The Prologue to Kicking Dogs, a novel, appeared first in the Bangkok Post Sunday supplement in the early 1990s, and again over the years in at least two regional publications.
It was once shortlisted by The Paris Review for an annual humor competition, and they asked to see more stories from me. With my usual self-promotional genius, I never got around to submitting other stuff.
Selections from Arno Petty’s Intelligencer and Weekly Gleaner
- Something for everyone. The Chao Phraya River, the heart of Bangkok, is enjoying something of a renaissance these days. Trendy hotels and restaurants are appearing all along its banks, while an ever-increasing number of luxury dinner cruises threaten riverine trafﬁc jams in the evenings. Some of us, however, prefer a pre-boomtime ambience. Besides which, your average newspaper writer’s income extends more to beer and a plate of naem sod, these delicacies being best served in a humble noodle shop perched out on a ramshackle wooden pier.
- I don’t give a hoot. I have been told for the thousandth time that my favorite beer snack of naem sod, fermented pork sausage, is a great way to get worms (trichinosis, to be more speciﬁc). We’ve all got to go some way. If in my case it’s with a beer and a plate of naem sod, then so be it.
The name is Jack Shackaway, and I’m a kind of freelance journalist. You meet some interesting people when you’re a hack writer living in Bangkok.
For example, the other day I was enjoying a few drinks with a pair of dubious characters name of Tommy Two-Toes and Wrong-Way Willie Wong. Actually, it was more than a few drinks, and these gentlemen were more than just dubious characters. They had robbed me, only a short time before joining me for these drinks I mention.
They were apologetic about this inconvenience they caused me, and more than somewhat embarrassed. Robbery, as they were careful to impress upon me, was not something they considered a class act, and they hoped I understood this was merely a temporary expedient. I could be sure they wouldn’t be caught dead holding up citizens for pitiful sums of money in the normal course of events. But times being what they were, you did what you had to do.
I ﬁrst met these types when I was taking a stroll around a part of the city I had never seen before. I stopped on a little wooden landing down by the river, ﬁguring I would have a smoke and watch the boats for awhile. Not more than three or four of these things had gone by, the landing gently bobbing in their wakes, before I became aware of two individuals who had appeared on the landing and who, it seemed, wished to talk to me. One of them was a big man for a Thai, heavy through the chest and sporting a busted-up kind of face. He was wearing a straw hat with a “Visit Thailand” hatband. His companion was shorter and skinny and he had a delicate gait, mincing and tottering along like he was walking on eggs. Eggs maybe full of dynamite.
The big one came over beside me and swung a rolled magazine up to one eye, sea-captain style, and started scouting the far side of the river. “You. Are you a tourist?” he asked me in tolerable English, never leaving off from his perusal of the other shore.
“No,” I answered him.
“Me and my friend sometimes come down here to hunt for tourists,” he continued. His friend tittered at that, and belched. I was thinking I could detect Mekhong whiskey fumes. I was also thinking that these characters were two touts with more than your average ration of brass.
“We are guides,” said the big one. “Sometimes, we are guides. You want a guide?”
I told them I wasn’t a tourist and thought about telling them to shove off. While I was looking for the precise words to communicate my feelings about touts in general and about these two specimens in particular, the big one ceased his reconnoitering of the Thonburi side with the rolled-up magazine and, I noticed, took to pointing a large pistol at my stomach. I had seen these pistols pictured in the local newspapers, and, for lack of anything better to talk about, I said, “That is a homemade shotgun pistol, isn’t it?”
“Twelve gauge,” he replied, and he smiled. His partner was also smiling, and he was holding an open switch-blade pointed down beside his leg so I knew it was there but not so every Tom, Dick, and Harry would know it was there too.
Right away I leapt to a conclusion. “Would you fellows like some money?” I asked, smiling in a way designed to say that no matter what I thought of touts, I could see they were by no means touts and I was thoroughly delighted to meet two such resourceful gentlemen and could only wish them the best of everything and would do anything I could to help them out with their life-plans.
This attitude was not one I adopted on impulse. Not at all. I had been tutored in the etiquette of being robbed in Thailand by those who knew, and it should be common knowledge that the robbee — at least one who wants to remain in good health — is always very polite indeed to the robber. It is a good idea to smile a lot and speak in moderate tones. You should, if possible, look for positive things to talk about, and always, always be sure you have at least a modicum of loot to lay upon your new acquaintances. If they are professional enough to go through all the moves thought proper to their side of the transaction, and then ﬁnd that they are wasting their time and now look like ninnies because you are broke ﬂatter than a ﬂounder, they will lose a substantial amount of face. Losing face is something your average Thai robber does not enjoy. Just to make himself feel better, while at the same time removing a witness to his embarrassment, he will probably shoot you. This is something your average robbee does not enjoy.
So, keeping all of this good advice in mind, I smiled and handed over the contents of my wallet to the little one with the funny walk, while the big one smiled at me and kept pointing his cannon at my midsection. I indicated that I was confused about what should be done with my wallet, now that it was empty. Did protocol suggest I hand that over as well, or should I perhaps keep it? With a ﬂourish of his pistol, the big one told me I should keep it. The little one, meanwhile, gave the money to his partner and took to checking me out for my taste in chronometers. When he saw what I was wearing, he snorted in disgust and said to the other that their business was done and they should think about moving on.
They were backing away from me off the pier, and we were all smiling and nodding and I was saying “You have a nice day, now” when the wake from a passing boat hit the landing and the little one, who had been having trouble walking funny and walking backwards at the same time, lost his balance and fell against the big one, who also lost his balance and who furthermore fell into the river.
Though this was not the least funny thing I had seen in my life, I was reluctant to indulge myself in a hearty laugh. Last I noticed, for one thing, the 12-gauge pistol was still with the big guy when he went into the river.
There was a certain amount of confusion and thrashing about going on over by the water, and no else seemed to be doing any laughing, restrained or otherwise. I was getting the idea the big one couldn’t swim, and the little one was for some reason disinclined to go into the water to help him, no matter his friend had all the money they had recently come into. Chances are he couldn’t swim either, I was thinking, and this idea was reinforced by his mincing around excitedly telling me in Thai and in gesture that he would appreciate it if I helped his buddy out a bit.
If only I had remembered my lessons on the etiquette of being a robbee, I would have wished them both a good day and got myself out of there just as fast as I could go. It was not inconceivable that the big guy and the little guy too found this whole situation a considerable loss of face, especially since I was not entirely restraining my appreciation of the humorous side of proceedings. Not thinking about this problem, however, I lent a hand and in no time had our friend back on terra ﬁrma.
He was pretty wet and I was pretty wet, and even the little guy was pretty wet because he kept dancing around getting splashed on. I was happy to see that the big guy, notwithstanding everything, was expressing gratitude and that he had left his pistol in the river besides. I was thinking at the same time that it was maybe better if I had died of gunshot wounds rather than suffer the slower death of cholera compounded by typhoid and river blindness I was looking at now. I was not happy at having been for a swim in the Chao Phraya even if it was in such a good cause as to save the life of this robber.
The big guy, on the other hand, seemed in a pretty fair mood, despite the loss of both arsenal and some measure of dignity. He still had my money, at least, which he produced with an air of triumph and wrung out before waving it back and forth in the breeze to dry. His cigarettes were beyond repair, however, and this threatened to dampen his spirits, except that I had a dry pack of Krong Thep and I gave him one and the little guy took one too even though he didn’t smoke and we all stood there, a bit chilly in the evening breeze, smoking and waiting to dry out. After a while, the big one spoke to the little one and then he turned to me and said, “You come and drink with us.”
This was no doubt a better proposition than getting shot, but I felt I had to decline: “Well, I would like to, but, you see I have no money, and … ”
“Mai pen rai,” he assured me. “Never mind.” And the little one grinned, nodding his support. “Don’t worry; we have money. Hey. We look after you.”
So pretty soon we were sitting in a nice waterfront joint where you could watch the boats go by, and all the garbage and water hyacinth as well. It was beautiful also to see the sun go down across the river.
“You like Singha beer?”
In truth, I didn’t. I drank Kloster, but they were paying and I didn’t want to appear ﬁnicky.
“You eat naem sod?”
Maybe you are familiar with this uncooked pork sausage, which is served with peppers and peanuts and onions and shredded green mango and which makes beer taste even better than it usually tastes. Everybody also tells you that eating naem sod, besides all its other advantages, is an excellent way to get parasites, if you want parasites, which I didn’t; but after my dip in the Chao Phraya one or two more varieties of parasite was not likely to make much difference to my general well-being, so I said, “Yes, I like naem sod. By all means let us have some of this stuff.”
For a while, then, we drank beer and ate naem sod, as well as yam woon sen, yam pla duk foo, and some other kinds of food that went very well indeed with beer, only you never seemed to have enough of either beer or food if you took these things together. While we were trying to have enough of everything, we got acquainted. The big one let it be known he had picked up his English mostly in Vietnam, along with some other useful skills he acquired from the US armed forces while learning to be all that he could be. He had also beneﬁted from some time spent in Singapore, where he had been a guest of the government and where he had lived in a small cell with a fellow soldier of fortune, a guy from Brooklyn who was a specialist in international movements of gold.
So the big one did most of the talking, since the little one didn’t speak English and he didn’t understand my Thai. We talked of this and that, and what a crime the taxes on beer were, and pretty soon we had spent all their loot, and the big one said he was still thirsty and so did the little one. And so was I, come to that, so I took off my belt and showed my new friends the 500 baht I had zipped up in a secret compartment, and their spirits brightened no end. In fact, in no time all of us were feeling hardly any pain, and the others decided they could take me further into their conﬁdence. The big one turned out to have the name “Willie Wong.” Actually, he told me, he started life in Hong Kong, where he was known as Wong Wei, but somewhere along the line he came to be called Wrong-Way Willie Wong; and I could call him Willie if I wanted to.
Willie also told me he and the little one had been partners for some time already, though robbery was not their ﬁrst choice of pursuits, and his partner’s name was Tommy Two-Toes. As near as I could make out, given Wrong-Way Willie’s special brand of Brooklynese and my own approaching state of total leglessness, the following was Tommy Two-Toes’ story.
Some thirty-ﬁve years before, Tommy had been born in a town in the south of Thailand, down near the Malaysian border, and he was named “Thongbai,” which was a ﬁne and traditional Thai name. He was orphaned at an early age by hard liquor and high emotion, not his own, and he was forced by circumstances to leave the state school system not too long after that. The remainder of his education was a liberal one, the institutions of learning he attended having been organized along informal lines, and classes having been held in the streets. Growing up and entering into various loose associations with a motley society of Thais, Malays, and Chinese, most of them with educational backgrounds similar to his own, young Thongbai acquired a fairly cosmopolitan outlook on life. At the same time, it came to be generally agreed that “Tommy” had a more up-to-date feel to it as a handle than did Thongbai.
As time went by, Tommy made his way up in the world and he got hitched to a lady named Toy, proceeding to learn whatever could be learned from this latest lesson in life, which was popularly known as marriage. Then, in the course of still some more time, Tommy decided this thing called marriage deserved further investigation and he married yet another lady, this one also named Toy. Toy Number Two, however, lived in another town where Tommy had certain business interests and which was conveniently located at some distance from Tommy’s ﬁrst domicile. For a year or so, both Toy One and Toy Two remained comfortably ignorant of the other’s existence, and Tommy was thinking life on the whole was more than just okay.
It was during this time that Tommy came to be referred to as “Tommy Two-Toys” by his business associates, English noms de guerre, as I say, being thought to have a more-than-somewhat sophisticated cachet in these circles. In no time at all, “Tommy Two-Toys” had caught on at most levels of the community, the name having a nice ring to it. Before long that was what everybody called him. And the ﬁrst Mrs Two-Toys, for one, couldn’t help wondering why.
Finally, of course, she found out. To say she was not pleased went some way towards describing her reaction to the news, and she saw she was in danger of losing a considerable amount of face unless she took immediate steps. Going through Tommy Two-Toys’ ofﬁce one day, while Tommy was away on business, Mrs Two-Toys found a couple of sticks of dynamite in a ﬁling cabinet, and she got a good idea. She had saved some money from the household accounts, and now she contacted a person who made a living compensating for losses of face and so forth, and in the course of time this public servant arranged to put the dynamite up under the bed of the second Mrs Two-Toys, together with a pressure fuse. He did not do this, of course, until one night he happened to know Tommy and his second wife were out at a party and would be getting back late and tired and no doubt in a hurry to hit the sack.
Unfortunately, from her point of view, the ﬁrst Mrs Two-Toys could not afford the best technical help, and things did not go exactly as planned. The second Mrs Two-Toys was still in the toilet when Tommy threw himself down on the bed and was surprised to ﬁnd himself tossed right back into the air by a loud explosion that also blew most of the toes off his feet. In fact, the medics managed to save two toes and they told him he was lucky at that. Tommy never for a minute suspected that his condition was the work of a business rival, since he knew that this class of technician would not leave him two toes or much of anything else either. Besides, Mrs Two-Toys Number One never even came to bring him ﬂowers in the hospital.
Once out of the hospital, Tommy saw he had to take stock of his life. Deciding he had learned already all there was proﬁtably to learn from marriage to two Toys, and reasoning that business was not so good anyway, what with two very sore feet and quite a lot of grinning and joking behind his back on the part of his brothers-in-business and the community at large, Tommy Two-Toys, who was now more commonly known as Tommy Two-Toes, headed on up North to see how the land lay in those parts.
Tommy could see right off that patrons failed to abound in the northern provinces, and opportunities to ply his various trades were not much in evidence. Times were so hard he actually found himself performing manual labor just make ends meet. It was not for this he had spent all those years getting a liberal education, and he was not in good spirits for a young man in the prime of his life if only you overlooked the condition of his feet. Around this time Tommy’s luck changed. The old-boy network came through, more or less, in the person of one Wrong-Way Willie Wong, a friend of a friend of an old associate from down South, and Willie had a proposition for Tommy.
As it happened, they fared very well as partners for a time, doing one kind of job and another, though mostly one kind of job. Log rustling in the northern forests was a pretty good racket, though they did not themselves actually rustle the logs. They provided more of a service for log rustlers, what you could call public relations. Mostly what they did for their clients was they talked to members of the public who were not happy with the clients for one reason and another, and Willie and Tommy changed the attitudes of these citizens, or at least they ﬁxed it so they didn’t bother the clients with their unhappiness any more. Together they did very well, because Willie had this useful physical presence and a facility with all manner of ﬁrearms, while Tommy was a master of the Look.
“Show him the Look,” Willie told his friend, and Tommy showed me the Look.
Even though I was long since dry all over and more than a little fortiﬁed with strong beer, I could feel small furry things creeping up my spine. I nodded in admiration, and I said that Tommy did indeed know how to give a person the Look. The last time I had just that feeling was only a short time before, when it was Willie’s 12-gauge pistol that was giving my midsection the Look, and Tommy’s Look was neck and neck for ﬁrst place, or maybe even a nose out in front. Tommy was clearly pleased at his success and he gave the Look to an innocent bystander at another table, who paid his tab and left in a hurry, and Willie had to tell Tommy to ease off.
“But it gets pretty bad up North, now,” Willie continued. “You ﬁnd soldiers and policemen and I don’t know what up there who won’t let you do your job and who don’t take money and who you can’t scare. It’s a real crime. So we come down here to Bangkok. There has to be work in the city for men like us. You get all these people, na? There must be all manner of unhappiness and misunderstandings of one kind and another that need to be ﬁxed. But it’s hard to get your start. It takes money to make money. Money and contacts. “Robbery, now, that’s a loser’s game. I mean, what did Tommy and I get out of this day’s work? I mean, after all.”
I said I was sorry and Willie said it wasn’t my fault. Anyway now they were thinking of being gunmen, though it didn’t help that they had lost their only gun in the river. It wasn’t much of a gun anyhow, come to that, said Willie. Nowadays you needed at least an 11mm automatic, though an m-16 or a grenade launcher carried even more punch in terms of both image and impact. Of course it was not easy to conceal a grenade launcher on your person while riding around Bangkok on a motorcycle. But an 11mm pistol cost 12,000 baht and even a used m-16 would run you 4,500 baht. Willie asked me did I know how much just the ammo for an 11mm pistol cost? I didn’t know, and it turned out Willie couldn’t remember so he asked Tommy who told him ﬁve baht a round, black market prices, of course.
“Do you hear that?” said Willie. “Pow, pow, pow. Hey. Before you know it there’s a whole night on the town blown away.”
He told me that was why you needed such a heavy caliber weapon: nobody in the business could afford target practice, so you had to get up close to your man with something that looked impressive and made a loud noise so even if you missed you scared him to death.
What they required, then, was something to start — only enough to get their basic equipment together.
I told them if I had anybody I wanted blown away they would be the ﬁrst to know but, unfortunately, I didn’t want anybody dead right at that moment.
It was not necessary to want somebody dead, Willie was quick to assure me. Hey. Maybe I just needed to throw a scare into someone. Maybe my landlord, for example? Or some business associate?
Willie got Tommy to give me the Look again, except he had to slap him around a bit so he would open his eyes ﬁrst and give me any kind of look at all. What I ﬁnally saw didn’t look much like the Look, even though I had to admit his eyes were open, and this time I didn’t feel the furry things up and down my spine.
I wasn’t feeling much of anything, by then. Willie himself, he said, was remaining upright in his chair only due to a discipline he had learned in some secret martial arts practice. Furthermore, as he pointed out, Tommy had left off giving the Look and was asleep face down in what was left of the woon sen. On top of that, the proprietor wanted to close up and go home, and we had spent all the money anyway.
It would be better, said he, if we got together again upon another occasion and continued our interesting discussions then. Maybe he would tell me how he ﬁrst came to be called Wrong-Way and we could talk about me buying some shares in their new enterprise. Kind of like a “quiet partner.”
This proposition got me to thinking, and I came to see it was time for these two gentlemen and myself to seek our separate destinies where we might. So I said to Willie that he had related an interesting history and I was pleased to meet a man of such accomplishments as Tommy Two-Toes, not to mention Willie’s own good self, but I regretted to say I was leaving the country in one week never to return.
Willie was sorry to hear this, he said, and then maybe we could go to my joint right away and discuss a small business loan since he knew I was a good sort and my terms wouldn’t be too hard, even though these were hard times we were living in.
I said we would do this thing as soon as I came back from the toilet, only I never came back from the toilet. I got in a taxi and I got out of that part of town, maybe forever.
In next week’s installment, Jack, to his surprise and theirs, once again encounters Tommy and Willie, this time in even more colorful circumstances.