This is a short story from my Oregon Gothic collection. This particular story is not set in Oregon; it’s actually set in Bangkok, Thailand. I went there for a week or so in my second year of teaching in China. All by myself, by the way. I even spent the night at the Macao airport to save money. How many airports have I spent a night in now? Mm. O’Hare in Chicago. LAX in Los Angeles. Houston, when I flew into Honduras. I’m sure there are others I’m forgetting or have blocked out. Oh. Denver! I spent a chilly night in Denver waiting for a seven thirty AM flight to Boise. I got in at midnight, flew out at seven in the morning…yeah.
Which has nothing to do with this short snippet of a story at all.
Other than I spent a night in Macao before flying on to Bangkok.
So. I picked, at random, a hostel [they are cheap and all over Asia, so roll your eyes elsewhere.] called the Chili Bangkok and booked it. I somehow managed to get there, via a real taxi; the driver spoke English. I didn’t speak a word of Thai, still don’t. I had the address of the place written down to show the taxi folks; moi had prepared! I didn’t yet know about tuk tuks. Which are the tiny three-wheeled taxis where the drivers charge whatever they want. I got lost my first or second day and had to take a tuk tuk back to some point I vaguely recognized. Boom, big fee for not that far of a distance. But. That’s traveling and I was so relieved to be not so lost, I paid. And resolved not to get lost again. And I got to see, well, some garbage-clogged waterways, some houses, flowers that were just gorgeous, some Buddhist monks walking about, this and that and that and this.
So. And here’s a TMI tidbit coming up so either skip this next part or just grit your teeth and bear through. My Aunt Flo was visiting and I do mean VISITING WITH A CAPITAL SCARLET. So, my vacation was pretty much me hunting down ibuprofen, discovering how to work the hostel washing machine and walking about looking at stuff. Yeah, Aunt Flo viciously waited until my vacation to knock on my inner doors. And didn’t let up until I was back again in the dorms in frozen Shenyang. I’d call her a name but she doesn’t really care and does whatever she wants anyway, so…
There was a small 7-11 down the street, where I bought pain killers and little fruit pies filled with cassava instead of cherry, chocolate or apple. They were so good. Yep, I went to Bangkok for the junk food. Yep. No, I didn’t. I went because I’ve always wanted to go to Thailand. And since I had the almost funds to do it, I went. In the school where I taught, we had almost two months off between January and March, due to the big New Year’s celebrations. So many teachers used that time to travel China and other places nearby or to even fly home and back again if they had that kind of moolah. I did have the requisite Thai iced tea and did eat Thai food, mostly chicken and cashews because I don’t like fish. I drank a few Singh beers and generally mosied about in my area, on foot, and just had a most leisurely time of it. [Aunt Flo just laughed and laughed.] And I booked a day trip to Pattaya beach. Which went quite well. The tour group picked me up just down from my hostel and took a small group of us over to Pattaya for the day and brought us all home and dropped me off near my hostel. I also booked a trip to the River Kwai to go see the elephants but…I waited and waited for the tour van, the next morning after the beach trip, which…never…showed…up. I waited for two or three hours, then gave up and just took a long walk that day, sunburned and irritable anyway from the day trip before. [As in wanting to go back to the beach, not because the beach trip sucked.] I wandered into a festival celebration with dancers and a street fair, so that was groovy. Somehow I even managed to get back to the airport and back to China and back to my dorm room, all on my own. I don’t speak Chinese, so that’s quite a feat. Going from a hot tropical friendly place to a cold, iced up Siberia wannabe SUCKED SUCKED SUCKED. [Shenyang is about the coldest damn spot on the planet. I will swear on a stack of Bibles they have winter nine months out of the year. Get me some Bibles.]
The following short tale came from me enjoying real coffee, [China does not seem to have coffee other than Starbucks or the odd little place that caters to Westerners] and real bread, French-style bread, at the French bakery place by the River City Mall. [Chinese bread is boiled and sweet, for the most part.] Watching people come and go on the ferry. Listening to conversations around me, sometimes in English, often times in French or German or some language I didn’t know. I just got a ‘what if a mermaid popped her head up out there in that dirty river?’ stray cat sort of thought.
And the rest is my somewhat slightly bitter ode to Bangkok.
THE MERMAID OF BANGKOK
Every day, at around one o’clock, she breaks the surface of the dirty water. She is bald, with slime-covered skin, gills behind her vestigial ears. She has long eyelashes like a seal, long thin arms with webs between each taloned finger. People gather against the railing of the River City deck– point at her, take pictures, record her as if they’ve suddenly all become Hitchcock with a dash of Bergman. They have members of their party pose with her in the background, rather like one would pose against the lumbering miserable indifference of a zoo animal. Having been to the Beijing Zoo, I rather know that indifference the Asian captive zoo denizen exudes.
Her other half ends in a tail. Like a goldfish, it’s rather pretty– gleaming shiny coppery scales, with dark brown and even a dull red scale here and there. Bangkok or the administrators at River City, the big mall that overlooks the Chao Phraya river, where the boats go up and down obligingly, have designed her costume well. Touches of random brilliance make up her wet fine feathers. There’s a French bakery place, called Folies, where you can sit and not see the mermaid. You have to be seated at the Thai eatery, with its astronomical prices, to enjoy a Singha beer and watch the half-female, half goldfish break the tainted surface, bob up and down, look toward the deck and the gawking gawkers with a truly indifferent laissez-faire indifference and then disappear. She is of course, fake. She has to be.
Mermaids are imaginary.
And this is not a world of wonders, no matter what the shiny posters say.
I labor under the delusion that this world does not actually contain anything magical or fantastic. A tiger is magical enough. An elephant. A bulldog contains elements of real wonder as to its skeletal construct. A tornado can do magical-ish things, like rip the roof off a barn. And leave the barn standing. It will ignore the three year old child standing in the barn watching the roof get torn off by the tornado. How does the tornado know to ignore the child and not the roof? Magic. God. It can’t be chance, right? Chance doesn’t work like that or, there’s no such thing as chance, we just made up that word to explain things we can’t explain yet. I labor under the belief that this world is very dull and everything is eventually explainable. That there is a mathematical formula for God, if one wills. Something with angles and pi and x. I’m not mathematical so someone with a mind for such things will have to have a go at the God equation. I also utterly know there’s no love or hope left, at least in my life. But I won’t get tiresome.
I watch her rise and sink on the river current. She needs a rock to sun herself on. That would be a picture for National Geographic, or Weekly World News. There is a cut across the back of her head. I saw it when she turned her bald head to peer at the Sheraton that looms over the river in magnificent rather phallic splendor. The manager at my hostel, who’s surprisingly tall and has better English than I do, told me about this newest attraction to grace Bangkok– the mermaid in the Chao Phraya. There was a weariness in his face that perhaps he was not aware of– that exhaustion of dealing with the public for a living. Oh the mermaid, he said with perfect polite tones; she’s not yet on the tourist map he tore off to show me spots to visit. I’ve only made it this far so far, about a five minute walk to my tiny room. My ambition to explore went away before the great wet heavy heat here, the sunshine like a slap. I cannot seem to venture out and be bravely energetic. I sit here sipping an iced coffee, at sixty baht a glass, and eating cashew chicken, judging her, wondering how she can bear to be in that filthy water with the dead sandals and dead coconuts floating around her midriff, which is bloated. Or perhaps her costume needs adjusting? Her breasts are tiny, but it is Asia, and an Asian mermaid would not be stacked like a Hollywood enhanced starlet, it would not be believable. Or family-friendly. Though breasts are very family-friendly if you actually consider such considerations.
She is probably one of many. With a latex suit or a wet suit decked out to look like a mermaid’s morphology. Probably some enterprising racketeer designed her suit and hired a few local girls for this acting gig who had no desire to spread their legs or cheeks or lips for tourist penis. Is that cynical? To imagine being a fake sea monster in a dirty Thailand river is better than being a blank-faced greased up hole for sweaty, red-faced German visitors who work for BMW? If I had to choose what fate suited me best, I’d go for being a fake half-fish.
Call me kooky.
My iced coffee is watered down by the melting ice. Ice, such a novelty after living in China. Where everything is warm and the coffee tastes like lukewarm ditch leavings. I study the beads that form on the clear glass, trying not to see the sixty year old women in their too-colorful sundresses. Their skin runneled and brown, their hair carefully styled and streaked or pulled back in those ponytails only the sort of rich can pull off with any aplomb. I am wearing a black tent, the bottom stamped with some dull brownish pattern, as apparently even here fat women are designated to the black-only and must-be-tent-shaped to fit clothing option. I am considering just sewing two colorful scarves together to make a colorful something or other. Why not. I’m already damned for being fat, might as well go to hell in something other than a black, shapeless circus tent.
But this isn’t about me. This is about a strange tourist draw. The mermaid of Bangkok. I watch her as she swims about. Surely a real mermaid would not choose to surface anywhere near Bangkok. Where she’d be in danger of being caught, hooked, eaten over a bed of jasmine rice. Or examined in a lab, have a look at her own steaming guts before dying as some scientist slices her open with a surgical knife. While she’s still breathing, of course. Just like every movie ever made about finding some magical creature– the evil scientists gather to mangle, destroy, hurt, murder. That there are records of scientists doing just that, well, giant shrug of ironic proportions, baby. But the mermaid doesn’t seem to know how life works. Or that she should sashay her fishy ass to Phuket or Pattaya, where she can access the real big wide salt water someone carelessly colored aqua, using the entire aqua crayon.
Oh no, this Bangkokian mer-person swims about with total unconcern. For about five minutes or so then she dives with a saucy, slow flip of her flippers and tail.
She’s tiny, not a big peasant-type mermaid. A tiny typical white guy’s version of an Asian chick, if you get my not-so-subtle dig. Except she’s bald, a mermaid with cancer. Or a mermaid making a statement. A feminist mermaid perhaps.
Ah, there’s the flippy tail, the end of her aquatic show. I’ve been here three times now, it’s always the same. People murmur and rumble all around me, in French, Thai, Chinese, German, English, Japanese, other languages from the Middle East, from Africa, from Turkey and Scandinavia. Families drag around their children like annoying accessories they wished they could trade in for fancy purses. People stalk by with their eyes glued to their tiny phones, so self-important I want to smile and feel some sort of absurdist delight in their self-importance. But I don’t. I just feel rather flat and annoyed with it all. Remember when phones used to stay home, attached to the wall like a chained dog to a tree? Ah, the good ole days! Remember when we could leave our electronics at home? Is this progress or a nightmare? These are my thoughts in the hot Thai sun, the air stirred now and then by the wind’s spoon. If wind uses spoons. Obvious thoughts already thought of a lot by other thinkers.
People move away from the railing, return to roving through the little shops inside, full of silk scarves, carvings of elephants and Buddhas, necklaces of shell, stone and bone, clothing in every color but Protestant beige, and, of course, purses. The big purses that are just fancy sacks with elephant prints. And gelato and iced coffee and Tha iced tea. That orange liquid that tastes of smoke and sun and spices.
Except today, the mermaid surfaces again, the boats passing by her with unconcern, the tourists leaning down to take more pictures, more pictures, pointing, then taking more pictures. Is she changing
her show now? Did she make a mistake? Stage fright? Her wide bony slimy face worried and somehow oddly fragile. Those giant black eyes search the crowd, for a moment even meet my eyes. This is new, she’s never broken her routine before. My stomach knots for her. I long to offer her a beer, ask her how she got this job. Did she have to interview? Did she just know the right people? She goes underwater, the greasy surface rippling and foaming, the ferries going by. I can sit here and drink too-expensive coffee or wander about, buying trinkets and observing Thai life.
Today when I arrive in River City, knowing I should have shaved my legs, the stubble embarrassing, I note that there is a crowd down below the railings where the mermaid shows up to delight the tourists before dipping down into the polluted river to tend to her mer-babies or whatever she does. I note that there are several Thai police, that an ambulance has been driven onto the wide white courtyard. Did someone fall over the railing into that river? Did someone fall off one of the various boats, hurt themselves on the rocks and garbage? I hear tourist voices, low shocked humming excited voices. And I draw nearer, ignored.
It’s the mermaid, with her head split open, her eyes wide and unsparkly. What’s left of her wetsuit, ah, floats in the water like a sad remnant of some Mardi Gras ride. Coppery scales lay atop the water bravely, torn away from where someone patiently sewed them in place. Her legs, no longer forced together for her art, are wide apart, her sex bare as a child’s. We all pretend to look away from her nakedness. She had really shaved her head. The police draw her all the way from the water, then place her remains on a stretcher. And cover her with a white pristine sheet. And we, the watching gore crows, know nothing of shame or remember that she’s human like we are. She’s just another exhibit in exotic, sexual, erotic, deadly Bangkok. A dead one now, one we will forget in twenty seconds as we look for bargains on silk scarves with elephant patterns.
The dead mermaid is lifted over the railing and the crowd barely parts for her until a policeman barks in extreme irritation at one and all. So we shuffle aside, staring, staring, at the bumps and dents of the sheet over her, at the red spot that is glued to her broken head. Dark red and glistening as raspberry jelly. It makes me want toast. How perverse, how perverse what we think of before death itself.
A man is crying, one of the waiters at the Thai eatery that overlooks the river. Another waiter pats his shoulder, they are soft-spoken Middle Eastern men with liquid ink eyes. The sky holds fat, artistic clouds, perhaps it will rain. The two men speak to each other, their black heads bent and reverent. Perhaps they knew the mermaid woman, or perhaps loved her. And how did she come to such a fate? Did a boat hit her? Did a human take a club and try to drink her brain juice like one would drink coconut milk after breaking the shell? I’d have to go with boat, propeller or other such equipment. Like manatees getting bludgeoned in the Florida Keys. Just a horrible accident. And I strangely felt sadder over the thought of a gray, puppy-faced manatee getting killed than that mermaid woman.
Or not so strange. Humans somehow deserve every miserable awful desecration that befalls them. Manatees don’t. Simple as that. All the collective bad choices of generations visited onto the present generation, if you want. All that murderous greed come home to roost like a monstrous radiation-contaminated chicken. Laying an egg already rotten and full of black gunk when cracked open. That’s my view of the human race at this point in my life.
I sit at the French place, after choosing a sausage roll and an Americano. I have Pride and Prejudice with me, but it sits on the table, looking elitist. I cannot bring myself to open it, read about Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth’s quick draw impressions. People come and go off the ferry. They file by, in
flip flops and six inch heels, in suits and ties, in shorts and tiny little skirts, in t-shirts and silk. They automatically glance toward the whirling cop lights but continue on to wherever they will go that day.
My coffee is hot, strong and welcome. The fruit vendors are slicing and dicing their wares out on the street, pineapple, papaya, watermelon, some pale green melon, perhaps durian.
And I wonder if there will be a new mermaid tomorrow.
I hear people, two English-accented older gents, talking about the dead. They are behind me, also sipping coffee from white cups. “Did you hear? I heard she hit her head on the bottom of a ferry.“
The other man answered, sounding like a bored James Bond with a lisp. “Weally? That’s so bloody awwwful.“ The ‘ awful ‘ drawn out like a sigh over a bad selection of deli meats at a dull party.
“Poor thing. I bet someone killed her then dumped her body– it’s how they are here. Bloody violent.” The first man opined. As if England was the land of peace and Gandhi.
“Almost as bad as America,“ the first man added. I ducked my head, unable to refute that. Being American myself.
The two continued. But it was about where they were going for the day. How they wanted seafood for dinner. How the air conditioning in their rooms was not strong enough. How the Chinese girlfriend just wanted more and more jewelry…and by then I could no longer stand their chattering.
Of course she wanted more jewelry! It took diamonds to suffer that smelly little dick near her lips!! Oh the things I wanted to say to strangers and friends alike. But I had no desire to be part of their evening stories. Some crazy Yank told us off for no reason, Martha, Xiu Su, for no reason at all. We were drinking coffee, there was this murder, we were minding our own bloody business. Or perhaps the Chinese galpal had named herself something like Dolphin or Rainbow or Taco. Or Firecrotch. Who am I to judge?
I had no desire to be tattooed into those two men’s memories.
At the hostel, I overheard once again, about the murdered mermaid.
I was sitting outside, smoking. With a bottle of water nearby. The cats that lived in the alley were eyeing each other and me and everyone else, when not checking each other out for future mating possibilities, as not a single cat anywhere seemed fixed. They wailed all night. One cat was small and black, the other a Siamese, ha ha, a Siamese cat in the heart of Siam. But. At the other table, the annoying Euro trashies complain about the murdered mermaid. How they had penciled her in for tomorrow before they caught their train and now that was ruined. One girl, with dirty ashy blond hair done up in a tres chic backpacker French braid, spoke into her phone to her mum, as the girl called that said personage, mum, we were supposed to go see this silly mermaid show and she got butchered, butchered, mum, I said butchered.
They all smoke, all five of them. You come to Asia and you smoke, nothing feels right unless there’s a cancer stick in your elitist fingers.
The others murmur how violent and twisted the world is. How sad. How sad.
Butchered, mum, butchered!
I long to smack them with their own still-beating hearts.
They move on, to real topics. A trip is being planned to Phuket. They will spend one more night here at the Chili Bangkok. Then drift out into the world like stemless daisies. To tramp over the beaches and pet the elephants and pull on monkey tails, and take pictures of their dirty unwashed selves to post on Facebook or Twitter or…some new site somebody’s inventing even now. I will post pictures myself, with a tired certainty that no one will even care or hit the like button by any of them. I will be in none of them, I’ve asked no strangers to snap my image against this or that. And I took pictures of that mermaid
woman and I even took a picture of her being hauled away beneath that sheet. I am no better than anyone else, I am no worse. It’s rather comforting and awful to know such a thing.
I cannot seem to help myself. After another night spent on the most uncomfortable bed ever invented, other than that bed with the nails driven up through it for those skinny guru guys to rest on, I tramp down toward River City. The tuk-tuk drivers call out to me, hey madame, you need ride? Hey Madame. Hey Madame. Their fragile little vehicles wait, open on all sides, basically a golf cart. They charge what they want. From twenty baht to four hundred. I was lost my first day here, took the ferry just for fun, got out when people on the ferry shoved and yelled at me, I was standing in the wrong spot or just looked like I needed to be yelled at and shoved. I thought I could just walk down along the river…but of course not. The road twisted away, developed into an octopus of roads and I was lost and confused. And a tuk-tuk brought me back, for about eighty baht.
I made the mistake of taking a tuk-tuk for a tour, but he kept trying to take me places to buy stuff, so I got out, paid him the twenty he wanted, and then tried to figure out where I was. Another tuk-tuk, piloted by a truly emaciated little man, tried to charge me 400 baht to take me to River City, and I laughed and laughed. At least then I knew I was being scammed, right?
So, I ventured out at noon. To see if they had replaced the mermaid.
No, there was no new mermaid in the river.
I sipped lime-flavored iced tea. And waited. Ordered a cheeseburger. I know, it’s Thailand, but it was what I wanted. Fries are extra. And counted the days, three, until I went home, back to my crapfest of a job as an ESL teacher. Red. ABC. Red. But America has no jobs and I am unemployable, unpretty and so debt-riddled it should be a crime. Many work in China who are running from their real lives. Which is fine. Running is a way of life anymore. That face up to your problems mantra…is just nonsense.
A sleek bald head emerges from the river, in almost the same spot the other mermaid emerged from.
I hold my breath. She is different, with a different-colored tail. Blue-green, her fingernails painted to match. She looks afraid, her eyes too big in her pinched wet little face. She is gone too quickly, she does not have the exquisite timing of the other mermaid yet. Yet. But she will.
I am almost happy. I am so somewhat glad they will continue this. That the copper-ended mermaid woman did not die in vain.