a non-sequential series of fictional shorts
The Communists were closing in. People were packing up, hoping for a government evacuation before the end came. Those who couldn’t get a flight out of Watay Airport packed their things and were crossing the Mekong River into Thailand. The scene was chaotic. The Royal Laotian Army was gone. All that were left were kids, armed with government rifles, riding Coca Cola trucks out to the front, now closer than ten miles away, to become casualties of war, heaped together, forever nameless in mass graves.
I found Ming sitting in the bar at the Settha Palace Hotel. The staff hovered around him like attentive bees around their queen, knowing the hive would be smashed very soon. He was dipping a rice ball into papaya pok pok, a Thai sauce made up of a variety of ground up chili and papaya. Moving the rice ball expertly to his mouth with chopsticks, he chewed like a man eating a spam sandwich. There was no joy in the meal. A waiter delivered raw minced toad and spring onions as I gestured a greeting to the morose Mr. Ming, and sat across the table from him.
“I need a new girlfriend to take my mind off my wife.” Ming lamented.
I was in a hurry that night but Ming was in the depths of financial despair. Even though he was worth a few million US dollars.
A waitress arrived over my left shoulder to take my order but Ming beat me to it. “A Jamison’s whiskey for my friend and a double for me.”
The silence hung heavy in the humid monsoon air, no breeze, only a languid fan overhead, rotating slowly to dissipate the heat.
Water beaded on the barrel of my Karl Gustav submachine gun, laid across my thighs. I looked down at the oiled metal, hypnotized by the slow accumulation of moisture. Ming finally spoke and it made me look up.
“Living with a woman from Chouzhou is like living with a dragon that requires tributes of gold to keep her satiated.” Ming nipped at his drink, finishing it. Glancing furtively for the next one, the drink he ordered. “Love and suicide are just different sides of the same gold coin, which makes me think of an old school Japanese woman. They’re the most twisted creatures on the planet but one of those ladies would take my mind off my problems.” He popped a few fried grasshoppers into his mouth from a bowl that sat on the table between us.
“Until Mrs. Ming found out.” I offered.
“She’d slice my fragrant stem from my body while I slept. She’s a Chouzhou woman and she has a reputation to maintain.”
“I’m in a bind at the moment and I hate to impose.” Ming looked at me with pathetic blood shot eyes that gained some sense of purpose.
I smiled. “It would be no imposition to help. If I can.”
The Pathet Lao and their Vietnamese keepers pose no problem for me here in this place, but you need to leave and take your girlfriend with you tonight. She’s been spying on you. She’s my wife’s sister’s daughter. The problem is that she loves you and wants to get out of the trade and be your wife and bear your children.
It took a moment for me to connect the dots. “That’s complicated.”
“And in a sense it isn’t. The world is a small place and karma holds sway upon the whole of it.” Ming said sanguinely.
“So I have my hand upon an elephant’s tail and think I am holding a snake.” I said, reciting a proverb.
“Precisely.” Ming said, happy that I, though an American, could grasp the situation so completely.
Reading my mind, Ming said, “A masterpiece is rarely recognized in the day it is painted.”
She gave me a gold cormorant earlier in the week, fishing bird with a ring around its neck. I wore it from a thick, gold rope around my neck. I touched the gold cormorant; “And this? What does it mean?”
“It is a statement on the condition of a man who is not free. Understanding your karma is a gift. And once understood, you can live harmoniously with it. Choice is an illusion in the ultimate sense. Nothing in the universe stands outside karma’s domain. Even the concept of the independent, autonomous “I” we so dearly cherish is nothing but the product of karmic forces.”
I translated it to US Military English. “So you’re saying that my head is so far up my ass that I need a glass belly button to see out.”
Ming thought about that for a moment and then winked a ‘yes’.
I ate a few dried grasshoppers without the use of chopsticks.
“There are two types of karma. The first is the karma of effect. This addresses the age-old question of why our life is this way and not some other; it shows us that every aspect of our lives is the result of actions we have performed in past lives. It’s,” Ming struggled for the English word, “comprehensive. Think of your body, your parents and all other elements of your history, your relatives, your life situation and general state of mind. All of these come about because of specific actions that you have carried out in the past. They represent what is given in our lives and, as the fruition of past actions, stand beyond our ability to make them more or less than what they are.
“The second type is the karma of cause. This addresses the question of you or even whether you influence the future. It says that every action in the present is going to produce results of some kind further down the road.
“Everything you do affects the future in ever-widening ripples of cause and effect. If you are virtuous, then the karmic results will be positive, whereas if you are not virtuous, the results will be negative. Positive results include fortunate life circumstances, experiences and opportunities, while negative results include various forms of suffering, including poverty, sickness, oppressed circumstances, calamities and so forth.”
“You said our astrology was not compatible.” I grasped at elusive threads to justify what she had done to me and to understand why she wanted to stay with me.
Months earlier, Ming said that the woman I knew as Mai, born in the year of the Iron Dragon, and I, who was born in the year of the Earth Tiger, were both dynamic in astrological terms. He advised caution in such a relationship. But things had gone too far between us by that time. I didn’t like what I heard him say, which meant that I intended to disregard his warning. I asked if there wasn’t some sort of Buddhist magic available to modify my karma where Mai was concerned.
Ming said, “You may be quite attracted to one another. Both signs possess magnetic personalities but attraction will give way to irritation. The Dragon likes to be in charge of everything and the Tiger insists on autonomy. It’s like pouring kerosene from two cans into a jar and adding a match. The result is inevitable, its resulting karma unappealing.”
I ignored Ming back then.
“Just like a Tiger,” Ming told me.
However things were different then. Vientiane wasn’t in artillery range of the big NVA guns back then. I was in love, Ming urged caution but I wasn’t fighting Communists in Laos because I was a cautious man.
A waitress refreshed my drink and I was brought back to the present suddenly.
“I have decided to move to Bhutan.” Ming said abruptly.
“I thought you planned to stay on. The trade is profitable, you’re juiced in.”
“The King of Bhutan is my personal friend. In that country I will be treated like a living divinity and will want for nothing. When I go on a drunk, they will sit with ten scribes to take down every slurred word as if it were golden. When I get sick, they will send in doctors who don’t need an x-ray to see inside, and give me medicines that won’t make me sick. If my rivals or my wife’s relatives come to visit the entire Bhutanese Secret Service Special Unit will swing into action: 12 black magicians and 1 skilled marksman who would rather throw their own children down deep wells than permit my tranquility to be disturbed will deal with the source of my discontent.”
“Did your wife’s family come to visit again?” Creed asked.
Ming frowned and said, “Yes and her shiftless Teochau aunts as well. They eat as much as four water buffalo. The only thing they do all day is eat, dung, and complain about me. They are having a private party now to welcome in the new regime.”
I brimmed with sanguinity. “You should stay in Vientiane and throw your wife’s family out into the river in weighted sacks.”
Ming drifted back to Bhutan, ignoring his fervent desire to follow my advice. “If I decide to embrace woodworking in Bhutan, a Royal Woodworking Shop will be established, and thereafter, as I walk through the town, dozens of men and women will shyly let it be known that they like woodworking too. If I later say, ‘fuck woodworking,’ there will be bonfires wherein tools are destroyed.”
I thought it was a joke. “Really?”
Ming was serious. “In a previous incarnation, I am credited with single-handedly saving Bhutan as a nation. That act cursed me for centuries, and is why Tibetan Buddhists understand my strange ways and curious lifestyle. Of course, relocation to Bhutan does have a downside. If there is a big storm, I will be expected to subdue it, or if one is required, I will be expected to produce it and I can’t do that in this incarnation.”
I drank my Jamison’s in one gulp. “Time for me to go. Mai’s fate is to remain in Laos.”
“You knew?” Ming wasn’t surprised. It was a statement as much as a question.
“The cormorant. It was a dead give-away.”
“If you understood that, you’ve been in Asia too long.”
I kicked the chair back and stood. As I did, I brought the muzzle of the Karl Gustav low and left and squeezed the trigger. Nine-millimeter slugs tore Ming from low and left to high and right, across his chest.
The Communists were coming and there were loose ends that needed to be cleaned up.