Jockk Brand vs. the Man at the Top of the Stairs
and Other Men Hiding in the Shadows in the Garden
Evening. Icy Cafe, Street of the Monkeys, Phom Phen.
By Dag Walker
By 9:00 p.m the temperature had dropped to the low 100s in the city. Seated on a quiet back street outside of Icy Cafe, a small group of young backpackers and a few older ex-pats sat sipping beer and rum and smoking endless cigarettes, sweating heavily under the dim pig-tail light bulb above the low doorway of the cafe. To the left of the door the cafe owner Sanju, a former computer consultant from New Delhi, had placed two cheap tin tables and a small stack of white, molded plastic chairs that tended to buckle in the heat and under the weight of foreigners who were enveloped scalp to soles in thin coats of sweat. “Cept the old guy. He didn’t sweat at all.
John Bohn sat close to the doorway, his back to the overhead light, the others illuminated poorly but well enough to see from up close, even the utterly strange young man who tried to hang back from the group by sitting at the far edge of the circle, away from the others in the fringe of shadow. Bohn examined him carefully without a sign of his interest showing. Bohn sat in his chair relaxed and easy, close and comfortable with a young red-haired Australian woman he’d met the day before, Lorna, at 35, half Bohn’s age.
Bohn dressed casually in a light brown cotton shirt, denim pants, and black leather shoes. Lorna wore a white cotton blouse and pale shorts, sandals. She was soft and stark white; Bohn was thin and tanned. Lorna’s long red hair cascaded down her back in waves, while Bohn’s short gray hair laid close on his scalp. Lorna looked and contemplated; Bohn looked and assessed: he made decisions.
Bohn made a decision that evening, one that he had made only a few times over the course of a career that spanned 45 years.
Tin ashtrays overflowed with smoldering cigarette butts, and the smoke hung like a nebula in the heavy air, heat rose from the cash concrete tiles of the patio, and spilled beer and rum evaporated on the tin table-tops. Sweat dripped, and light from the street lamp barely reached the sidewalk cafe and its denizens. Someone flipped a bent metal beer bottle cap onto the street between a cheap broken-down Chinese-made tuk-tuk and a new Rolls Royce parked at the curb down the street. The younger ones at the cafe didn’t notice the gray-haired woman on the street in the darkness, a long bamboo pole over one shoulder, woven palm-leaf baskets of bananas at each end. She stood silent in her pajamas, white shirt, and black pants, rubber tire sandals, her black eyes looking away. The young travelers press sweat from their eyebrows and wicked away sweat from their chins. They sipped their drinks and laughed and smoked and inhaled unknowing the sweet scent of bougainvillea wafting from a vacant lot down the street.
Conversations rose and fell, spirits soared and dove according to the state of various flirtations, hopes and fears, resignations, chatter harmless, meaningless, convivial, and eternally youthful. Bohn put his arm around Lorna’s shoulders, her damp skin suddenly cooled under Bohn’s sinuous hold. Lorna stared straight ahead, her blue eyes fixed.
“John,” she said without looking at him, “I’d like to try a shot of True Manhood. Can you fix it for me?”
San interrupted, saying, “No one here drinks that, Miss Lorna. The label says it is whiskey, but it is rum. It’s the worst there is in the whole nation. Please let me make you a shot of Black Flag, a far better drink that won’t make you blind.”
Bohn laughed. He reached across the table to the tin bowl of melting ice-cubes and plucked out a small ember, which he pinched between his thumb and forefinger as he drew it up Lorna’s leg from the inside of her knee up her thigh. Her lips parted as the shock of the ice spread into her belly. She saw Bohn’s smile, a dazzling assortment of metal teeth gold and silver and brass. She rubbed a long, deep scar on his forearm, felt the muscle in his arm, his shoulder, in his chest. “Lorna,” he said, touching her chin with his fingertips, “The night is still young, but the tock is clicking.”
Lorna closed her eyes; she saw an old woman in pajamas and a conical bamboo hat standing in the darkness watching.
Lorna saw an old woman toting baskets of bananas in the night, the air filled with the scent of meat and fruit roasting on palm leaves over a charcoal fire, the smoke flowing freely, enticing people to come out of their homes to eat and mingle in the peace of a still evening under a starless, moonless night. Lorna saw a man twice her age sitting close beside her, his arms like steel cables, his face both fierce and passionate, his eyes loving and deadly. ‘He’s old,’ she thought, ‘But he has the power of lightning bolts.’ She saw strength and seduction and death, all rolled up and put into twin baskets at the ends of a pole, not fully aware of the absence of five million souls whispering in the ear of a ghostly woman wandering the earth in fear of fate and time. Bohn gazed on, not a hint of thought, not a thought of a feeling. The unseen remained unseen, hanging thick in the air like the scent of ripe mangoes and the agony.
A large shiny black beetle landed on its back and spun in a tight circle as it tried to right itself. The beetle blinked its wings like an eye seeking escape from a dark surround. The old lady saw a young woman in the village looking and nodding. She saw the girl mumbling and pointing. She saw her shaking her fist and shouting. The beetle spun and spun, but there was no righting it. It spun round and round on the Street of the Monkeys, and no one noticed but an old man who had no opinion about such things as absence and agony.
Lorna shifted her weight to her hip and leaned into Bohn, her breast gently brushing his arm. Again, she felt the coolness of his skin, the hardness of his muscle. She smiled at Bohn and asked, loudly enough for the group to hear, “Tell me, Mr. Bohn: What kind of man were you? I mean, when you were young?”
Bohn laughed slightly, amused by the lady’s guile. Addressing the assembled crowd of young backpackers and stray ex-pats lost in the wind of modern anomie, he spoke clearly, a hint of humor in his voice.
“What kind of man was I when I was young?” He smiled, seemingly all of his metal teeth gleaming in the dull light above the cafe doorway. “That’s simple enough: I was cruel to the women I loved; I was worse to the men I hated.”
Demure, coquettish. Lorna said, “Have you ever killed anyone, Mr. Bohn?”
Those assembled stopped their conversations and put down their cell phones. The looked at the old man closely, anticipating. Some felt a moment of nervous sickness, embarrassment in the presence of one singled out for treatment better left in private, but a thrill of dirty discovery about to fall before them to examine for the first time in their lives, if only perhaps. Maybe the man in front of them was really just some old man, a gray and tired thing living out his last in the heat and cheap.
Bohn slowly leaned forward in his chair till his hard belly was resting against the edge of the tintable. He placed both hands on the tabletop, palms facing upward, his gaze moving from the eyes of each person to the next, having taken the time to see into them and know them as well as can a man. Without saying a word, he’d convinced them all. But then he spoke.
Bohn remained silent for a long moment and then spoke in a burst: “Yes, I’ve killed thousands. Bored them to death. Every one of ‘em.”
The group took in his tale and burst into laughter as Bohn ran the sharp corner of a fingernail up the inside of Lorna’s thigh. Her whole leg twitched and nearly knocked over a dozen beer bottles and half-empty glasses on the shaky tabletop. She slowly folded one bare leg over the other till her toes poked into Bohn’s calf.
‘He’s old,’ she thought, ‘but he’s like a naked bull straining here.’ He smelled like war and glory, she thought; he felt like gold and fire. ‘He’s got to be a hundred.’ Lorna shook her head, and as she did she realized that her hair flew about her like a tempest tossing a ship charging into a darkling sea.
Bohn leaned back in his chair, relaxed and happy. He slapped the tabletop with the tips of his fingers and said, “Sanju, I want to impress this young lady with the depth of my affection and devotion. I believe that she would respond favorably were I to present her with a bouquet of flowers.”
San nodded his head almost imperceptibly, not sure, uncommitted, mostly willing to believe.
“You know the city well, my friend. Tell me, where can I find the nearest cemetery?”
When the laughter died, Bohn caught the eye of the young man hanging back from the group by sitting in the near shade beyond the circle of travelers gathered in the evening at Icy Cafe.
The young man sat as far from the group as space would allow, his back pressed into a hibiscus bush in bloom, blue petals sticking to the young man’s sweat-soaked shirt. He was in his early 20s, his short dark hair soft curls, his figure trim and athletic, his movements cat-like. What caught the attention of all those seated at the cafe that evening was the man’s face, one so strikingly beautiful that he was a horror to look at. The young man’s beauty was unnatural and both hypnotically entrancing and yet because of it, repulsive as if a vision of a Snake in the Garden.
With Lorna looking at a vein on Bohn’s neck, Bohn looked the young man in the eye and said, “And what about you, sir? Tell us a bit about yourself.” It was a challenge, and all those present knew it instantly. They looked at the young man, wondering how he would respond, what he would say, what his voice would reveal about his being, and what his lies would reveal about the truth. The man seated in the shadows had the looks of Lucifer. He was dead beautiful, and he felt like he was in the cross-hairs of a photographic sniper.
“What’s your name?” the old man said, not a question at all. ‘Tell us your deepest thoughts on the nature of things. But, most importantly, tell us what is the worst thing you’ve ever done in your whole life!”
A fine game, and one between two men who were born to fight bare and bloody. The young blonde girl from America hadn’t taken her eyes off the man since she’d sat in with the group an hour earlier. She barely heard the questions, and she barely understood the sense. She just stared as the young man said, “My name is Jay Bea.”
Once he’d spoken the spell was broken, and then the group felt at ease to examine him closely like a secret finally revealed that all could, at last, admit to knowing. His beauty, as all had known to be, was obscene, and all the more so because they all wanted to look at it long and deep, to stare and search each detail without end in a state of endless soul desire.
Though Jay Bea was young, he had been in serious hard situations before, and, though he was untalented at dealing with such things, he’d learned long ago that flight was as impossible and as victory was unimaginable. There was nothing to do in the face of a crowd but to say and to be and to accept the sounds and sights of the beings surrounding. He considered his performance to this point, believing that he had probably convinced some of his names. ‘I could go far,’ he thought.
Jay Bea was on the witness stand facing strangers who held his fate in their hands. The fate of the entire world seemed to depend on Bea delivering a convincing account of his life and time, all faces watching, all minds thinking only of his words, his presentation of the way of the known world in this benighted time at the end of times indeed for sure. Presidents and Kings and Tyrants would know of this speech, and Bea’s lines would be recited and analyzed for eternity. Worlds in a collision, galaxies in proximity to black holes, everything was all about Bea. God Himself paused from tea to attend the telly to see.
Bohn didn’t tune in: he was more interested in Lorna’s earlobe, which he bit a bit and sucked. The others at Icy Cafe set aside their cell phones and stared at Bea, so, so pretty.
Bea cleared his throat and sipped his glass of water. He stared into space and said to the assembly of the universe: “My deepest belief is that being kind is nice, and that is why I am kind. Being nice is pretty.”
The stress had nearly killed him, but Bea managed to hide his terror behind a gaze that trained professionals would have diagnosed as psychopathic. Bea worked up a smile, proving himself to be a nice person and a kind one. The young travelers all immediately reached for their cell phones. Bea was momentarily relieved, only to be hauled up from the depths and crushed by brutal reality: Bohn spoke again, saying, “Oh, surely there is more, Mr. Bea.” Bohn spoke almost directly into Lorna’s ear, his lips an inch away. “You must believe that a man is deeper than that, and that you are deeper than most. Tell us more.”
Bea sucked in his breath and folded his arms over his chest, blocking the next incoming blow as well as he could, defenseless as he was, wishing he had a clear field of combat in which he would have broken the old man’s neck.
The old Khmer woman in the shadows tilted her thin, wrinkled neck, listening to the hum of cicadas and the deadly whispering of ghosts in the towering bamboo grove on the riverside.
The pretty blond girl from Toronto leaned forward to stare at Bea, her posture quite like a dentist. “Yes,” she gushed, “Tell us what you really believe.”
If the truth were known, Bea really believed in being left alone. He’s lived a lifetime of being stared at by strangers and touched by old ladies, cute girls, and creepy men who made obscene gestures with their lips.
Bea was generally private. But, in the night, at Icy Cafe, being with a group of young people much like himself, Bea realized his responsibility to act as a reasonable man among his fellows. He picked at the corner of an Angkor Beer label and struggled to think of some way to express what he truly believed, even though he was pretty certain that all of that could change if he thought about it or asked someone smarter than he.
“Ok, I believe,” Bea said, looking at Bohn, the man who had zero seeming intention to listen to a word from Bea, “I believe that a man should polish his own boots; that he should saddle his own horse; that he should clean his own rifle,” Bea said so and sat back, drained, having just exhausted his entire moral encyclopedia.
“Very good, Mr. Bea, now tell us about the worst thing you’ve ever done,” old Bohn said, barely breaking away from Lorna’s creamy white neck.
Three times and Bea was now facing the last, the hardest challenge of the evening. He knew he simply could not throw it all away and flee; and– Tampoco! –he could not leap up and slay the old man. Then, knowing the situation could not be otherwise without disgracing himself, Bea saw it as a plain at dusk, wide open and dust-blown, a place of eternal emptiness, a place like home. Bea’s heart rate slowed, his mind cleared of all conflicts and turmoil, and he spoke of the worst.
“I can’t think of anything really bad that I’ve done,” Bea said. The travelers at the cafe instantly lost interest in their fellow, and reached for their cell phones, boredom having hit them like a long, terrible day without electricity. “Nothing bad, except for maybe that one thing that one time.” Suddenly, the lights came back on in the minds of the young people at the cafe. ‘What?’ they wondered, ‘did he do?’
“Tell us, Mr. Bea, what did you do?”
Bea and Bohn faced off like two knife fighters in a dark parking lot, the quick and the ready. Bea’s eyes darkened as he readied his delivery. He considered his approach and his retreat and the likely moves of the old man. But Bea was bold and brave. He said, open and daring, “A waiter in a restaurant pissed me off one time. There was nothing I could do about it because it was a crowded place full of respectable folks and I was alone by myself. So,” Bea paused to gather his thoughts, which others took as pausing to build suspense, “I went to the can and pissed in his toilet,”
Bea’s delivery had been so filled with menace and implied violence that it took his audience a moment to realize the significance of his tale, at which point they all laughed out loud. All except the old man.
Bohn stroked Lorna’s soft inner thigh and tapped his forefinger on the tabletop, chewing his lip slightly, a show of intensity. “You are a frightening man, Mr. Bea. My only concern now is whether you flushed before you left.”
Bea shrugged, saying, “I’m not a savage.”
“Even so, Mr. Bea, I think some people will find you to be a scary fellow.”
Lorna slapped Bohn’s forearm and said, “Oooh, you’re a bad one!.”
“Some are bad and some are worse,” the old man said, hooking a strand of rich red hair behind Lorna’s ear, wiping up a droplet of sweat trickling down her neck.
“Worse once you get to know me.”
Lorna scowled slightly as she saw the old Khmer woman again, a shadow steeped in darkness. Her attention returned to Bohn, who said, “Not as bad as some, but maybe worse than most,” the old guy mused, his thoughts interrupted by the sudden burst of neon light from across the street, the opening of Hor Bunny Disco.
Close enough for Bea to throw a large stone, a shaven-headed farang of 350 pounds lolled over a chair on the raised patio beside a narrow door leading into a nightclub full of hopeful teenage girls in shiny plastic mini-skirts and see-through sleeveless blouses. The girls balanced on skyscraper high-heels, and somehow squirmed and shimmied without falling over as they fawned over the clot of a fat man glistening like a slug in a gas-light rain sweating, waving a fistful of dollar bills in the neon’s red glare, his fat maggot fingers red stained. Bohn and Bea exchanged glances, knowing they shared knowledge of the raw ways of man that few others had the stomach for.
The Estonian lad, drunk again as he had been for three nights running, ordered a round of drinks, which San rose to fill, even though the Estonian hadn’t paid any of his tabs to date. San disliked confrontations. He preferred his quiet life away from the madness of Delhi, the endless crowding, the total lack of room for himself, space for his own being. He owned a small hostel, a tiny cafe. He had a room.
“Not as bad as him,” Bohn whispered in Lorna’s ear.
San returned with a bottle of local hootch and a tin bowl of ice cubes that began to melt even as he placed it on the table, not noticing the absence of five million souls. A sudden breeze littered the tables and drinkers there with a shower of yellow petals from a nearby ginko balboa tree, its scent unpleasant, the color lovely.
A quiet and overweight young French girl with bad skin asked, “Why is there a bridge over the river there? It has no start and it goes to the other side where there is nothing there. Why anyone would build it there?”
To Bea, the answer was too obvious, and he blurted it out before he thought. “They built the bridge there so the chicken could get to the other side.”
Everyone laughed, including Bohn, and the young Canadian girl with the frown marks said to Bea, “I want to lick you all over.”
Bea was startled by the laughter, and then he realized he’s said something others found amusing. He decided to shift attention from himself in case those others expected him to say another funny thing, which he assumed was nearly impossible.
“What about you?” Bea said across the table, Bohn being his target. “Tell us about you.”
“Me?” he laughed. “I’m a boring old guy.”
Lorna thumped him hard with her fist, tiny and white as a dove.
“Alright, it’s simple. I was born at an early age. My dear mother loved me dearly. Often she used to say to me, ‘I love you dearly; now, take these scissors and run outside to play while I entertain a gentleman caller coming. Don’t worry ‘bout the missing porch plank: It’s fixed.’
Dear old ma, her memory was none too good. But, what the hey, a broken leg heals in six weeks, so let’s move on!
Yes, it’s true that mother loved me: Were it not for her, I might not have had sex at ten years old. True, I didn’t like it much; but mother said she’d buy cooking oil next time for the broom handle.
That time she shot me? Well, she served her time for it. Let’s give the poor souls abused by the system a chance to live better lives when they return to society. Why hold a grudge? At least she didn’t cut off my arm with a butcher knife,” he said, rubbing a long, thin scar on his forearm. “
All in good fun, everyone laughed, including Jay Bea, who had no idea what the others found funny.
“What happened? You don’t know the half of it,” Bohn said, shaking his head theatrically and clutching his face. “To start, my leg is so badly wrecked I’m not just crippled, I’m tripled. And my missing teeth, this lovely metallic smile? That was an incident involving an accident involving an automobile, in fact, a black Mercedes in which I was the sole passenger of men from Special Interrogations, my old mates, and an oft-times fine lot of folks. It all went so well for them till they stopped and opened the trunk.
Bohn realized that he had traveled too far into the past and had stumbled upon the firm ground; and so he tracked back to banter, looking sad, looking at a pile of cigarette butts in an overflowing ashtray. “Sometimes I hear a tiny, frightened voice in some dark corner of my mind, the voice crying feebly, a voice pathetic and alone. I’m damned if I have any idea what that voice is saying.”
Lorna used the palms of both hands on Bohn’s chest to push herself away from him. She said, in mock stunningness, “You’re old. You know stuff about stuff. Tell us what’s the one thing you think every modern goddess should know?”
“And every modern boy,” shouted the Estonian, listing far to portside in his chair.
“What should everyone know?” slurred the blond Canadian, barely aware of the chatter among traveling twenties in the tropics night in the still and the steam, gazing enraptured by Jay Bea’s exotic beauty.
Bohn could almost tell the life story of each of those young people seated at the tables in front of Icy Cafe, and the probable outlines of future events. Their personalities emerged clearly in the gloom of the pigtail light, their hopes and dreams too similar to those others past and future to be surprising. “You all should know there is nowhere to hide.”
In the spirit of the evening, laughter came easily and smiles shone like moonlit bones. “From what? From who?” called voices in the land.
“No one can hide from the man at the top of the stairs and other men hiding in the shadows in the garden.”
“Whoo Hoo!” came a semi-drunken voice, joined by the laughter of others enjoying a night of light conviviality. It didn’t make sense and no one cared.
Lorna was sober and mature enough to wonder, which she did aloud: “What is that all about?” she asked, a slight hint of agitation in her voice.
Bohn shugged, immediately addressing the group, saying, “That reminds me of the time me and the crazy Belgian sneaked across the frontier on a third-class train dressed as peasants, our skins dyed with tea leaves, pretending to be village idiots on our way to the market in the city.
The Belgian was crazy-scary! He’d do anything. We crossed the frontier like a cool breeze blowing over the desert as if we owned the world and all its treasures. We howled at check-points, laughed at soldiers waving rifles, screaming, ranting, pointing their weapons at us, as if nothing could stop us but death itself. And it all went well till we got so far as the mosque where we had to leave our shoes at the entrance, our feet betraying us where the straps had worn away the dye, exposing our pure white skin to the throng. Had, I tell you, dead in their sights. We barely escaped, hiding by smearing camel shit on our feet as we made our way away.”
Lorna saw, for the first time, the scars on Bohn’s chest, the look of bullet wounds and burns, the hack-marks and deep dents of awful penetrations, his broken nose, his skin burned by decades of wind and fire and hardships in hostile lands. She suddenly realized this man was more than old and tough, strong, dangerous, and brutal. She saw that he was not a tourist at all.
“How did you get away?” she asked, frightened by the thought that he hadn’t escaped at all.
“You don’t know?
Lorna shook her head.
“I got out of the trunk of the black Mercedes.”
The young travelers broke up and left the tables in front of Icy Cafe and left the light of the Street on the Monkeys for the comfort of their beds, singly or paired, happy and serene in the buzz of booze and company. Bohn looked one last time at the Khmer woman in the shadows, thinking of nothing but the soft skin of Lorna’s breasts and her big brown eyes.
“It ended well: I still have the license plate. It’s hanging over the fireplace of my old home. Like you, taking 20 years off my life.”
The old Khmer woman faded into the darkness of night.
Main Photo: Dag Walker, writer