Last week Jack got some much-needed exercise while negotiating Bangkok traffic en route to a rendezvous with Hippolyte Lafleur, a.k.a. Izzy Scoop.
Selections from Arno Petty’s Intelligencer and Weekly Gleaner
- FORGE ON. Could it be that the girls at Lots O’ Hots are buying their VD certificates from the same place Big Sammy Soo was getting his money printed? That would be nothing but a vicious rumor, were it not for the epidemic proportion of the complaints one hears from Lots O’ Hots take-away customers.
- WHERE IS HANS? Some of our readers like the girls in Playboy Magazine because they’re often a bit top heavy. Well, we know Playboy is banned in this country because it is immoral, and we know that locally the ladies are generally only top heavy when they’ve got baskets of fruit or some such on their heads. Be that as it may, aficionados might drop around to have a look at the pair of barmaids Hans’ wife Nid has working for her at the No Hans Bar. Playboy would need a fold-out annex to accommodate either pair.
“Jack, my boy,” Hippolyte was telling me. “Jack, Jack, Jack.”
I was getting the idea old Hip had something he wanted to say, and chances were it wasn’t how much he admired my judgment. And I was right.
We were sitting in a back booth at Shaky Jake’s, two beers and some peanuts on the table in front of us. I had just finished explaining why my hand was bleeding.
“Jack, you are too uptight. You know? Whoa. Slow down. You got to learn to relax.”
“Relax? Relax? They shoot my typewriter. They almost shoot me. Then the police figure I must be a drug smuggler, why else is everybody trying to kill me? So I have to make some contributions to a bunch of charitable causes, none of which to tell the truth I really care about. And I give the driver money or he loses his license; he wants me also to pay to fix all the holes in his cab. Mu needs money. Her cousins need money. Our lane is full of tape vendors, but the landlord says he’s going to double our rent at the end of the year anyway. My best pipe gets shot, smashed to smithereens, and I’m going nuts; I need a smoke. And you tell me to relax? Hippolyte, give me a cigarette. Please.”
Hip was a real friend, and he did not give me a smoke without first telling me I was a shithead, but he did give it to me, and I wolfed it down in about three drags, so he gave me another one as well.
Bald pate sunburned to the color of stained mahogany and fringed with a halo of graying hair, Hip wore dark granny glasses and habitually spoke in a soft mutter from the depths of a luxuriant white beard. He had been around since the Vietnam days — a bit of human flotsam come ashore in Bangkok, is how he put it. If you saw him sitting there and didn’t know better, you would probably have figured he was blind. He worked at being deaf, as well, and you generally had to holler at him to get his attention. Though after that it was no problem; in fact he preferred to talk in undertones, and never actually had any problem understanding anybody.
Hippolyte Lafleur had this talent for self-effacement. He was like a jinjok, the house lizard that waits motionless on walls and ceilings, infinitely patient, waiting for a juicy insect to venture within range. Hip blended in with the woodwork of one low-life establishment or another, to all appearances, to the extent he could be said to appear at all, a burnt-out case waiting to die in his shabby jeans and sneakers and counterfeit Lacoste polo shirts, blind and deaf and acutely sensitive to everything that everybody did or said.
He ordered more beer. Also he got some colas for Boom and Mon, two of Shaky Jake’s finest, who were sitting either side of him waiting to get their fortunes told. No matter how self-effacing he could be, Hip was not averse to having charming young ladies in skimpy costumes sit close to him. Only as a warm-up to reading their palms, most likely, and free of charge, he was also reading considerable areas of their bodies. Or maybe he was afraid the girls were cold, the air-conditioning going like a blizzard the way it was. But, like I said, Hip was a pal, and he unhanded these specimens for a minute and took hold of my own mitt instead.
Hip cast an expert eye over my palm and he said “One thing, yeah? I see you’ve never done a decent day’s work in years, if ever. Whoa. That’s right. And you don’t want to go around hitting any nak laeng, any tough guys, or any buses either with this hand unless for some reason you want it broken. I also see it is a little damp. This is a natural reaction to recent events. It is a side effect of adrenaline anxiety, and is useful to our simian ancestors, since it lubricates their hands when they want to take a powder, swinging from branch to branch through the trees. This feature is less useful to us today. In fact, it causes us to feel clammy, and it gives people whose hands we shake the impression they are dealing with wimps. Yeah? People by no means think you are a wimp, of course. But generally speaking, you know?”
Hippolyte Lafleur was a fortune-teller and a notorious know-it-all. This latter accomplishment could be annoying since it often turned out that he did know it all. He was furthermore Izzy Scoop, the intrepid investigative reporter, though that was not something to bruit about. Hippolyte took his anonymity seriously. And well he might, if he wanted to live to continue being Izzy Scoop.
Izzy Scoop’s real identity was one of the best-kept secrets in Bangkok — Hippolyte was the man behind some of the hardest-hitting, most fearless exposes of corruption and greed in high places to be found in the region. Izzy Scoop’s stories were tours de force of investigative reporting. Everything carefully documented, these pieces actually said what had to be said, even when this couldn’t be said according to anybody with any respect for their own well-being. Of course no local newspaper would touch the stuff, since no newspaper wanted to lose its license to print the news. But some of the big foreign newsmagazines ate it up with a spoon.
On the other hand, of course, you had Arno Petty’s full-page column of wise-cracking news in review, wisdom, advice, and insider gossip that the Bangkok Globe ran every Saturday. I am Arno Petty; I have to admit it. Jack the Hack.
But I wrote other stuff, as well. Compared to Izzy, you could say I made up in versatility for what I lacked in journalistic muscle. Aside from gunman stories and reports on revolutions in Burma, which were selling like free beer at the moment, Arno had been known to write copy for a brochure or two, which was like stealing money compared to the return you got on newspaper and magazine stories. More like whoring than stealing, actually. And of course Arno Petty was the man behind Propriapist Publications’ A-Z series of pornographic novels out of New York. We were up to “D,” A Dick for Dorothy. Four thousand bucks apiece, though I was trying to negotiate a better deal.
“An alliterative exploration of the varieties of human sexual experience …” Izzy Scoop had actually written the new blurb for the series. He was one of Arno Petty’s biggest fans — you could say the only fan of Arno’s I had ever met, since my novels weren’t distributed in Thailand, being I guess too off-color for the local authorities. Hip was determined that when I got to “U,” I would do An Ungulate for Ulricke. I told him he should probably stick to daring exposes, and leave the porno novels to Arno. He should also live so long, I would ever get to write my way to “U.”
Hippolyte was loved, even held in awe, by the bargirls of the city. Not only was he a maw doo, a seer, of some repute, he took a personal interest in their problems. He had a way of reading their love-lives as though these chronicles were written all over their palms in thirty-point bold. It didn’t matter that most of his predictions had to do with meeting nice foreign men and coming into sudden money. And of course it was uncanny how he would sometimes see illness in the family, when you considered that these upcountry girls had more relatives than hard luck stories, which was saying something indeed, and statistically speaking one of them would just about have had to have been sick at any given time. On top of that, Hip’s Thai was almost fluent and the girls would tell him all their gossip, so it might not have been surprising if every now and then he came up with a startlingly accurate piece of personal news for a client.
“But I don’t need to read your palm to see you’ve got a problem, my friend. So what are you going to do about it?”
I told him what Mu had told me. She said I had been causing “influential people” and “dark influences” to lose face left and right. Chances were, if only you could believe her, half the contents of Who’s Who in Thailand were gunning for me already. Listening to her go on about it, you might have even got the impression I was selling a lot of stories these days, the way I was managing to piss everybody off. But this would be a false impression, I assured him.
“I hate to tell you this, Jack,” said Hip, “but with your attitude it could be just about anybody and everybody who is after your ass. Whoa. Maybe a whole bunch of people passed the hat and it’s, like, a collective hit.”
“For Christ’s sake, this is no joke, Hip. Somebody’s out to get me.”
“Whoa. Calm down. Maybe it’s a mistake. That’s it. This could be one of those ‘business conflicts’ you’re always reading about, and you look exactly like some guy who made a million bucks and somebody else figures it is really his million bucks.”
“That’s probably it — there’s some rich Thai who’s a dead ringer for me and who rides around in antique taxis trying to sell antique typewriters so he can go to happy hour. Thanks, Hip. That’s most likely it.”
“Okay. Child labor. You did a series on child labor; but then again so has everyone else. And you did the pieces on Thai red-light districts — you couldn’t hold still for the way politicians and editors claimed that Western writers, especially ‘parachute journalists,’ were ‘casting Thailand in a bad light’ and ‘looking down on Thais.’ You put it right up front: if anybody thought those stories were the dark side of Thailand, then they were dangerously naïve. Then there was the research you did on the police — remember that? You paid those Thai researchers, criminology students, to dig up all the funny stories about cops shooting innocent citizens and each other besides. Even though nobody would print it here. And the logging story?
“It could be anybody. Look, Jack; I’ll tell you the truth; and you don’t have to be a maw doo to see which way the wind is blowing. It doesn’t have to be some bigshot with a grudge who does you in, you keep on like you are. You mess with the tape vendors, and now you throw the bus conductor’s money all out in the street, even though this individual is only doing what bus conductors in Bangkok always do. Who are you to change the rules of the game?”
Hip got this look, the same look he put on when he was going to tell a fortune. His shades went even more opaque, don’t ask me how that could happen, and he leaned closer. “As you know, Jack, our bodies and our minds move in rhythms. There are all kinds of influences that can affect our state of mind and our happiness. Nobody understands these things too good, and you get everyone from psychotherapists to astrologers trying to tell you what to do and why. But the fact remains, there are these cycles and things, and if you get in tune with them, life goes better. That much is common knowledge.”
It could have been news to his two charming companions, though, the way they were hanging on his every word, understanding I would have said not more than a couple of these words, yet impressed by the sheer gravity of his manner.
“What some people don’t know, is that some of these rhythms are part of culture. You get these ways of doing things set up by people living and working together over the years and the generations. Every culture has its own harmonies and rhythms, and these might not seem obvious to somebody from another background. That’s right. They’re often not obvious to the people in the culture either — no more noticeable than the beating of the blood in their own veins or the regular intake of oxygen and expulsion of carbon dioxide. Are you with me?
“Whoa. But then you put somebody from a different culture in there, and all of a sudden it’s like you got someone doing the Funky Chicken in the middle of everybody’s nice waltz. And that’s you, Jack — you’re doing the Funky Chicken when everybody around you is cheek to cheek.”
“What is this Funky Chicken, Hip?” Sometimes I had to think there was a cultural gulf between Hip and me. “I can’t do the Funky Chicken; I never even heard of this thing.”
“Hiew khow,” said Boom. “I’m hungry!”
“Chahn duay. Me too.” Mon slid her hand inside Hip’s shirt and told him “Gai thawt, na? You buy us fried chicken, okay?”
Whether it was the rumor of fried chicken or only the scent of cola, a likely looking lady named Ping chose this time to sit down next to me and start making nursing noises over my hand. Which did hurt like a son of a bitch, though I didn’t want to say anything; and it felt okay to have it dabbed at with a cold towel.
Without a word, Hip handed Mon some money; and she went over to give it to the boy at the door, along with the order. Ping also got up to fetch her cola.
“You have the idea everything is out of synch,” Hip went on. “And it makes you mad. Wow. But everybody else figures you’re out of synch; and who’s right — you or everybody else? You toss somebody into the middle of another culture, and he doesn’t try to adjust his behavior, you get a general grinding of cultural gears and gnashing of teeth on all sides. Two things can happen, now. One: the cultural intruder grinds away at his own cultural edges till he starts to mesh without too much friction. Two: he gets chewed up into bits and spat out. Yo, Arno. Which is it going to be with you?”
“Hip. Give me a break.”
“I like you, Jack, or I don’t ask you this: Are you sure you want to stay here in Thailand? It may be this country isn’t too good for you, when all is said and done. You know?”
What was he trying to tell me? I had a girlfriend, here. I had a career as a writer I was trying to get off the ground; and he thought I should go back to the States where writers starved to death in job lots, even faster than they did here? I could sell one story in Bangkok, it was enough to pay the rent for a month; in New York City it wouldn’t have covered my cab fare.
And I did try to adjust; what was he talking about? I was learning some Thai; I wasn’t doing too bad, I had to say so myself. And I practiced my jai yen, my cool heart, all the time. I did these maintaining-my-cool exercises every day, not only to make Mu happy but also to bring my blood pressure down. There was no sense in having a brain hemorrhage at my age. It hurt me to hear my friend Hip talk this way, I had to admit it; so I told him to piss off. I wasn’t leaving. Everybody else could leave. Or learn to do the Funky Chicken, if they wanted to do that, whatever that might be.
Mon got back with the chicken, and I realized I was hungry too. Ping had her cola; she insisted on clinking glasses chok dee, cheers, and then took to mopping my fevered brow with another cold towel.
Hip fixed me with his most opaque gaze, and spoke to me in his softest, profoundest tones. “Jack, Jack, Jack,” he said. “You take my advice: calm down and think about what you’re doing. You are cruising for a bruising, if you’re not careful. Whoa. You don’t have to be a fortune-teller to see that.”
“Thanks, Hip. I will try to sidestep this bruising; and possibly even stop doing the Funky Chicken, once I figure out what that is.”
As I got up to go, Ping asked me could I lend her 500 baht for just a week, or two, seeing as how her rent was due and she didn’t have quite enough because her baby was sick and so was her uncle. Ping was a fine lady and everything, and she had always had a kind word for me when I dropped in at Shaky Jake’s, but it wasn’t as though we had something going, after all. So I told her how I was mostly broke myself, what with one thing and another, and here was 200 baht for her; I hoped it would help.
She seemed happy with this and maybe her rent wasn’t that much, when it came right down to it. She leaned across Mon to give Hip a big hug, even though it was me who had covered her rent; and Mon told me Hip had said that Ping would come into some money that very day. Khun Hip was a maw doo among maw doos, it was plain to see.
He was ordering more drinks as I left.
Next week Jack is the subject of some not-so-gentle warning.