A greying, sunburnt American missionary stopped us in the fruit market and invited us for a drink. He drove us across the bridge to a slick Hawaiian-style tavern whose patio jutted far out over the brown drowsy current of the river. Everywhere there were Christmas decorations—winking lights, stuffed stockings, dangling sprigs of mock mistletoe—and the patio was filled with merry expatriates: tourists and others, the missionary said, affiliated with either the church or the drug trade.
The missionary was from Connecticut. His voice was soft and shaky and a bit too fast, fuelled, it seemed, by expatriate loneliness. His pinched face had the unwholesome, mottled redness of an old apple core. Explaining that he did not drink, he ordered a round of lemonades and began to tell us about his struggles in the primitive regions to the north. Some progress was being made, he reassured us, but it was impossible to quote precise figures—the natives were so courteous they often feigned conversion simply to avoid disappointing the missionary, whose visits they seemed to enjoy. He liked the visits too, he said, despite his ultimate lack of success—if "success" was the right word! And after all it was quite the same for all the others. Recidivism, he said. Like . . . falling off the wagon. Any church quoting precise figures for its sphere of influence was not being altogether honest. Not really. (The province, he explained, had been split up and allotted like a pie.)
The work did not get easier. The Buddhists were a frustrating opposition. But it was tolerance not antagonism that made them so formidable. Because you see—he looked down into the slow current, eyes troubled, like a priest in a movie having a crisis of faith—because like mystics or secular humanists they sincerely believe that different religions follow various paths to the same goal. A humane doctrine, of course, but. Well.
The missionary cleared his throat.
The worst of it was, he confessed, he liked them.
He sighed and excused himself and walked with brittle stiffness toward the washroom, brushing past an elf on his way and then a very thin, sweat-stained Santa Claus who had just shuffled out of the kitchen. Very thin. Face shadowed in the baggy, sagging hood, a huge plastic candy cane sickled over his shoulder, he looked like the Grim Reaper in holiday disguise.
The festive elf turned out to be a waitress. She placed three pink lemonades on the table and wished us a Muddy Christmas. We sat awhile watching the condensation form and flow down our glasses, but the missionary did not come back. Finally a blond, balding man in mirrored Vuarnets, his sport shirt unbuttoned to the paunch, swayed up and took a seat. The extra drink, I thought.
The blond man was Canadian. He’d been in Thailand a couple of years. He worked for buddies in Vancouver and Frisco and though he wasn't at liberty to give us the full lowdow didn’t mind letting us know it was exciting, even dangerous.
Before we could say anything he seized our host’s lemonade and took a reckless gulp. Then scowled at glass. "Hey, you’re missionaries are you?”
We told him no. We looked over at the men’s room: the Grim Reaper was rapping on the door with his giant candy cane, calling out something in polite, high-pitched Thai. Then he pushed the door open and vanished inside.
"Place is crawling with them," the blond man said. "And this stuff you’re drinking . . ."
"Lemonade," I said. "I take it you’re interested in harder stuff."
For a second he eyed us, then leaned over the table. At close range I could see the fretwork of wrinkles radiating from the edges of his Vuarmts. A gold cross, hidden till then in a jungle of rust-coloured chest hair, swung forward and dangled over his drink.
"You two seem pretty bright," he said. "But if you’re thinking of getting into the trade I’d advise you to be careful. I’m through with it myself. I’m ready to settle down. I’ll be looking for a Thai wife"— he gazed out at the river and pursed his lips—"no offence meant to you Miss but Thai women, well, they know how a man likes to be treated."
In his mirrored lenses I saw my wife frown down at her glass.
"Sure, I can tell what you’re thinking but the fact of it is I’ll take good care of her too. I’ve saved up enough to go into business here in Chiang Mai. Carpets, probably, or lacquer work. You can take my word as coin, there’s good money to be made. Can’t see it in the streets, I know, but it’s there." I looked away, over at the men’s room, then out at the river where a duck was bobbing downstream with her chicks in tow. Behind her, two enormous jaws broke the surface like a pair of huge rusty scissors, silently snapped closed, and eased back out of view. Not a ripple left on the water. Unaware that her chicks were gone, the mother continued downstream and out of sight.
My wife left the table for the women’s. The blond man grinned and shrugged and leaned even closer, as if to smuggle me some rare, unobtainable stash of wisdom. When he whispered I could smell his breath, ingratiating and sweet like a whiff of lemon candy.
"A poor man will work for anything," he said. "I see she can’t handle the hard goods, maybe you can. Eh? Well there she be. The bottom line. Welcome to the world, chief. Got to live in her like she is." He sat back and took a drink from the glass, then smirked, shook his head violently and sprayed the bitter liquid out over the railing into the river. I stood up and backed from the table as the pink pulp spattered and spread over the water and floated off.
"Hey not so fast, man. Take it easy eh? Where you off to? Sit down, it’s Christmas, I’m buying. Hey!"
I paused by the washrooms, rapped hard on the door of the women’s. The door of the men’s opened instead. The Grim Reaper stood there appraising me, black eyes bright inside his baggy hood. Then in a soft high exasperated voice: "Could you please now give me assistance! It’s the Father again. It’s better once he stopped the gin, but he locks himself in the toilet still. Stays there." Vaguely from behind him I could hear a muttered stream of unintelligible words, like the incantations of a monk in a cell. And from the patio behind me the dealer’s voice, bitter now, lonely: Where else you figure on going today, chief? Nowhere else, it’s Christmas. Everything white is closed.