The shade wasn't cool, but it was open. A breeze rustled the highest branches.
The game was a stalemate. Kam was bored but didn't want to go back inside. Hanuman came out, gave the players unhelpful suggestions, and walked over to where Kam smoked a cigarette.
"Those things'll kill you," Hanuman said. "Here, I'll relieve you of one."
As Kam shook one out, Hanuman said, "So, did you see her?"
Kam said, "Who?"
"The Speaker's mistress. They say she's gorgeous. You didn't see her?"
"I didn't see anybody. Except your buddy from Mendon."
"Ha! He's a Parliament guard?"
"That night you said you recognized him from somewhere," Kam said. "Wish you'd remembered where, instead of goading me to kick his butt."
Hanuman scratched his head, still smiling. "How about that? Did he remember?"
"Didn't seem to. But he put me in deep shit with the Speaker." Kam explained what happened.
"Buddha's socks!" Hanuman cried. "She let you in to the Speaker? She's cooked. You too. You didn't let on?" Kam seared him with a look. "Course not. So you posed as Durian." Hanuman groaned. "You and Rada might as well go to the border for the holiday."
"Don't joke. I'm worried. With Durian getting hot under the collar, he just might call and ask what happened."
"Too bad you didn't see the Speaker's mistress." Hanuman sounded wistful. "They say she's a hot number. Course that's how it is with guys at his level. Got a dick scratcher during the day and his wife at night. Who knows? She may be a hot item, too. This town." He sighed. "So where are you going for the holiday?"
"Hanuman, how do I keep from getting caught in the middle? The governor's a bastard to figure out." Kam stubbed out the butt. "Suggestions?"
"The beach! The sun, cold beer—"
Kam shook his head. "Seriously, Hanuman. You could be in my shoes. What would you do?"
Hanuman exhaled, looked sidelong at Kam. "Seriously?" Then he grinned. "Keep my head down and my hands free. Take Rada somewhere. Look at that!" Hanuman pointed to where one of the chess players guided a black abbot through the air and knocked an ivory knight on its side. Someone tittered.
"You're finished!" Hanuman sneered. "Serves you right! Playing over your head."
Kam prepared to take his seat at the table for the next game, turned his head this way and that to release the coil in his neck, and ended up gazing at the dry tamarind branches above.