Moondog Over The Mekong
by Court Merrigan

1.

She came from a Lao village deep in the countryside where the crops failed for three consecutive years and an agent placed a season’s income in cash on the floormat in her family home, with the promise of thrice that and much more after her parents bonded her over.  He came from a city in America, across a great expanse of land and water, a new man come to a new country, having effected a clean escape from the old, as completely gone from his old life as a range-crossing cowboy.  

She arrived at the karaoke shack ringed with Christmas lights by a longtail boat, which brought her over the Mekong into Thailand under cover of darkness, following a two-day journey by bus, a rickety contraption of Soviet make that rattled over deeply-pocked roads, after a full day standing with twenty-five others in the back of a pickup from a small town, reached by a day in a buffalo-drawn cart from her village, she who’d never been more than a halfday’s walk from home; she cried the whole first day she was there, after the mamasan made her job description clear.

In the old days, he could’ve hired on a ship with no more asked of him than his name, sinking out of sight of his homeland forever; but in these mistrustful latter days, knowing his every move could be effortlessly tracked, it was necessary to construct an alternative identity; so, with a few fraudulent facts and a PO Box, he commenced to fill out forms, taking extreme care not to overlap his life as a Commercial Loan Officer at the Bank of Milwaukee, married (no children), homeowner, carowner, vacations to the Dells and Acapulco, baseball fan, in casual shape; watching with pleasure as helpful websites constructed an alter ego with predilections he’d previously only dreamed at: single, renter, user of public transportation, excursions to the Rockies and Sierra Nevadas, participant in individual endurance sports, in excellent shape. 

She was still blubbering when her first client casually removed his pants in a bamboo shack, to run out howling a moment later wearing only a T-shirt, clutching his crotch where she’d twisted with the same dexterous force she used to decollate chickens back in the village, provoking peals of laughter from his companions and a furious mamasan to beat her with the bamboo rod till her tear ducts went dry, after which she was locked for three days in a back shack formerly used to house laying hens, dusty with piles of dried shit swarming with scurrying insects, not enough room to stand up or lay down, the mamasan peeking in every few hours to prod and poke with the rod, and when she was let out, the other girls, Lao imports all and which she called “sisters,” washed her and cooed at her gently not to be a fool, and she did not resist her second client, a shiphand who took her virginity with great bemusement, wiping off the blood on her shirt; he was on his lunchbreak, in a seedy sidestreet, renting out an upstairs room in a vast mansion transformed into a tenement house where no questions were asked, for use in storing the material effects – passport, driver’s license, clothes, traveling gear, credit cards, and so forth – necessary to make good his escape. 

The following morning, as she absent-mindedly massaged the hurt between her legs, squatting by the cooking fire and staring off to the east and home, she let the soup boil over; the mamasan smacked her upside the head with the rod, hissing that she best pay attention if she didn’t want a daily beating, which the mamasan would nevertheless happily administer, he was with his wife, attending the final couples therapy session, the therapist saying they ought really to continue the therapy, especially him, who needed much work to expose and treat the root of his problems accepting the responsibilities of mature adult life, but nonetheless, in the therapist’s professional opinion, they were on a sound footing and should enjoy many years of marital harmony and companionship.

A week later, as he was cashing out nine years of earnings on his pension fund, ostensibly to re-invest it in a market with higher returns, against the staid advice of the Chief Loan Officer, who considered it an irresponsible thing for a man well within child-rearing years to do, placing the lions share in his wife’s personal account, where it would not be visible until the following month’s statement, converting the rest into trackless traveler’s checks which he left with an icy thrill inside a desk drawer in the rented room, thus completing the secret series of financial transactions that ensured he’d be well-supplied with ready cash while leaving his wife in possession of their material property and assets, a client hit her hard enough to loosen a molar when she was unable to make his cock stiffen even slightly, despite trying every trick her sisters had taught her; the bouncer, who swung on a cot with half-hooded eyes outside the karaoke shack and spoke only in grunts, heard her screams and burst in, beating the client senseless with a tire iron, until his buddies silently drug the man off into the night, trailing blood into the dust, causing the karaoke shack to empty of clients, for which the mamasan beat her with the rod until she couldn’t even whimper. 

He was on a transpacific flight six days later, new identity a roaring success, divested of all possessions beyond the plane, watching bad movies on a distant screen and drinking Bloody Marys, which he was surprised to learn were free, as she limped down to the riverbank, just able to walk again after long days curled up in a sleeping hut, trying to get command of mutinous limbs and sinews and muscles in the afternoon heat, looking towards home across the gray dull-shimmering water that coursed sluggishly between rocky banks, gently rocking the hollow-bumping longtail boats tied to the bank, and down the Thai side, she saw hunched-over peasants tending vegetable patches that sloped up to the river promenade of the nearby town, where she could make out bare-legged strollers with ice cream cones under the shade of banyan trees – in the village they would be rounding up rice seedlings and butchering dogs, and her heart quivered wondering when she’d see home again, but, knowing she was paying for the seedlings and dogs this year, she went, weak as an arthritic old woman, back up to the karaoke shack, where her dim-lit nights were busy, pouring beer over ice for grubby Thai and Lao clients who warbled badly at the karaoke machine and after sufficient beer, took her to the one of the bamboo shacks behind the tin karaoke shack, and climbed on her to finish what they’d begun with groping at the table, sometimes one a night, sometimes several, as on the night he touched down in Bangkok, wet air sticking his shirt to his back, half-drunk and half-hungover; blinking under the yellow sodium lights underneath the expressway, a man with a black suit and a Mercedes took him to his hotel, requiring what seemed an exorbitant lot of bills for the service, where he toppled into his twenty-third story bed, repeating his new name to himself, that he might not forget in this new land.

A few days later, a Thai trader took her out of the karaoke shack, after handing the mamasan a stack of bills palmed too quickly for her to count, as he hit the dusty red road of the wide-plained countryside that curved out into the gauzy horizon lined with leaned-over palm trees and stilted huts and tendrils of smoke, driving a rented jeep guardedly on the opposite side of the road across scorched dry-season rice paddies, weaving through aimlessly shepherded herds of water buffalo and slatribbed cattle, talking with a circle of monks at a dusty temple with a serene Buddha in a boat, eating sticky rice and speaking the badly broken Thai he’d gotten from a boxed language course (practiced in that solitary room), while the trader locked her in a backroom of a warehouse, where workers made use of her two dozen times daily for a week on a floor mattress; she was fed rice and curried fish and did not leave the room, sickly rays of sun filtering through the grimy-window over the crumpled pile of clothes and underwear she didn’t bother to put back on, never knowing when the next one might show up, as he swam in a muddy pond and shrieking village children poked and prodded at his flaccid skin, then at the headman’s house he sat on a floormat scooping up unrecognizable globs of food so spicy his eyes watered in steady streams, passing around Marlboro cigarettes and a bottle of Jack Daniels, the dozen men there quickly polishing off the bottle, everyone grinning at everyone, before falling asleep outdoors just after sunfall, waking at dawn to discover a column of tiny black ants running up his leg; he bathed in the pond and headed down another red backroad, as the Thai trader brought her back to the karaoke shack, where she collapsed into a dead sleep for a day and a half, after which her pubic hair was so gummy and matted that her sisters advised her to shave it off; besides, they said, tiny as she was, clients would like it, so she did, thereafter saving herself a good deal of chafing.