Yesterday I wrote a bunch of trash. Today is finally my day to get vaccinated. So I won’t have any new writing for you this weekend. In lieu of something new, here’s something old. This is a short story I wrote in early 2019, way back when there was no Covid and it was a totally different group of people opposed to vaccines. The world moves fast. The world forgets. But not Thailand. Not Southeast Asia. Southeast Asia moves slow. Southeast Asia remembers.
Jack had at some point long before my birth become a nickname for John. He showed up at my door looking a little sideways early one morning on a cloudless day in the winter some time back. Not irrelevant here is the fact that I'd been feeling a little sideways myself and presumably looked it.
"John," Jack said.
"Jack?" I said.
But by sideways I don't mean drunk.
"It's like a protective firmament," he said, looking up. "Blue angels. Naked Smurfs. An unreal blue made real and sent by God. If you can believe in that sort of thing anymore. God. But even if you can't, something Godlike for sure," he finished, looking me square on with eyes like tired embers.
"The air must be sinking," I said, looking up. Avoiding the embers. Noticing the lack of clouds for the first time. Climbing out of the maw of the ghosts in my head and chest. "I suppose we should probably go for a walk then."
"Are you reading my mind?" And would you believe that I panicked here? Because I was, in a sense, reading his mind. Suddenly I was an intruder. Not just in his mind but in him. I was reading him as a whole and my thoughts about him and his whole. And I'd been caught. And in the heat of capture my mind was robbed of its evolution and demoted. My insides were the stuff of overworked animals rushing to escape the predator amongst them. The boss swooping in from up above. King of my silly crimson community. But that was all inside me and invisible. Jack on the other hand was wearing his insides out. Wearing them on his outside I mean. Though he was also clearly wearing them out. Wearing them down. It was plain to me that whatever gears he had turning in his head weren't up to code or following any kind of a script. Plain also were the horrible charges he had firing up there. And anyway my panicked rush backwards was brief and I returned feeling eternally spared and grateful about my inability to read minds. Jack's, yes, very much so, but also et al.
In the Kingdom of Thailand winter is also sometimes called the cool season. No one really says the Kingdom part anymore. But the country is to my mind a planet different from the one where I was born, in the U.S.A. It is no less different from the U.S. than say Narnia. But was Narnia a kingdom? Never mind. The point is retaining the Kingdom prefix just makes more sense to me. Where I live in the north winter really just means that the days are not as hot as they usually are for a couple months a year, and the mornings and nights are something special. Like wayward fragments of an American fall that got bored and went looking for greater triumphs. It was about a Fahrenheit sixty when our day began to unravel.
You're in control, I told myself. Or you can take control by relinquishing control. In a way these things are the same. Plus there are other towns. Great big cities to get lost in. Plentiful trains and aircraft and countries. You could always flee. You don't have to stand here and take this. You've packed up and left in the night before. And you can do it again. Not literally in the night. But figuratively. Quickly. At the drop of a dime or a hat. Whichever one it is. You've done it before and can do it again. But I didn't do it again. Just knowing I could was the medicine. The good stuff. The salve doubling as coward's glue. Anyway I stayed.
"We'll start on my motorbike," I said. "We'll drive toward the river. When we get near the river we'll park and switch to walking. We'll walk first through the market and then along the river."
"You talk the same," Jack said. His skin seemed to be changing colors. All of them wrong. "You're like a sad captain. You're sad because you're lost. Not really because you're lost. But because you're lost and you still have to be the captain. So it's a chore. All this living. It's so tiring. Holding it all together." His teeth didn't look good. None of him looked good. But he knew about my lonely ministrations. Beyond his head I saw the moon hanging huge and bloodless and white. What was it still doing there? What blunt fates were circling us and sucking us in?
"Let's go," I said. "If we're going to start talking we should already be walking."
We drove over the superhighway and snaked through all the one-way streets in the town part of the town on the other side of it. I'd made all those same turns hundreds of times before, thousands probably, maybe more. I never bothered to count the turns or the years but it's been a lot of them both and the town is small. As if to seal my fate when it comes to confusing all possible matters in life more, we'd named Jack's sister Jonnie. So we were John, John/Jack, Jonnie and Gloria. It was her idea. Gloria's. The names are all fine. It was the idea as a whole that stank. But as with too many bad ideas then, I went along with it anyway, and in the process of becoming the sum total of those bad ideas and decisions I deflated and grew the horns of resentment. We became one of those families with matching shirts. We looked the part on the outside. But on the inside we were at least as rotted as the others. It's no mystery how I ended up faraway. But how I ended up someplace so hot I do not know. Do I even need to mention that I was on the side of the renegade fall? It was an underdog and it felt good inside and I wanted it to win and stay forever. Its air while driving on a motorbike in the morning shifted from cool to just past cold in a way that brightens things and induces a pleasant warming from within a person. A dumb glee. I savored this cool movement and gave no thought to the past or future or even Jack and the seeds of sickness he'd brought to me, and which I'd no doubt planted long ago in him. A general sadness and torment passed through my lungs as we drove unspeaking. But its presence was sedated. There was a time when I would have been overcome by these same emotions. It's not unlikely that I would have sought to hand my bleeding heart to Jack, and implored him, Take this sacrifice and eat it. Gnaw me up to bits. Mash me down to nothing. Make me liquid. Digest me. Pass me through you one last time. My dissolution is your strength. It's not that I was a better person then. Or that all those waves of time had made me a worse person. It's just that being a good person stopped meaning so much to me. What people thought of me, the appearances I gave, no longer mattered. Those are concerns for the young. Though not apparently for Jack. That I could see. He was off somewhere crafting his own universe. Pulling the wings off things to see if he could fly. Smite and soar. There was a wildness in him that bordered on the unhinged, unfathomable stories written in his eyes and face and the way he swung his limbs. Like he had too many of them. Or too few. And maybe it changed from second to second. Because he was an organism bouncing through seemingly electric reactions to his surroundings. He was full of some strange madness. And that can be an intoxicating thing to behold. But it comes at a cost. It rules out existing too much in the straight world, for example. It rules out an ability to stay put. It leads you through a hundred unfinished lives, each deformed and carrying the ripped up shreds of a thousand aborted roots. Come to think of it we did have matching shirts. I'd forgotten about that. And pajamas. Oh Lord Jesus God. They should have captured us for our sins. We should have been blindfolded and lined up and shot. The names on our graves should have been changed for the sake of the living. Okay, that's all too extreme. But some punishment would have been apt. Something to keep Lady Justice from tipping over. And maybe that's what this is. Life. Now. This moment. This inner karma. The kind of karma where your punishment is just being you, where it's always been just being you. And good luck is when you wake up one morning or over the course of a lot of them and can see that clearly. I once was lost, and etc. and so on. I parked in front of a shuttered mystery shop near a passage to the market by the river and felt Jack's weight lift from the seat behind me.
The market as always was constructed in the wee hours to attract and channel local Thais. We parted their sea merely by walking. Breathing. People looked at us like we were aliens or maybe just people like them but more deranged. You have no idea, I thought. But then I considered that probably they did. Probably they knew. Probably they could see it in me. In us. Not in our eyes but in some abhorrent chasm we keep hidden in ourselves by turning it into crystal and burying it someplace deep, or just being extra careful to not look over at it. Some inner force they saw as corrosive and corroding. But then I wondered if maybe they had this in them too. I looked but couldn't see anything. What powers do they have that I lack? was one of my thoughts. Another one was Would there be any negative thoughts or emotions left if you took a blade to all the ones not rooted in the present? Could there be? I'd heard someone say something to that effect recently and afterward made a note of it. It came to me hot and pulsing as the market's eyes conspired with my thoughts to devour me. I met the thought with my return to the present.
The market: Most of the people weren't actually looking at us. And most who were looking were smiling. Why had it all felt so ominous and drowning only a moment ago? Where had that awful energy gone? Had Jack picked up on it? The questions all came in milliseconds and turned each other to dust. The food: Most of it appeared to be recently deceased. Pigs just transitioned to pork. Chickens just transitioned to chicken. Some of the fish and sea life were still living though. Moving like zombies amid the souls (or whatever) of their brethren, ravaging the air around them beneath mechanized contraptions spinning long strips of fabric where fan blades should be. This is how you keep all but the most ravenous of flies away. It was, like every other market in town and country, equal parts community and Colosseum. We were the only ones not carrying handfuls of plastic bags. We needed plastic bags, I thought. If nothing else as a show of respect. The bags: Translucent skins, tight and bulging, stretched over the reds and pinks of meat, the white-grays and brown-yellows of fat and bone, the motley hues of things grown up from earth.
"What are your thoughts on eating?" I asked. "Breakfast, I mean. Eating now."
"I would estimate that that's not really a possibility right now, John."
"Are you using?"
So instead of khao soi I bought a clear plastic bag filled halfway with dirty water and two baby eels squirming around in it. I don't know that they were actually babies. But they were small. If they weren't babies they were maybe afflicted with the same condition as all the horses in town. Did I mention the horses? There were a lot them. And carriages. The horses pulled the carriages and the carriages carried mostly Chinese and Western tourists. Because of their affliction, or maybe just heat and hunger, the horses looked like emaciated ponies aged ten years for every half of one of yours and mine. But they may also have just been babies. The eels. The vendor, an old woman squatting beneath a dry sun-bleached umbrella with child or grandchild at breast, put the clear plastic bag with the eels into a slightly larger and slightly less clear plastic bag. She handed it to me and said "See sip baht" and I looked through my small rubber-banded wad of candied red and green and blue and pink bills and handed her two of the green ones.
"We're going to walk to the river now," I said. "We're going to squat down next to it and I'm going to take the rubber band off this bag and put it in my pocket. Then, together, we're going to hold onto the bag and dunk it down into the water. We're going to release these baby eels back into the river. Their home. They might not be babies but either way. We're going to release them and then we're just going to be quiet for a minute and watch them swim away. After that we can say Happy New Year! if you want. Talk about whatever's on your mind and eating away at you. Whatever drove you the nine thousand miles here. If you want that. I don't know. Maybe you don't want that. We'll do this thing with the eels for me. For us. But then we'll do whatever we do next for you."
He pulled an unclean rag from his pocket and mopped up his face. But for the record I believe his tears began from some inner head-on collision involving his obvious lack of sleep and whatever drugs he was on. In any event I didn't feel anything. When I saw his tears, I mean, nothing came tugging on my heart.
It's possible that I am a bad person. And I just can't see it. It's possible as well that even if I could see it I might be okay with it. Because life can wear a person down like that. Tear and wear both. You get older and you see so much and so many come and go and float away like air. And it gets to where it's hard to see any of it as being all that important. And some people get old and see this while they're still young. You don't have to look very hard to find a child with the hardened stuff of beaten-down men and women. And actually maybe that's what it is. The sickness eating away at all those horses and eels and my broken baby Jack and me. Like maybe we've all been old and through it all already in some other life or lives. Never mind just this one. And like maybe we're old right now in another life right now. Like maybe consciousness is just endless and climbs into different people in different places at different times that are happening all at once and we get linked together to these different copies of ourselves and pick up each other's signals and vibrations. I put my hand on Jack's shoulder and again saw his head fall to the wet weight of his eyes and there again hung the moon.
So there we were squatting next to the sleepy brown polluted river. Like Thais do but not really. For them it's almost a birthright. For us it was unnatural and took some effort and settling into and we were both a little shaky in the legs. Jack's hands were warm and wrong and wet. Mine were cold and wrong and dry. Neither one of us said Happy New Year! when we gave the river back its eels. One of them swam quickly away but the other one just drifted slowly forward. And it only barely did that. "What's wrong with that one?" Jack said. And I knew it was the drugs but it sounded also like the child. Still there down deep and wanting to break through and know its own innocence. And I thought Go go go go go. Now now now now. And something then scored a little notch in my heart. And for a flash it was like all that time hadn't passed. Like it had just been on pause. Or like some genetic receivers we'd been carrying in us had just clicked back on in response to our close new proximities. Or like maybe that was all nonsense and what was done was done but we could still go back for the things we'd forgotten. The things not said and done. And if they were still there then they were still ours to keep and say and do.
"It's dying," I said. Because it wasn't dead yet. Not all the way. At least I didn't think so. "They just keep catching these things and selling them again. So people like us will keep buying them and releasing them again. And then people like them can make enough money to survive a little longer. Anyway I imagine that sort of thing takes its toll. On the eels, I mean. But I guess also on everyone. They do it to make merit. Thai people do. Release fish and birds. The nearest equivalent for you and me I guess would be tossing a coin into a fountain for good luck. Maybe there's a closer equivalent. I don't know. There might be some closer religious equivalent. Something the Catholics do. But if one of them dies then I don't know. The eels, I mean. What do you think? Is that bad luck or will we be rewarded for our mercy? For putting an end to the black hole of a charade that this poor creature couldn't stop falling into?"
"I would like very much to think that it's the second one. The mercy. The reward. But which one's which?"
"How do you mean?"
"Which one's you and which one's me? Which eel?"
"Right. I hadn't thought about it like that." I didn't know the answer. I never did. Which eel never knew the answer? That one was me. Could I be both of them? The one drifting and the one running away? Could we all just be made up of the rogue little bits of everyone else? Scattered and vaguely sparkling again? Living these lives. Having these star-spangled bodies and minds. Lugging them around these poisoned lands and seas and skies. And the endless questions, Jack. The indecision. Jesus God the infinity of questions and indecisions. Maybe everything was just a little bit of everything else all the time. Like a circle. Time and breath and birth and death. Or maybe it was all nothing. Maybe things just fell where they fell and there was no pattern to hold onto or make sense of. Or or or. Maybe maybe maybe. It's maddening, you know. Having a mind. Gorgeous and intoxicating and maddening. And how long has it even been, Jack? I haven't kept score. I didn't look back. At first I worked so hard to not look back. And now it's not that hard. Just looking at right now is hard enough. Going back or forward too much. That's how ships sink. That's how minds fall and spirits follow. Or spirits fall and minds follow. In any event that's how certain things fall and the rest follows. I wish I could tell you all of this. I wish my lips would accept these words and deliver them to you. But grouped all together like this the words are like a naked body afraid to touch the cold water of being released and spoken. I'm so glad you're here and won't be staying. It's good just to have this small morning. This little taste of what it is to be here right now. Inaccessible but for all of what's been before and will soon be again, working its way out of earth and womb and touching the sky a few times before moving with gravity down the drain and back into the soil or some vast sea.
Earlier that morning I'd dreamt that a dirty gray skeletal dog entered my apartment and jumped up next to me on my bed. It held in its mouth a ruined rabbit's carcass. The dog wasn't a threat. It was docile and lazy and just wanted someone to rub its diseased belly. How I knew this I don't know but I just knew. When I reached out to pet it I saw tears in its eyes and was woken up for real by a neighbor's rooster and my arms were taut ropes in an X on my chest and my fists were rigid stumps at their tips and my breathing was inconsolable and wanting in and out at the same time. And there wasn't any sad dirty gray skeletal dog there. And people want change. They crave it. They wait for it. But I don't have to change. Not for them or anyone. I know who I am. I know my fate.