Monk For A Month
I sat at the bar sporting saffron robes and a shaved head, sipping a Singha beer and listening to the bartender, who was clearly agitated. I couldn’t tell whether the man was upset over the recent murders, or because the hard rain was hurting his business, or if he simply didn’t like serving alcohol to a monk, even a Caucasian one.
“His name Somchai,” the bartender said. He spoke English, but with the usual Thai singsong clip that I had come to adore. “He kill American expatriate named Warren. Tony Warren.”
I had seen a dead body only once, a gruesome spectacle. It took an effort to settle my nerves as the bartender glared at me, as if, also being an American, made me an accomplice. I had never learned the invaluable art of staying detached in the face of tragedy, of not identifying with the victim. I had no way to shield myself from the reality of how brutal humans can be to each other, what ruthless lengths they will go, and the pain they are capable of inflicting on each other.
Across the street, four soldiers trudged along in the rain.
“When did Somchai kill Warren?” I asked, my voice scarcely a whisper.
The bartender didn’t know exactly, sometime at the beginning of the afternoon that had now come to an end. At the same time that he killed Warren, Somchai had also slain Warren’s Thai girlfriend. Both victims had been found two hours earlier at the apartment belonging to Warren.
The barroom was already dark, due to the lateness of the hour and another power outage. Candles flickered on the bar and at each table; their yellow light mingled with the blueness of the dying day.
The shower stopped as suddenly as it had started, as it often does in Thailand.
“How old was she? The girlfriend I mean,” I asked.
“Very young. Nineteen.” Regret passed over the bartender’s face. “A real beauty.”
“I would like another Singha,” I said, “but I have no more money. Can I buy on credit?”
The bartender’s look of regret turned to disgust. As he walked away, a customer two stools over ordered beers for me and himself, and also shots of cheap Thai whiskey.
The bartender prepared our drinks while the customer moved to the stool beside mine. He introduced himself as Ty Poe, and did not shake my hand, as it is considered disrespectful to touch a monk. Poe was courteous, offering the customary wai gesture of respect. He was somewhere in his forties, and had a smoking-induced cough. The polluted streets of Chiang Mai didn’t help his lungs any more than his chain-smoking, I thought. I gave him my name, Reece Jackson, and told him I was from America, San Francisco in fact.
“I overheard your talk about the murders.”
“Why haven’t they caught him yet?” I asked. “Chiang Mai’s a small town.”
“They have him trapped within the walls of the old city, but you should know how it is,” Poe grunted. “We’re talking about an American expatriate and his whore who got themselves killed by a homeless gay kid. I mean, there are limited resources available to the police department. The police force, as a rule, is not well trained. Officers have to buy their own uniforms, their own guns. They are poorly paid. Not much would be happening now except that this dead girl happens to be the daughter of an army major. The army is doing what they can but they do not know the town as well as Somchai.”
Poe was right, I thought. What could anyone reasonably expect of this situation? The unvarnished fact was that in this country, any given police station’s cases were ranked according to priority. And priority in Thailand had to do with wealth and status. Those on the low end of the spectrum were unlikely to receive much attention. And for a homeless gay kid with no family who happened to murder a bit of riff-raff, then it was probably the victim’s fault. Why bother figuring out all the sordid details?
I felt thankful that I came from a country where every death warranted respect, every victim merited justice, no matter how far down the social and economic ladder that victim might fall. At least I liked to believe that bit of hype.
The bartender placed the beers and shots before us. I lifted my shot in a toast to Poe and knocked my head back, taking the drink in one hot swallow. Poe stared at me in obvious surprise.
“I’ve never seen a monk do that,” Poe said.
“I’m not really a monk. My partner and I paid good money to enroll in the Monk-For-A-Month program here at Wat Phra Singh. He’s on some damned spiritual quest that I, frankly, don’t understand. Me, I’m just an IT geek along for the ride.”
“So you’re not alone,” Poe asked, exhaling a stream of smoke.
“Technically, no. But it often feels like I am.”
The bar stood only a few doors down from Tha Phae Square, which spread before one of the four main gates of the old city, and where two of the town’s chief avenues collided. The square was bordered by the city wall, built of ancient brick, and butted against by the city moat on the north and south sides. The top of the wall was wide enough to walk on, and just then a flock of children scampered along the wet brick, heedless of the danger of slipping. Among them ran Archer, my adopted son, also sporting a shaved head and wearing the saffron robes. The children looked down on the tourists who gathered in the square, clutching their umbrellas in case the rains returned.
It must be between six and seven in the evening, I thought.
Another shower started and people in the square ran for cover.
Archer hopped down the wall steps and dashed across the road like a fleeing deer. He entered the bar and huddled against me, giving Poe a cautious glance. Archer was a handsome seven-year-old with a round face that gave way to a large jaw and a brilliant set of teeth. He had an impishness and good humor in his eyes, and was strong for so young a boy. But what I admired most about him was his gentle and trusting disposition. Unlike most boys, he was incapable of hurting anything. His only flaw was that he was fathered by two gay men, which made him an outcast back home, someone to be pitied, stared at, whispered about, laughed at, and occasionally beaten up by his peers.
Strokes of lightning lit the sky, coming so close together that they seemed like a ceaseless illumination. The thunder was continuous. The noise burst like metal fireworks, and then would immediately rise again; its modulations grew less and less defined as the shower let up, until there was only the sound of rain striking paving stones.
“This rain will last all night,” Poe said, lighting another cigarette from the butt of his previous one.
Moments later, the shower stopped. Poe left his stool and pointed at the leaden sky, patched with massive blotches of somber gray so low that it seemed to brush the rooftops. “Don’t let that fool you.”
I finished my drink, motioned for the bartender to set up another round for Poe and me, and I nudged the slim stack of Poe’s money closer to him.
“It’s my husband who wanted to vacation here,” I told Poe. “I would have preferred anywhere else.”
“Africa. I’d love to see the Okavango Delta in Botswana, and track gorillas in the Verunga Mountains of Zaire, and see the migration at the Masai Mara in Kenya. Don’t pay attention to what I say; I’m a dreamer, always fantasizing of what is beyond my reach. Actually, I adore this town. I’m just feeling a little… neglected.”
Poe picked up a shot glass and handed it to me. He paid the bartender and patted Archer’s shoulder as if he were a pet dog, which told me he no longer considered us monks, as well he shouldn’t have.
During our conversation I scrutinized the square. The police had come out again with the end of the rain, and I listened to the harsh whistles that rang out from every street.
The sun had set behind the end of the main avenue, although it wasn’t quite as late as it seemed. The storm had scrambled the hours, bullied them on, but now the sun appeared again, spreading red hues across the bellies of clouds.
“And where is your husband now?” Poe asked.
“Reading in our room at Wat Phra Singh, no doubt, or perhaps he’s gone to the evening chant by now.”
Poe nodded while seeming to study the cigarette between his fingers. “I recall seeing another white monk roaming the town. It must have been him.”
The sky grew dark again. A new phase of the storm was gathering. Another black, ocean-like mass crawled over the town. It came from the east, leaving only enough light to see its threatening color.
When I didn’t respond, Poe turned to stare into my face. “Look, your eyes are not as blue now,” he said, “because of the clouds.”
“I can’t go back yet,” I said. “Look what’s coming.” I wasn’t looking at the sky. I watched the barefoot children splashing through the gutter in front of the square. The water running between their feet was saturated with dust from the wall’s bricks, giving it a muted red color that matched much of the town and the earth around it. The boys sang as they played, a sound I found sweet as it pierced the grumbling clouds.
The sky opened, and an ocean spilled onto the streets. The square disappeared. Tourists scurried into the bar, soaking wet and snorting. Even the police rushed in to escape the deluge.
“Tell me more about Somchai,” I said.
“He and the American were lovers, but it seems Warren had a girl on the side,” Poe said. “Then today, he found the American with her. People who heard the shouting said Warren was throwing Somchai out so he could marry the girl. I don’t blame Somchai. Who wouldn’t have done the same thing? He would be acquitted, no doubt, if it were not for this father who is an army major.”
I sipped my beer. “You mean, because it was an American he killed, and a woman, they would slap his hand and let him go?”
I pushed my beer away. The conversation had turned my stomach. “Where do you think he is?”
“Who can say? If it were me,” Poe said after a moment’s hesitation, “I would take refuge in one of the temples. Trust in the Buddha, always.”
He leaned toward me, and we smiled at each other. We were so close I thought he might kiss me. He moved away, but I could still feel the warmth of his breath on my neck, still smell the thick, gingery scent of his hair. I stared after him, noting that his lips were smooth, beautiful.
“You think the monks will hide him?”
“No,” Poe said, and laughed. “I’m just repeating what I heard. No one will protect him. He’s as good as caught. I don’t know why he doesn’t give himself up.”
“There’ll be trouble in the town tonight,” I said.
“Probably not as much for you as there will be for Somchai,” Poe said, shuffling away to talk with the police.
An argument about the crime had started at the back of the bar between an Australian tourist and a police officer. It grew loud when one of the bar girls joined in, siding with the Australian man. “The bitch threw herself at American,” the bar girl spat, “and he too weak to say no. How you push away a slut who jumps in your arms?”
Yes, is it possible to be that strong? To summon the will to resist young passion
The shower ended, and with it the nerve-racking noise of rain pounding the metal roof.
“Americans,” the bar girl spat, “they fuck any dog they find. Poor Somchai. He deserve better.”
Suddenly furious, I jumped off my stool and charged the woman, my pent-up anger now fixating on a concrete target.
A policeman caught hold of my arm; his other hand grabbed my saffron robes. He shouted something in Thai that I didn’t understand and pushed me back. The girl fled the premises. Given our reputation for serene indifference, I suppose she hadn’t expected to see an irate monk ready to rip her face off.
Once more, with the end of the shower, tourists and children ventured onto the square. I could see all the way down the long avenue to the mammoth white shapes of Wat Phra Singh, the town’s main temple.
Another customer—an American tourist, tall and heavyset with a waddle of fat under his chin—stepped up to the bar and offered to buy me another whiskey.
Archer scowled as I accepted and the bartender poured another shot. How long had I been in Chiang Mai? Twenty days, I said. Did I like being a monk? It had its hardships and joys. Does this boy belong to you? I’ve adopted him. He doesn’t say much, does he? Monks generally don’t.
“Now that the rain has stopped, I should go back,” I said, although my words sounded more like a long, continuous sigh.
“To my place?” the American asked, followed by a nervous laugh.
I laughed, too, but not as much as I would have liked. I shook my head.
“One more beer?” the American said.
I had already consumed too much. I lifted myself off the barstool and took Archer’s hand in mine.
“Will you be back…” the American asked using a hopeful tone, “tonight?”
I didn’t know. It was possible, I thought.
Archer and I took to the sidewalk leading to the wat. The clean scent of rain blew through the town. The night would be cool, a good one to huddle indoors, cuddling with Darren under double quilts. Archer skipped along beside me, splashing through puddles of blushed water. We passed police and troops at every corner. The entire town inside the walls seemed locked down, people watching each alley, peeping from behind every door. There was still no electricity, and that would probably last until tomorrow. I squeezed Archer’s hand and told him to hurry. The boy didn’t listen. He was off in his own world again. A chip off the preverbal block.