I read Tropic of Cancer for the first time when I was twenty-nine years old. There is no better time to read that book than on the cusp of your thirties. All the vitality of youth buoyed by a decade of adult experience. I haven’t re-read Tropic for about ten years. Funny, given how much of an outsized influence that had on my life. From Tropic I dove right into the rest of Henry Miller’s work, shamelessly mining for influences. Miller led me to Dostoevsky, but I could have found that old Russian anywhere. The real treasures were authors like Blaise Cendrars, the one-armed Swiss/French WWI veteran who wrote short, weird novels like Moravagine, about an anarchist dwarf with a penchant for cannibalism. And of course there’s Céline, whose influence on Miller’s writing is impossible to miss.
It’s both funny and tragic to think of how old I felt back then. How wise and world weary. How much I despaired at missed opportunities, ones that I would experience over and over again in the years to come.
Miller was 45 when Tropic was published.
Snow crystals whipped off a shelter berm, spraying across Ciuqak’s cheeks. He stuck his tongue out and snatched a piece that had landed in the crook of his mouth. The ice crunched as he folded it into what was left of the small hunk of seal fat he was chewing.
The fat in his mouth belonged to the same seal as the fat chewed by his son, his wife, and her sisters. Theirs too will be gone by the end of the day; soon after that their stomachs will complain of emptiness and those complaints will grow urgent. Unheeded, hunger will come up a man’s throat and eat away his face from the inside until nothing is left but skin and skull and dead eyes.
The animals of the great expanse had gone to sleep with the sun one month before. In lean seasons past Qerrataq, the village angakkuq or shaman, would travel under the ice to find a generous caribou willing to give of itself. Old age took her when the sun last dipped beyond the horizon. Without her, and with the other men consumed by fever, the village had only Ciuqak to rely on.
He stepped off into the purple shroud of winter’s midday. The snow barely gave way under the tangluk strapped to his feet. He shook his head at the everyday miracle, the magic in the broad shoes that prevented his weight from sinking him all the way to the top of his head.
The wind blew bitter and frigid. Cuiqak measured his breathing, in a cold snap like this a careless breath could freeze his throat up and kill him before he even started. The faint glow of midday ebbed as he crunched along the snowfields, pausing every so often to lean against his spear and listen to the dark. The cold did its work, creeping through his parka, stealing the heat from his body. Hours passed as Ciuqak drove deeper and deeper into the darkness.
A single snowflake tumbled into Ciuqak’s vision and chilled him from the inside. A storm could have come at any time, he knew this and had kept his fears to himself so as not to tempt the spirits. Other snowflakes soon followed on the back of the wind, filling his vision with sharp white cold. He gripped his spear and stood still in the storm. He should dig a shelter, anything else would be suicide, but that prudence would also be a kind of murder. Ciuqak weighed the two crimes and made his decision. He crunched toward a stand of trees—he wasn’t the only thing that would seek refuge in a storm.
One of the trees ahead shook, dumping a loaded branchful of snow to the ground. A spark of hope ignited inside Ciuqak’s chest but he snuffed it, wary of giving his wishes away, even to himself. He gripped his spear and approached.
A low voice sung out, its words carried in the howls of the wind, Hunter, what do you seek in this storm, so far from your village?
Ciuqak willed his wishes to stay buried in his throat, to give them away would doom him. Everybody knew that speaking what you wished for was the surest way to be denied that thing. Hunger, hearing Ciuqak’s struggle, stirred in his belly, poking him cruelly and nipping at the meat on his ribs. A desperate plan sprung into Ciuqak’s mind and after a long pause he allowed himself to speak.
“I am cold, Brother Caribou. Would you give your warmth to me so that I may survive the night?”
The wind whistled while the caribou stirred under his shelter. I can give you what you want, but all things come with a price. Are you willing to pay whatever I ask of you?
Ciuqak nodded, and told his body to be still.
Then come to me, child. Let your spirit climb into my body so that my fur can protect you from the wind. You will live as a caribou and when the storm clears we will find our herd.
The caribou shook its head, there was to be no return.
Ciuqak kneeled in the snow. The wind burst into an angry howl, buffeting the stand of trees. The landscape faded away until there was nothing to see but the dull purple glow of the spirit world.
A rush of warmth enveloped Ciuqak’s body, a body different than the one he had lived in all his life. He moved his head and felt the weight of his antlers and again quieted his thoughts in case Brother Caribou could hear them.
Without thought to announce his intentions, Ciuqak pushed his new body to its feet and waded into the deep snow, sinking to his chest so that he looked like a fur-covered canoe lost in a great white sea.
Where are you going? Brother Caribou’s voice rang in Ciuqak’s ears. His legs buckled underneath him, pulled between the two wills trying to command them. With an unworded prayer, Ciuqak wrested control of his legs from the spirit who had so generously given of its body. They walked through the long night until the dark blue glow of day once again washed over the land.
At long last the smell of smoke curled its way into Ciuqak’s nostrils. The odor caused a lightning edge of fear to run through his bones, fear born of reflexes owned by Brother Caribou, reflexes that Ciuqak steeled himself against as he forced his legs forward.
Over the shelter berm ahead lie what remained of Ciuqak’s village. Ciuqak’s wife and boy and his aunts and his sick brothers. His legs were caught fast, his will too weak to push himself any further forward.
Unable to move, Ciuqak began to grunt with Brother Caribou’s voice. The sound was faint but carried on the wind. He silenced his hopes before they could form words to foil the plan.
Another smell assaulted his nostrils, the pungent musk of humanity. Brother Caribou fought for control of his voice but the conflict only served to make the beast sound like it was crying out in pain. Movement came over the top of the shelter berm.
Ciuqak called down his brothers’ spears. Sharpened bone pierced his flesh, to the eager shouts of the family he had saved. With his last thought Ciuqak thanked Brother Caribou for his great sacrifice.
A few months after the world ended Sam lost his cat. She was not his cat in the same way that his friends, relatives, and possessions were once his; she was his cat because they knew each other and that meant a lot when there weren’t a lot of others left to know anymore.
Sam paced the perimeter of his camp, kicking at the scrub brush. At the halfway point he leaned on the dessicated trunk of a tall spruce and gathered his strength, sucked in a lungful of air and cried out, “Eileen! Come on, kittykittykit–.”
The exertion triggered a coughing fit, bringing him to his knees while a sea of sparkles flooded his vision. It would be at least a few minutes before he’d be ready to try a stunt like that again. There was a rustle in the distance, enough to prick up his ears. She couldn’t be in any better shape than he was. CO2 levels might have been lower here than they were in the cities—the saving grace for him (and Eileen) but he still had trouble exerting himself for more than a few seconds before the headaches started.
The stack of oxygen tanks next to Sam’s tent made the camp look like a well-stocked survival redoubt. Rows and rows of scarce oxygen, the cure to what ailed him and the rest of the world—and Eileen wherever she was. He’d dutifully resisted cracking the seal on even one them. That’s how it starts, one exception begets another and before long you might as well not have had any rules to begin with. If the rest of the world could have stuck to a basic set of rules he and Eileen wouldn’t even be in this position.
Sam had one simple rule: No access to the tanks until he found a way to refill them.
Anything else would be a capitulation. An admission to the universe that he was content to idle his time away and accept his death.
A weak mew drifted through the clearing.
Sam grabbed a withered shrub and shook it with just enough force to make noise. Another, weaker mew came from off near the tanks. He pulled himself up to his feet, stars still dancing at the edges of his vision, the dull thunking in his head amplified. A few agonizing steps were all he needed to take. Then he’d be close to the tanks, closer to wherever Eileen was hiding.
“It’s okay, you idiot cat, I’m coming,” he mumbled.
When Sam first set up camp in the clearing, atmospheric oxygen levels had been high enough for him to perform basic tasks. He was puttering around securing the oxygen tanks when Eileen had come strolling through like she owned the place, field mouse in her teeth, proud and loud. He made a trill whistle and her eyes lit up with an eerie comprehension. She dropped the mouse at his feet and nudged it with her paw. Unexpected tears filled Sam’s eyes and he found himself reduced to a sobbing mess by the gesture. Eileen, being a cat, purred in response. She pushed her little body against his legs, revving her engine, nosing him. She was the only living thing he’d seen since the world fell apart, back then he’d only just escaped from the city. The odd plane still flew overhead. It was still possible to pretend the catastrophe could reverse course, but that was before the air got so thin that shouting was enough to bring him to his knees.
Sam hobbled to the stack of tanks, bracing himself against the straps that held them together. He stepped around to see Eileen laying on her side, glaring in his direction. Sam sat down next to her and ran his hand along her dirty fur.
“I could have run a line into our tent, you know?” He said, staring up at the sky. “I didn’t want to make it too easy to use all the air.”
She mewed again and Sam felt the vibrations of a weak purr as she pushed her head against his leg. Sam ran his knuckle along the bridge of her nose. He eyed the latch he would have to unclasp to free one of the tanks, then the coil of rubber hose and the clamps and the nozzle.
Sam strained to move Eileen onto his lap and succeeded in getting her most of the way there.
Together they slept.
The realization hit Damon so hard he totally lost track of the story his mother was reading him.
“He’s a sorcerer, huh?” Damon asked, sitting upright in the bed.
“A what? Oh no, nothing at all like–.”
“You just said it. He levitated on water.”
“He walked on water.” His mother’s tone shifted downward, her patience thinning.
Damon knew better than to get into an argument during Bible time. He nodded and assured her that he understood and topped it off with a good hug. The storm cloud cleared from his mother’s eyes and she went on to read the rest of the verse, which contained even more magic, which he heroically resisted pointing out.
They said a short prayer and his mother finished tucking him in. The lights went out, the door shut, but Damon’s eyes remained wide open, locked on the ceiling. This was huge. Why hadn’t he been able to connect the dots before? Magic was actually real. Hoo boy, if he could learn to levitate he’d probably be the most popular kid at school.
That night Damon Jones decided that he would become a wizard, just like Jesus.
The next morning Damon grabbed his mother’s wide mouthed planter bucket from the garage and hauled it into the back yard. The pipes rattled when he turned on the hose. No movement at his parents’ window, the coast was still clear.
Now for the hard part. Damon rolled his pant legs up and placed one foot on top of the water, just enough to get his sole wet. He put on his best concentration face and leaned in. His foot sunk, splashing water all over his jeans and making it look like he’d peed himself.
What would Jesus do?
He’d try again, that’s what he’d do.
Damon stepped out of the bucket, topped it up, and this time he put a very small bit of his weight on the foot. He sunk again, but only a little, maybe an eighth of an inch before he started to feel some resistance.
“Damon, what the heck are you doing down there?” His mother was staring down from her bedroom window.
Damon’s concentration broke and his foot sank down in the tub, splashing water everywhere. His mother shook her head and turned, saying something to his dad.
“You better clean that mess out of the driveway before breakfast,” she said, then shut the window.
Fine by him, that meant he had at least another hour of practice. He went to it.
The water levitation turned out to be pretty easy once he got the hang of it. He learned other tricks too, like the time his parents took him to Sorrento’s and he kept breaking up the breadsticks but they never ran out. When his parents didn’t notice he considered calling attention to his new skills but remembered his mother’s reaction to the sorcerer comment and decided to keep his mouth shut.
In fact, he hadn’t told anybody yet. He wanted to at first but water levitation and bread multiplication, neat as they were, just didn’t have much pizazz. He needed a good trick, something with a bang. Something that would put Jesus to shame.
Finally, one Sunday when summer was almost at an end the Jones family pulled into the church parking lot. Damon strained against his seatbelt in anticipation. It was finally time. He had been working on his magic all summer. Man, his parents were gonna be blown away.
The pastor was greeting parishioners one by one at the church door. “Mr. and Mrs. Jones, oh and Damon.” He leaned down. “How are you this fine Sunday?”
“Pastor? Can I show you something?”
“Damon, the pastor is busy. Whatever it is can wait until after the service,” his mother said, putting her hand on his shoulder.
“It’s okay, Mrs. Jones. What is it you’d like to show me Damon?”
Damon took a deep breath.
“Step back, everybody.”
The adults smiled at each other and made a show of spreading out so that he had room to move.
Damon closed his eyes and concentrated. The air filled with the hum of electricity. Adult whispers hissed all around him. Damon scrunched his face up as hard as he could, mustering all his will—until his feet left the ground.
The whispers turned to shouts and gasps.
Damon wasn’t done. He spread his hands, pulling electricity from the air all around him, sending it back and forth in wide arcs around his floating body. The crowd below had gone silent, staring up at him in awe. Then, gently, he let go of the electricity and floated back down to the ground.
“Pretty cool, huh?”
The pastor ran up to him with wide, terrified eyes.
“You must go! It’s not at all safe for you here. Mrs. Jones, how could you let him–?”
“We didn’t know.” His mother’s voice trembled in a way that made Damon’s heart sink. Why was everybody so upset?
“Oh, no,” the pastor said, barely moving his lips. His eyes were locked on the church steeple. “It’s too late.”
The air crackled with electricity again, but this time Damon had nothing to do with it. A flash of light erupted at the peak of the church spire and when it cleared a robed man floated in the air, arms down, palms outward. He drifted toward where Damon stood, touching down on the pavement a few yards away.
“Who challenges Jesus?” The man’s voice boomed, “Ready yourself.”
Damon wriggled his fingers, causing sparks to dance across his knuckles. He spent the whole darned summer learning this stuff, he wasn’t gonna be bullied now.
“Ready as I’ll ever be, Jesus.”
The little church was left in splintered ruin. The parking lot’s remaining cars were now a frozen tidal wave of melted and cooled scrap, trickling toxic electric-fire fumes into the air.
The duel had lasted five days.
At its end, man and boy stood facing one another in quiet stalemate, clothes long since burnt away, the ground scorched black all around them.
Jesus extended a scarred palm to Damon, who took it grudgingly.
“A draw then?”
“Sure, Jesus. We can call it a draw.”
That year Damon was the most popular kid in school. Jesus’s reputation, however, never fully recovered.
The hard crack of a breakshot echoed over a crowd of murmuring fishermen all belly-pressed to the bar. The men were flannel clad, their fingers stained with engine dirt and yellowed with nicotine. Interesting swears bounced between the brags and complaints like the balls scattering on the felt a few yards away.
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The line of pilgrims stretched all the way down the mountain. They came to pay respects to the monks who dedicated their lives to the faith.
“They come up here to curry favor with the universe,” Bodhi grumbled.
“No different than us,” Naga said in that infuriating somnambulant tone of his. “We’re used to it, that’s all.” He smiled with pursed lips, slowly extending his smirk so that the corners of his mouth reached almost to his ears.
“Don’t do that in front of the faithful, they’ll tell the others they saw a demon.”
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The road was like he remembered. Red dirt fenceposted by oaks and green shrubs. He leaned forward in his seat at every bend in case it was the one. The church was familiar. He passed a wrought iron archway and slammed the brakes, reversed, and turned toward his uncle Warner’s farm.
“Well I’ll be,” Warner called out from the porch. “Tommy come here so I can get a look at you.”
They shook hands. There had never been a time when his uncle’s handshakes hadn’t made him feel miniscule.
“Opal, Tommy’s here! She’ll be out in a minute. Was the trip down alright?” His uncle smiled with that broad grin of his.
“Had a blowout near Albuquerque but triple A took care of it,” Tommy said, retrieving his battered hand.
“Stayin’ a while?”
Tommy looked down at his uncle Warner’s feet, both of which were sunk deep in the red soil. Safe here. A place that had always been waiting for him to return.
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The register dinged. A dozen eggs, jug of milk, some apples came down the conveyor belt. Robbie hustled, flipping the milk jug over, gently setting it into the open bag in front of him. Eggs to the side. Apple bag given a quick twist to secure its contents. His hands moved on their own, they knew the job better than he did.
Robert. Rob. A few times Bob. His name tag said Robert. Nobody had ever asked him but he preferred Robbie. That’s what he’d have someone call him if they ever asked but no one ever did, until Benjamin.
Circumstances were different with Benjamin. His hands were tied behind his back, for one. And he’d been in the basement for more than six hours by the time it happened. Six hours is a short shift at the grocery store. It’s a bus ride to Des Moines or a movie marathon. Six hours is barely any time at all in the grand scheme of things. Robbie’s basement was not the grand scheme of things.
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A gust of wind howled through the stairwell. Bill paused, shut the door, and savored a few seconds of warmth before pushing forward again. Outside on the street it was even worse. The wind greedily leeched the heat from Bill’s body as soon as he left the vestibule.
“That’s it Harry, I’m moving to California. Last straw.” Bill dusted his jacket like he was beating the cold away.
Harry waved him off. “Yeah, yeah. You’d be pining for New York before your luggage came off the carousel.”
Several triads of software developers were huddled around the office in standup meetings. The sales team were all headsetted up, making their first calls for the day.
“Maybe I’ll get a place in Venice. On the beach.”
Harry wasn’t even looking at him anymore.
“Serious. I have a cousin in–.”
“Go get a bowl of hot noodles or something. You’re hangry and cold and your beach fantasies bore me.”
Bill’s stomach rumbled on queue.
“It’s too early for soup. . . .” he trailed off. Harry’d stopped paying attention completely. He was battering the keyboard, staring through the screen. Bill zipped his jacket back up and turned toward the door.
From behind him Harry called out, “Go to Lam Zhou. Get the dragon soup.” The clatter of Harry’s keyboard continued uninterrupted.
The noodle shop was the size of a California walk-in closet, a New York studio apartment, or a wide parking spot. The place had too many tables to fit its space but too few to seat the crowd.
Bill shouldered up to the counter and ordered a bowl of dragon soup. Twenty bucks! Nothing on the menu was more than six. Hell, you’d get eighteen dumplings for six bucks. The beef noodle soup was four dollars. This shit better be made with real dragons.
A surly man with clown baldness clattered the bowl on the counter. Bill dug a twenty from his wallet and jabbed it at the guy hoping for at the very least an apologetic shrug. Clown Bald whisked the banknote from the counter and disappeared into the back after a pile of noodle dough.
The soup was dark and had bits of leaf floating between thick white noodles. The smell was between peppercorn and smoke. Bill’s stomach growled. He stuck a spoon in and went to work.
The broth hit his mouth like liquid fire. Hot not heat-hot and not even spicy hot just somehow hot. Bill’s first instinct was to spit the mouthful back into the bowl but to his surprise he swallowed it down. The fire burned all the way to his belly but he had no time to even consider the carnage in his guts because he’d already filled his mouth with another spoon of soup. Smoke like a tea plantation fire; heat like jealousy. The edges of Bill’s vision blurred leaving only the rapidly disappearing bowl of soup. He shoveled, unable to stop.
Bill pushed the empty bowl back. He leapt up and ran into the street before he’d got his coat zipped up. The cool air floated past leaving him unmolested.
“The fuck, Harry. Twenty bucks.”
“Chill. You want a coffee?” Harry bee lined for the break room. “One sugar, right?” He was around the corner before Bill could answer.
Bill dug through his emails; dutifully replying, forwarding, carbon copying. The warm rumble in his stomach wasn’t going away. He put his hand to his belly but jerked it away quick. Hot. Like stovetop hot.
“Goddamnit!” He yelped in surprise.
Harry set a cup of coffee on Bill’s desk. Bill was about to give Harry a good earbashing over the soup and the hot belly and whatever the fuck was happening to his body but his stomach had declared emergency. He ran to the bathroom not knowing which direction the soup would take on its way out, only that an exit was inevitable.
Bill locked the door behind him and fell to his knees in front of the toilet. His body convulsed and the ball of heat and smoke worked its way up his esophagus with agonizing slowness. He opened his mouth and a sharp teakettle hiss escaped followed by billowing smoke and what felt like an owl’s pellet full of feathers and bones wriggled from his throat, blocking his air. Bill panicked, grasping the side of the toilet, frozen in fear.
A convulsion racked Bill’s chest.
The blockage cleared. Air rushed into his lungs.
A snake, about a foot long, sat coiled on the toilet seat. Bill backpedaled and fumbled at the door handle which he’d locked a few seconds before. The snake shifted revealing several sets of small legs and its head was not the head of a snake at all but more like a crocodile’s with tiny little deer antlers on top.
Then it spoke.
“Hurry! Hide me in your shirt and let’s get out of here, I’ll explain on the way.” The snake thing sprung from the toilet seat to land on Bill’s arm, its six legs gripped his sleeve like monkey hands. The thing reared its head and looked directly into Bill’s eyes. “Come on, there’s not a lot of time!”
The eye contact shocked Bill into averting his gaze. He met eyes with his own reflection in the bathroom mirror and stood stunned at the image. The snake with feet and antlers glared impatiently. Confusion fucked up Bill’s fear instinct. He mumbled, “Climb in, I guess?”
The thing wriggled into his shirt. Bill braced himself for sharp claws and gross reptile skin but there was only the hint of a warm breeze under his shirt. He patted himself down, double checked the mirror, wondered if he’d imagined the whole thing, ignored the implications if he did, and left the bathroom.
“Let’s ditch,” the voice whispered from under his clothes. “Get your stuff, we’ve gotta blow this popsicle stand, man.”
Bill snatched his coat.
“Early lunch?” Harry asked, eyes on screen. Bill could have sworn there was a smirk relaxing at the edge of Harry’s mouth.
The sun was out which made things bright but in no way warm. A cluster of cars sped down East Broadway kicking up a frigid breeze in their wake.
“What do you want?” Bill hissed through chattering teeth.
“Same thing as you new buddy.” The voice was familiar, friendly. Like a college roommate or that one dude who played acoustic guitar and always had great weed. “I want to go to California.”
“What in the hell are you?” Bill jogged toward the subway entrance.
Bill paused hoping the word would find another to connect with in his head. After a few moments, “A dragon who—correct me if I’m wrong—came from soup and wants to go to California?”
“I’ve been working on a screenplay but never mind that, like we both want the same thing right? We can help each other out.”
A train pulled into the station.
“Wow,” the dragon said, “that’s loud. Why don’t they fix the brakes on these things?”
Bill pressed into the car, it was shoulder to shoulder.
“Psst,” the dragon whispered. “Can we get off at the next stop? It’s way too crowded in here, I’m gonna suffocate.”
They came up the stairs at Delancey to find the wind had not slowed or warmed in the last twenty minutes. Maybe it was residual warmth from the subway but the wind didn’t penetrate his jacket. The apartment was only ten or twelve blocks away. Maybe he’d just walk.
“So uh, dragon, how are you going to help me get to California then?”
“I’ve got a name.”
Touchy little prick.
They walked to Chrystie and cut down through the park.
“Steven. That’s my name. I figured you would ask but since you didn’t: Steven.” The dragon gasped in shock, “That’s garbage, piled up on the sidewalk? Ungh, I hate this city. How can you live here? Those trains? The crowds?”
“What’s this about helping me get to California?”
“Helping you? Whoa you got that wrong. No man you buy the ticket and we fly out and I work some dragon shit when we get there. I’m like genetically super charged good luck. So if you want we can go to Vegas for a sick party weekend and make a bajillion bucks on the craps tables. Promise, it’s like money in the bank. If you’re into it we can get hookers and shit too but for reals, you gotta buy those tickets before we can do this thing.”
The wind blew hard but the cold (again) didn’t penetrate Bill’s jacket. He stepped aside as a delivery guy on an electric bike cut across his path. Barely any breeze at all.
“So we hit your place and get some tickets and then pack your shit and get a cab to the airport. Clean break. This is your chance.”
“You’re warm, you know that? I’m warm right now and you’re under my jacket so that must be you?”
“Yeah, I’m a d-r-a-g-o-n.”
A fishmonger dumped a bucket of ice onto the sidewalk. Two Chinese aunties shouldered past Bill to get a look at an open box of long jawed silver fish. The rank smell of cut durian assaulted his nostrils but instead of triggering the usual annoyance it filled him with a sense of home.
“Buddy, er, Steven? You want to stay tucked in my jacket for a bit?”
Harry peeked over his monitor. “How was the soup?”
“Still moving to California?”
“Nah, you were right about that. Something tells me I’d really hate California. Thanks for the advice by the way. The soup warmed me right up.”
“I know, man.” Kevin’s typing stopped, leaving an eerie silence between them. “I was in the same headspace last week man and Ben in marketing told me about the Lam Zhou thing. Dragon soup.”
“Cure for the winter blahs.”
“You got that right, man.”
A muffled grunt came from under Bill’s shirt. He reached inside and pulled Steven’s head out to check that his airways weren’t blocked and readjusted the tiny ball gag to keep his grumbling quiet. Perfect. He stuffed the silenced dragon back into his shirt.
Harry made a knowing look.
Bill grinned, slipped his headphones on and started work on his emails. He had almost a whole day’s worth to catch up on.
The woman is a spindly monster. She has that ruddy overdosed on the tropics look white people get after a few months in the country. A Thai in his thirties is walking up the beach with these glow lamp things attached to each other on a string. The monster woman lurches forward and snatches them from his hand.
The guy is thin. The hunger in his eyes maybe is from speed. He’s been carrying those fucking lamps up and down the beach all night. He tells the woman that they cost 50 baht.
She’s screaming at him, holding the lamps away in her other hand like a schoolyard bully. He steps back to the edge of the light and lowers himself onto his haunches, waiting.
She spins the lamps in wide arcs that are somehow out of time with the music. Her husband slouches further down in his beach chair. The lazy grin on his face might obscure a grimace. She stumbles. Everybody’s hoping she falls into the fire but no luck. Her foot slams into a big bottle of beer which makes a satisfying thunk. She hops around on one foot for a little while. The Thai man wipes sand from his face and moves his crouch a little further back.
A tourist kid is now waving 100 baht in the Thai man’s face. He’s screaming over the music and making an exaggerated marijuana pantomime with his other hand. A couple minutes later there’s a handoff.
The kid settles a few meters away. He passes the joint around to his friends. A new guy shows up and the kid points him to the Thai man. He’s doing that pantomime again.
“Bon,” the Thai man says when the guy introduces himself. The single syllable of his name is short and ends with a swallowed n. The kid chortles, repeats it back, this time making a swirling motion with his lighter hand. “Like Bong! This guy’s name is B-O-N-G!” He gives a thumbs up. His friends cheer.
The lady has dropped the lamps. Bon skirts the shadows, moving toward his property. The woman is standing upright, slumped forward like a sleeping horse. He’s close. One of the lamps flickers when he touches the string. The woman lurches to attention. Now she’s screaming at the top of her lungs, spittle is hitting Bon on the cheek. She swings the lamps above her head like a gladiator. Thock. One of the glowing bulbs bounces off Bon’s head. He smiles with his mouth only. Backs away.
The lady moves, swinging the lamps close to her husband but he passed out a while ago. The balls of light whoosh past his open mouth in long arcs. The lady laughs in these intensifying fits. She loses her balance, falls in a heap. There’s a muffled pop. She landed on one of the glow bulbs.
Her face freezes in confusion. Time comes to a halt. The confusion turns to horror. Her face is twisted but no noise has yet escaped. The potheads nearly beat her to the punch, erupting into a chorus of guffaws right as she starts screaming. Now everybody’s looking. The guys that have been hanging out on that big driftwood log are staring in silence. They had happy shakes earlier and are trying to figure out if this is all a dream.
The husband is awake now. He’s at his wife’s side. Three of the beach boys from behind the bar are approaching. Everybody around the woman is moving in little jerks. Too much speed. You can almost hear their teeth grinding.
And she’s up.
A wide streak of blood and sand runs down her leg from just under the ass. She’s blubbering, gingerly brushing against the cut, trying to get a better look without falling over. The beach boys are helping her to the parking lot.
Bon stretches like a cat. He takes a few glances across the crowd. They’re busy retelling the scene, sculpting the memory. One of the lamps is still on. He winds the string, pulls out a new bulb and goes to work. When he’s done he kicks sand over the broken glass before giving the repaired globes a little test drive. The stoners applaud.
A few minutes later he walks up the beach to see if anybody else wants to dance with the glowing lights.
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