A Popcorn Fiction selection. Two salesmen see the dark side of Bangkok in this short story from screenwriter Darby Kealey. Oh yeah, and one of the salesmen is: you.
The first thing you notice as you step out of the airport is the heat. It’s hot in Bangkok. Not like LA heat, either. It’s thicker, almost soupy. You feel like you’re walking through the head of steam that affronts you when you open your dishwasher just after the Super-Clean cycle — but this place doesn’t smell like detergent. They probably don’t even have dishwashers here.
Your associate — he’d probably call you a ‘buddy’ — gets right to it: “Whores, buddy.” He’s a simple guy, Hank, which you envy at times; you can see him eternally happy with a bottomless case of lite beer and a ball of twine. That’s why he’s in sales. But right now, all Hank wants to do is buy. He’s heard Thailand is the place to come for prostitutes, the Mecca (your cultural reference, of course). He told you about it the whole damn flight. You would’ve preferred a crying baby.
“So this is Bonehenge, huh?”
“Huh?” Hank says. You catch the glimmer off a string of drool issuing from his mouth; Pavlov would’ve had a field day with Hank. “Whores,” he says again, trailing off at the end of what for him amounts to a sentence. He’s staring through the welter of buses, taxis, cars, and rickshaws clogging the airport entrance, to a back-alley in the distance, which he must think leads to the section of town where all the hookers are hooking. Or maybe there is no Red Light District here. Maybe it’s the whole city — the whole country, even. A Red Light Country. The thought makes you sad for a moment, but you don’t really have time to ponder it, as Hank is ambling off into almost certain death down the random back-alley. It’ll be a miracle if he survives this trip.
“Easy, Hank,” you say, grabbing him by the collar of his Lacoste shirt, which is already drenched in boozy sweat. “Hotel first, man. We gotta drop off our stuff.” Though clearly irked, Hank accedes. Despite the fact that you’re in the Far East now, the fundamentals of civilization still apply: you’re his boss. Well, not his boss, exactly, but his superior. And while you don’t like to assert your authority over anyone, particularly not a guy two years your senior, you believe that a strict adherence to hierarchy, to discipline, is the only thing that keeps foreigners alive in these inscrutable lands. You hail a taxi from the taxi stand, as the almighty Travel Guide told you to do.
Driving in Bangkok isn’t like driving in The States. It’s not even like driving in LA. It’s not even like driving, really. It’s more of an all out Battle of Wills. Right now, you’re sitting at a stoplight, but the semiotics of traffic signals has been diluted to the point of utter meaninglessness. Your driver blares his horn, screams something, then attempts — really tries, you can tell — to bash another taxi next to him. You think of cheap Chinese cars with no airbags and human crumple-zones; of substandard hospitals and poorly trained shamans; of some rich Frenchman with a penchant for champagne and a need for your liver. You know it’s cliché, but at this moment you hate the French.
The light remains red, but you’re off again, swooping through traffic like a bat into hell. A rickshaw sidles up next to you, making you flashback to the chariot-racing scene in Ben Hur; you slide toward the center of the backseat, half expecting a spike to pierce through your door at any moment. You finally understand what Hobbes meant by the State of Nature. And you’re plodding straight through the heart of it now: The Jungle. The thought makes you cringe.
“You seem a little jumpy, dude. You cool?”
“Fine, Hank. Just a little crazy, driving here.”
“Yeah,” Hank says, chuckling with an insouciance that, given the circumstances, indicates one of two things: A profound, Zen-monk acceptance of the comic-tragedy that is life — or mild retardation. And you’re pretty sure Hank doesn’t meditate. “Way I see it, I’m the type of guy who doesn’t worry too much about this kinda stuff, ya know? Fuck it, man.” You hate people who use phrases like ‘I’m the type of guy who…’ It seems so affected, so ersatz heroic, like Hank pictures himself standing atop some jagged cliff, sunset glowing behind him, every time he’s describing himself and his preferences, even if it’s just whether he likes chunky or smooth peanut butter better. Hank probably eats a lot of peanut butter.
You’re driven around like this for hours, looking out your window at what seems to be the same hopeless scenery, regurgitated ad infinitum: rundown shops, ramshackle apartment buildings, ‘massage parlors,’ FLASHING NEON SIGNS EVERYWHERE, strip malls, foul-smelling markets. You feel like you’re driving through one of those old cartoons where the background is perpetually recycled — but there’s nothing funny about this place. You glance occasionally at the inexorably up-ticking meter and wonder if this is where the expression ‘taken for a ride’ comes from. Hank snaps pictures on his disposable Kodak, grinning like a moron. You wonder if he is where the expression ‘shit-eating grin’ comes from.
At last, you arrive at your hotel. You shove some bills at the driver, what amounts to about 20 bucks (you think), and evacuate the car. You’d get down on your knees and kiss dry land — but you haven’t had your shots lately. The bellhop, not more than 15, goes for your bags. “No, thanks,” Hank says, pushing the boy’s hand away; Hank is macho, standing on that jagged cliff, ‘the type of guy’ who can carry his own damn bags into the sunset. You offer your bags as consolation. Hank shakes his head but says nothing.
At check-in, you find there’s been a mix-up with your rooms: you told your secretary you’d ‘love a suite,’ so you and Hank are staying in the Lover’s Suite — and there aren’t any other rooms available. It dawns on you like the iceberg must’ve dawned on the Titanic: 72 hours with Hank, unmitigated. You’d prefer a crying baby.
When you step into your room, you want to cry like a baby. There’s only one bed. Red. Heart-shaped. The Lover’s Suite isn’t a misnomer. “Ah, won’t be so bad, buddy,” Hank says, clapping a paw on your back. “’Sides, we won’t spend much time sleeping, anyway, if you catch my drift.” You most certainly do not catch Hank’s drift, or any other part of him, for that matter. He winks at you, then flops down on the bed, his considerable gut spilling out the bottom of his now sopping Lacoste shirt. Seduction, thy name is Hank.
“So, what’s first, buddy? Booze? Broads? Both?”
“I’m going to get cleaned up and then work on some finance spreadsheets for tomorrow’s meeting, Hank. Q-Reports. Sorry.” This, as you’d hoped, stuns Hank temporarily: he knows nothing of the complex world of spreadsheets, let alone arcane company finances. That’s why he’s in sales. Before Hank can reply, there’s a knock at your door. The bellhop. You take your bags and tip him generously, which assuages your White Guilt momentarily; company expense, anyway.
“Don’t trust those little fuckers, man,” Hank says before you’ve even closed the door. “Steal your shit.” You know bigotry proliferates primarily amongst the lower classes and smaller minds, so you can forgive Hank his ignorance on this one. Like most men, he’s merely a victim of circumstance: Public Education, Suburbia, Football, and Fox News. Yes, Hank is a victim — a fact that you’ll have to remember if you’re going to get through these next 72 hours with him.
You’re pleasantly surprised to find that the shower has hot water, though the pressure is somewhat lacking. You can actually feel the dirt, grime, and pollution — mostly the pollution — washing off your body. “Careful in there, buddy,” Hank says through the door. “Don’t drink the water. Could be bad.” You spit out a mouthful as quickly as possible, even though you’ve already had six or seven. You forgot about what the Travel Guide said, true, but it’s a minor detail. Hank is just being paranoid, you tell yourself, a natural consequence of his ignorance. Just as you finish your shower, you feel a rumbling in your stomach. Airplane food.
After a torturous, screaming shit — you could hear Hank laughing through the door the whole time — you’re reduced to cleaning your ass with a hose. They don’t even have toilet paper here. “You fall in?” Hank asks as you open the door. He makes a big show of gagging and waving his hand in front of his nose. You want to punch him, but his thick neck evokes high school wrestling teams and various other vaguely homoerotic male traditions you were too evolved to take part in. Your strength has always been your brains — not your strength.
“You seen my laptop?” you ask as you unpack your things. You could’ve sworn you brought it with you.
“Huh. I could’ve sworn I brought it with me,” you say, a frantic edge building in your voice; you need your laptop. “Fuck! It has to be here. I know I packed it. You sure you haven’t seen it anywhere?” Hank shakes his head but says nothing.
You continue searching the same four places in different order for nearly an hour, while Hank showers and shaves what you can only assume is his entire body. You find nothing. You must’ve left it at home. A stupid mistake, and very out of character, but you were tired when you packed. Yes, it has to be at home. You give up and lay down for a minute. You close your eyes.
When you come to, Hank is next to you on the bed — the heart-shaped bed — in nothing but his boxers. Wrestlers, you recall from that concentration camp called high school, are comfortable being nude around one another. “Wakey, wakey,” Hank says, snapping a picture of you two with his disposable Kodak. There goes the Senate run.
“Put some clothes on. Jesus.”
“Sorry, dude. You know how sweaty I get. Wanna stay fresh for the ladies.”
“Whores don’t care if you’re fresh, Hank. That’s the whole point.”
“Whores are people, too, man….Well, not really,” Hank chortles, slapping you on the chest. “Speaking of which, you don’t have your computer anymore.”
“Soooo, you can’t work on your spreadsheets.”
“Look, Hank, I don’t —“
“We’re in Bangkok, man. Let’s bang some cock!” You cringe. You’re certain that every slack-jawed rube who comes to Bangkok repeats this tired joke at least once, and while you don’t expect much more from Hank, like a fool you held out some hope for him — until now. Moreover, from a linguistic perspective, you’re pretty sure banging cock lies strictly within the purview of women and gay men — but you don’t want to argue semantics with Hank, as he probably doesn’t even know what the term means.
“No, Hank. Just no.”
“Come on, buddy. This is it. This is our big shot.”
“At what, pray tell? Syphilis?”
“No, man. The good life. The good life. Ya know, like big shots.” No, you don’t know. Apparently, you were wrong: Hank’s conception of ‘the good life’ includes not only fountains of lite beer and giant balls of twine, but also prostitutes. Paradise (for the) Lost. But not for you, no. There’s no way you’ll stoop that low. You’re not so pathetic, so depraved, so arrantly white-trashy.
You find yourself in a nightclub — the aptly named ‘Safari’ — Hank dancing on the table next to you with something that looks both vaguely female and vaguely underage. They probably don’t even have a legal age here. You tell yourself you’re only here to protect him — an objective, sober observer. Not a participant. You’ll make sure that he doesn’t do anything, or anyone, too stupid. Hank will get home in one piece, and you’ll be the thankless hero. Such is the burden of the intellectual, this much you know by now. You finish your cocktail — yes, Hank has already made two jokes about ‘cock’ and ‘tail’ — and wonder why you’re the guy that has to go to Bangkok for work. You think maybe you should’ve gotten married, that it would be a good excuse to stay in LA more often. You realize that you’re probably the first, last, and only man to ever ponder marriage in this place. You order another cocktail.
You scan the bar, looking for something, anything, to talk to. Nada. Though you’re surrounded by what loosely qualifies as people, you feel alone. Hank, on the other hand, is too busy making out with two prostitutes to care about the practical implications of ennui. Why can’t you be more like Hank? You order another cocktail.
By the time you check your watch again, it’s three in the morning. If you had anyone to talk to, you’d be slurring your speech. The club is really hopping now, a nuclear winter of prostitutes, hopeless drunk expats, middle-aged European lechers, and backpackers whose greatest ambition is to become hopeless drunk expats. The visual Holocaust of strobe lights and lasers that assaults your eyeballs makes you wish you’d done acid in college. You watch all the people dancing and wish that for once, just once, you could let loose with them. You think you can see Hank in the middle of a dance-circle, gyrating on three girls while onlookers cheer. You may know the mythology of Bacchus, but Hank has the keys to his beach house. You order another cocktail.
Suddenly, you notice a girl at the other end of the bar smiling at you. She’s young, sure, but you can never really tell with Asians. Before you have time to ponder whether or nor that’s racist, she gets up and walks over to you. You introduce yourself. She winks at you, which you’d find creepy if you weren’t so drunk. You smile back, offering up a handshake. She grabs your crotch. You’re not familiar with this greeting, but you want to be respectful of her culture, so you let it slide. Several times. You order two more cocktails.
After the third round of shots she makes you order, she’s leading you upstairs, to the Private Section. This is really happening, and you’re okay with it. Every man has to let loose occasionally, even you. As she’s guiding you toward one of the back rooms, you feel a hand on your back. “Hey,” Hank says, spinning you around. “Where you think you’re going?”
“Well, ah, with her, I guess.” You motion to your ‘date’ for the night.
“Can’t letcha do that, buddy — and I do mean that,” Hank says, motioning to the girl.
“Huh? What’s wrong with her?”
“Her is what’s wrong. She ain’t a she, man.”
“You will be, buddy. That’s a ladyboy. Ya know,” Hank says, making a scissors motion with his stubby digits. “Snip, snip.” You look over at the girl: long hair, big eyes, soft skin — and fantastic breasts. Once again, Hank’s paranoia has gotten the best of him. True, Asians do affect a rather androgynous aesthetic, but this one is clearly female. And beautiful. Jealousy, thy name is Hank.
“No,” you say, shoving his hand off your shoulder. “I got this, Hank. This one is mine.” You turn and walk off with her down the hallway.
“Dude’s a dude, dude,” Hank calls after you.
When you get her into the room, she immediately goes for your crotch. It’s very dark, but she still manages to get your pants off with an alacrity that’s both impressive and thus disconcerting. Before you know it, she’s sucking your cock. As Hank would say, that ain’t her first rodeo. You grope around for her perfectly formed tits — amazing, perky things, they are — but when you try to go lower, you’re stopped. You try again, but she shoves your hand away. A third time you’re rebuffed. That’s when you hear it.
A noise. From the corner of the room. Like somebody is moving around over there. You try to make the girl stop, but she clings to you. You consider screaming, but that might just make her bite down — and there are already enough ladyboys in Thailand. You reach for the key-ring flashlight in your jacket pocket. Thank God the Travel Guide told you to keep one handy.
When you turn the flashlight on, you immediately wish you hadn’t. What it reveals is a teenaged ladyboy huddled in the corner of the room, rifling through the pockets of your pants, wallet stuffed down his/her rainbow-colored miniskirt. It reminds you of a Calvin Klein photo shoot, only slightly more tasteful. Both your girl and the ladyboy scream, hurling themselves at you. You try to fend them off as best you can — but strength has never been your strength. You just barely catch the glint off the blade as it penetrates your abdomen.
After the third plunge, you’re in such shock that you can’t even hear yourself shrieking anymore. You’re above it all now, floating into the ethereal realms, The Darkness. You fly through horrific visions of a giant ladyboy with six testicles and undulating rainbow skin; of a cackling French chef swilling champagne and plunging a knife into your stomach, ripping out your liver for his foie gras; of Hank dressed in wrestling gear, slamming you into a red, heart-shaped coffin. Just as Hank roars, you come back to your body.
You shine your flashlight toward the door, which Hank has just kicked in. He stands on the other side, pocketknife in hand. “Let’s dance, motherfucker!” Hank screams. He heaves his impressive bulk forward like a jungle cat, jabbing at the ladyboy, sending him off balance. They exchange a series of furious strikes and parries. Hank is efficient, swift, and graceful — like the Baryshnikov of blood. He slashes the ladyboy deep in the side, then breaks his/her arm and tosses him/her to the ground. Your girl jumps on his back, so he tosses her over and drops on elbow right on her crotch. It appears Hank was right, because he/she grabs his/her balls in pain. You find it ironic that accidentally getting a blowjob from a transsexual isn’t the worst thing that happened to you today. You try to muster a chuckle, but the most you can produce is a bloody gurgle.
Hank reaches down and scoops you up with ease. “Easy there, buddy,” he says, stroking your hair maternally. “We’re gonna get you outta here. We’re gonna get you to a hospital.” Before you know it, Hank has taken you past security, out into a cab. He’s applying steady pressure to your wounds, talking to you calmly, making sure you don’t die of shock. You’ll be at the hospital soon. The good hospital, Hank tells you, the one the diplomats use. You’re going to be fine. And you owe it all to Hank. Sure, he’s shit with spreadsheets — but he’s damn good in The Jungle.
Darby Kealey is a screenwriter living in Los Angeles, desperately milking the lowest common denominator for all its worth. Currently, he’s agonizing over the finishing touches on an action / thriller feature and developing several TV projects.