Expats and a Homeboy
by Joe Kuhl || Author's Links
I don't remember when I first met Larson in downtown Atlanta near Georgia State University where he was studying for an masters in ESL, a degree that would eventually lead him to the Persian Gulf where our paths would cross a second time five years later and he would remind me of the afternoon we met. I was out for lunch with Ray, a smart, sexy Italian-American young woman who turned down a teaching job at the Gulf University where I was teaching in favor of marrying one of Ted Turner's boys. It was disappointing, but who could blame her.
Anyway, I didn't recognize Larson Moots five years later when he shuffled, literally, dragging the soles of his feet, into the faculty cafeteria overlooking the barren, sandy rubble of the Rub al Khali, Empty Quarter of the Arabian Peninsula. As a courtesy to the new teacher, I introduced myself.
"Hey! I know you!"
"Yeah. You used to teach at Georgia State."
"Yeah, I sure did."
" I read about you in the paper during the Gulf War. Evacuated or something."
"Yeah," he went on, "I met you once before with Ray Dimarro downtown. She was thinking about teaching here. Hard to forget your name anyway, Joe Kuhl!"
He sat with my colleagues and had a coffee and a smoke. He was sullen and withdrawn, wearing an expression between a smirk and a brood and kept pushing the bangs from his eyes. What I noticed most, as did the rest of us, was his clothes. Unremarkable--grey khakis, white cotton shirt, plain navy tie--except for the wrinkles. Past rumpled, way past slept-in wrinkled. Wrinkled so that they might've been wadded in a suitcase for months in a tropical climate. Accordion wrinkles. And as was my habit, I tagged him with a nickname, and so all we ever called him after day one was Wrinkles. We never got to know him well enough to use it to his face.
He was in a foul mood most everyday and it was anyone's guess as to the nature of his personal torments-broken heart, sexual identity problems, drug withdrawal, alcoholism, relocation trauma, long term depression-all of which are common in Gulf expats, especially among newcomers. Nobody figured he'd last out the year and wagers were made, so it was no surprise when he "pulled a runner" after ten weeks. Prior to disappearing, he managed, according to Khan, my Pakistani friend at the bank, to secure a $6,000 car loan; and, as the Spartan furnishings of his flat revealed, to save most of the $8,000 dollar furniture loan provided immediately upon arrival. On top of that, he was rumored to have sold final exam copies to several of the extremely wealthy, somewhat academically challenged, and at times, downright desperate of our students for a purported sum of $3,000 dollars. So with at least 14,000 USD, he vanished and the winners collected their bets in the faculty lounge.
In January of that same year, I was on R&R in Bangkok making travel arrangements for a Vietnam excursion. I was awaiting my travel visa-a five day affair then with the US embargo still in effect--and working a tall bottle of very cold Singha in one of the numerous sidewalk bars along Khao Sahn Road in the Banglumpoo district, one of the central Euro-hippie meccas of southeast Asia. From the hustling stream of frayed and shaggy back packers in shuffles Larson Moots. His faded khaki cutoffs were, of course, deeply, existentially wrinkled and the "Bombay Sux" tee shirt was grimy, tattered and shot with holes, and not the kind you cut out as a fashion statement
"Damn, man!" he yelled.
"Hey, Larson." I didn't get up to greet him. By that time in my life not much surprised me.
He dropped wearily onto to a stool at the small round table. It was six o'clock in the evening. A stale beer tropical sweat-stink hung on him, cutting through the smoke and diesel fumes of the open air bar.
"Bum a smoke?"
I laid the pack on the table. I stopped him from lighting the wrong end and he laughed and flipped it around, securing it to his chapped and cracked lips. He complained bitterly of a hangover, so I bought him a beer and, at his request, a shot of Mekong Whiskey. It earned me slap on the back.
"Damn place!" He cursed. "A cesspool! A goddamned cesspool!"
"No. That fucking university."
"Ooh, that cesspool."
"Had it planned you know. Knew a week after I got there I'd never make it."
"Kinda' figured you for a runner; in fact, I won 20 bucks on you."
"Went to India." He wasn't listening and had his eyes on the street. Not gazing. Hunting. What I didn't care to know.
"Man, class A fucked-up country. Misery. Their greatest natural resources. Can't believe people actually go there to get enlightened. Can't dig the spiritualism out from under the piles of shit in the street. Dirt, grease, smoke, lepers, beggars…beggars everywhere. Pulling at your shirt, or on your pant leg if they can't walk. In your face every fuckin' minute. Jesus. 'A rupee, gimme a rupee, gimme a rupee mister!' A rupee for Christ's sake. A fucking…what? A like tenth of a cent? Follow you for blocks whining and pleading…sweet Jesus that kind of poverty and desperation...enough to make you puke. Gave me nightmares...woke up thought I was covered with leeches." An involuntary tremor shook him. He was gripping the edge of the table and spasm knocked both our beers off the table shattering on the floor. Nobody even looked our way. A young Thai boy hustled over with rags and cardboard box to clean it up.
"Shit! I'm sorry. What a waste."
"No problem. I'll buy you another, but I'm gonna split."
"Where the hell you goin' man?"
He looked me in the eye for the first time. Not pleasant. And what he was really asking was if he could come with me. The crackle of desperation in his voice was hard to miss.
"Cool. I was headed there later. Let's share a taxi, but how 'bout a beer and a shot for the road, eh? You're still making that oil money, man!" He barked a hoarse laugh and slapped by back a second time. We did the shots and took the beers to go.
Just like that he was hanging with me. It happens like that with travelers though, and I didn't really care.
"Leeches," I said as we flagged a tuk tuk, the three wheel, two-stroke motorized open rickshaw, and clambered back in back.
"Hell yeah! Plenty of nice bitches in Patpong!"
It was dark when we made the central part of downtown.
"Hey, this guy's trying to screw us," he shouted at me over the whine of motorbikes racing past, buses groaning and belching diesel smoke a cacophony of horns wailing ceaselessly.
"Whattya' mean?" I shouted back.
"I mean he's not taking us to Patpong."
Unfamiliar with the city, I had to trust his directions.
He shouted for the driver to pull over, pulling on the wiry dark man's shirt. We pulled up in front of a dimly-lit hotel advertising massage.
"This is no fucking good, man." He was pissed off, ablaze with alcohol.
"This ain't Patpong!" he shouted, roughly shaking.
A group of young Thai men loitering by their motorcycles approached our tuk tuk.
"Let's bolt Kuhl! Now!" He jumped out, grabbed me by the arm and started running. And there I was suddenly running down a dark, crowded street in Thailand following…Wrinkles, for Christ sake. Well, I'd asked for it I suppose.
Around a corner we stopped running and caught our breath while hailing another tuk tuk.
"Patpong! Patpong!" he yelled, and we were on our way again.
"Jesus! That was close. They'd a cut our throats."
I didn't say anything and offered him a smoke. Riding through the cooling, smog-fouled night air, I reflected that my stay in the city up to that point had been enjoyable, relaxing, and I found all the locals friendly. He was obviously on a different vacation plan than me. I paid the driver at Patpong, and Larson led me through the crowds to the Superstar Bar. I had a beer; he ordered whisky.
"Man, last night I lost my wallet."
"Yeah right." I didn't try to hide my sarcasm and reached for my wallet anticipating him and wanting to get it over with.
"Really. I passed out and got robbed. Everything. Watch, credit cards . . . fuck man, can you--?" I cut him off by placing 500 baht, about 20 bucks, in front of him on the table. I only loan money I never expect to see again, and I held my tongue about the 14,000 he'd left the Gulf with only a few months earlier. It wasn't deep structure detective work seeing where it all went.
He spent the 500 Bat on colas and "Jim Tonic" for the half dozen, barely dressed young Thai girls who fell upon us the moment we settled into the booth. Double Jim Beam for himself. He drank fast, and had wheedled another 20 out of me within the hour.
I said I was leaving and paid my bill. He looked at his bill and started raving at the waitress. The manager came over and they began arguing. He didn't even notice my exit. I went on to the Memphis Queen, a quieter outdoor establishment where I drank, unmolested, and talked to the girls and some of the tourists until about midnight. On my way out of Patpong, there he sat, propped against a hydrant, legs in the gutter, a cut below his right eye, blood caked on his cheek.
"Sumbitch col' cocked me . . . " His head wobbled on his crumpled shoulders.
"You friend?" asked a Thai doorman out front the bar where Larson was guttered. I shrugged.
"Bad man. Very Lao . . . drunk. Fighting."
"Larson," I said pulling him to his feet, "you don't fight with Thai kick boxers."
He was dead weight and I was half lit myself, so I gave a kid a couple bucks to help haul him down the block and into the back of a real taxi.
"Where's your hotel, Larson? Where you staying?"
I finally managed to get something that sounded like "Khoa Sahn" out of him. Good enough. Maybe if I dropped him on the strip there, somebody else would take care of him. Fifteen minutes into the ride across town, one of the thousands of swarming 125cc motorcycles slammed into the side of the taxi which had made an abrupt turn. The driver jumped out and started yelling at the motorcycle driver who was pulling himself up off the pavement. Larson was passed out. Screw it I figured. This guy's got the evil eye on him. I stuffed a couple hundred baht in his shorts pocket and hailed another taxi. A fifty dollar bad date is what he'd turned into.
I spent two amazing weeks in Vietnam and had to stop over in Bangkok for a day before my return flight to the Gulf. At breakfast, I was leafing through the Bangkok Post. On page four was a gaudy 3x5 color photo of a naked man stretched out on his side, face upturned. The body was surrounded by police and medics. The caption read: "NAKED TOURIST--Police detain a 27-year-old American tourist who removed his clothing and damaged cars with iron bar in front of the Thai Farmers Bank on Maha Chai road yesterday."
Even without the wrinkles I recognized him.
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