MIDWAY down a Patpong Road inundated by recent rains, Brian spotted the red, blue and green neon letters of the Horny Tiger Bar. The large sign also accommodated a picture of a bikini-clad dancer lying back seductively inside a champagne glass. Beside her, poised to leap into the glass, a green and yellow tiger stood on all fours roaring in her direction.
The samlor sloshed slowly to a halt in front of the bar and Brian leapt to the puddle-strewn sidewalk.
A young hostess in blouse and tight shorts opened the bar door with a flourish. "Inside please, suuhhh!" Her suggestive yet pleasant smile combined with her pronunciation of "sir" - antebellum Scarlet O'Hara accent with steadily rising inflection - colored her invitation with lascivious overtones.
From inside the bar, two bikini-clad dancers standing near the door joined in. "This best bar in whole Thailand!"
"Best bar in whole world you bet your ass!"
Brian looked at the girl who invited him to "bet his ass." Over her pageboy hairstyle, she wore a seven-pointed, slightly oversized, green styrofoam Statue of Liberty crown. Its black lettering spelled out: "1886 Liberty 1986." The girls laughed and chatted to each other in Thai as Brian entered the bar.
He was expertly led through the semi-darkness of the room by the flashlight of another hostess. He sat on a bar stool, near a bell and cord hanging from the ceiling. The hostess put her hand on his arm. "What you like drink?"
She left him long enough to give his order and wipe some spilled beer off the counter. "Beer Sing!" she shouted above the music.
A sign behind the bar near a long, rectangular fish tank informed customers as to the purpose of the overhead bell.
He who ring the bell buy the bar a round
One ring: Customers Only
Two rings: Customers and girls
Girls only: see cashier
Brian opened a pack of Salem and lit up. The hostess brought his beer to him, carelessly throwing a "Kloster bier - Happiness you can Drink" coaster on the counter and then carefully placing the beer mug precisely on top. Brian anticipated that she would stay to chat him up and cadge a lady's drink but more customers entered the bar and she scampered off to greet them.
In his mind Brian conjured up the most recent photograph of Nalin that Suntharee had showed him. As he turned and looked about the bar, he felt a vague sense of guilt, as if by arriving unannounced, he was betraying her right to privacy in a world she had chosen. He wondered if she would regard his presence as less a demonstration of his concern for her welfare and more as an act of voyeurism and interference.
The darkness of the room was unevenly dispersed by an assortment of lights attached to the room's ceiling. Red ceiling lights prowled the disc-jockey's tiny semi-enclosed alcove then swept across the room to light a large fish tank and the area behind the counter, intermittently illuminating the female cashier's activities and the various equipment at her station behind the bar. Lights fixed behind slowly rotating gelatin filters shot out colored streaks across the customers and dancers, and constantly revolving multi-faceted globes - as well as several diamond-shaped wall mirrors - reflected the colors in all directions.
In the center of all this, an ornate chandelier - unmoving and incongruously elegant - both absorbed and reflected the lights surrounding it. As Brian's eyes grew more accustomed to the bar's interior, he saw several of the girls posing together in their bikinis for a Thai photographer. Some smiled while others made faces at the camera, ranging from grimaces to lascivious smirks. Brian stared briefly at each of the girls but none bore a close resemblance to his image of Nalin.
In the large wall mirror behind them Brian could see reflections of several dancers across the room. Three were dressed in skimpy bikinis and two in one-piece bathing suits with tiger skin patterns, tawny colored with black stripes. Each danced precariously on her own tiny stage and gyrated wildly and inexpertly to the loud music.
Near Brian's stool was another large stage on which three girls danced together. As they danced, their stage shook slightly and sent vibrations along the counter, adding a tactile experience to the already overwhelming visual and auditory sensations. Brian again wondered what occurrence could have driven Nalin to work in such an atmosphere.
"Hi. This first time you come this bar?"
Brian reached out and shook the small pudgy hand that was proffered him. The girl was the one Brian had seen in the doorway with her Statue of Liberty crown. Her straight black hair framed her round face, ending in front in bangs just above her eyes and at the side just below her ears. Her large eyes were surrounded by thick blue streaks of eyeshadow which flared out an inch toward her ears then disappeared beneath her hair.
The excessive amount of blush highlighting her cheekbones and the inexpertly drawn eyeliner pencil lines masking the width of her almost negroid nose gave her face an unintended comical effect. The personality that shone through was of equal parts of sincerity, enthusiasm and mischievousness, dominated by an overwhelming desire to laugh.
"Yes, first time. In fact, my first time on Patpong since, let's see, 1968."
The girl's shocked reaction sent her green-and-yellow parrot-earrings into a spin. "Oh! You no look so old."
"Ah, but I am. They didn't have go-go dancing on Patpong Road then."
The girl tilted her head and raised her eyebrows in surprise. "No have go-go dancing. What they do?"
"Just what we're doing. We talked." Brian reflected briefly on the days when Patpong bargirls were fully clothed and when it was best to be introduced to one by a friend and how only after a few meetings would there be any talk of leaving the bar together.
The girl leaned close to his open shirt, briefly waiied his permission, gently lifted up the front of his neck chain, and then gingerly held the small silver case with its enclosed Buddha amulet between her thumb and forefinger. "Very nice. Who give you?"
"A monk in a temple in Ayudhya gave me that a long time ago. I think it's very old."
She examined it closely. "Yes. Very old. Very nice." She again waiied - Brian wasn't sure if the gesture was to him or to the amulet - and then carefully placed the locket in its former position. "You never take off?"
"The Buddha, yes. You know, it can be taken off from the chain. But I haven't taken the chain off for 20 years. I'd need a special pair of pliers to do it."
"You are satsana phut?"
"Yes, I'm Buddhist."
She let out a shriek of joy and slapped his arm. "Very good! I think you know Thailand well!"
"I think nobody knows Thailand well."
She laughed again, revealing a mouth full of uneven white teeth. "You bet your ass."
"I like your hat."
The dancer reached up and straightened it. "My clown. I go American one time before. I see Statue of Liberty. You ever have seen her?"
"Lady Liberty is beautifoon! You want to try my clown on?"
"No, I'm sure your crown looks better on you."
Brian offered the girl a cigarette. She took it. "My name Oy."
"You do business in Bangkok, Blian? You marry?"
"Yes, business. No. Not married. You?"
"No. Before have one husband. Him no good. I no like marry. If marry, husban' fool aloun', or maybe Oy fool aloun' and then have big fight every night. Talk, talk, talk. No good you bet your ass!" Without pausing for breath, she put on a stern face in imitation of Brian. "You too much ser-i-ous, Blian!"
Brian stared for a moment at the fish tank and then spoke quietly to the girl. "Actually, Oy, I'm looking for a friend of a friend. Her name is Nalinpilai."
"She probably came here about three months ago. She might be using a nickname. She'd be older than you, about 23."
Her brief frown was quickly replaced by a smile of recognition. "Oh, I think you mean Lek. She my best friend. She go to dance now." The girl pointed behind Brian but placed her other hand on his leg near his crotch as if to prevent his attention from straying too far. Brian felt slightly embarrassed as he gently moved her hand to his knee. He turned toward the far stage. The girl on the stage was leaning back against the rear wall with her hands on her hips.
Brian found himself staring at one of the most beautiful women he had ever seen. She had inherited her mother's almond-shaped eyes but they were even more impossibly exotic, made narrow by eyelid folds which swept outward and ended in an upward curve. The high cheekbones and delicately chiselled chin epitomized the beauty of her Oriental features. Long black hair cascaded nearly to her waist. There was an intelligence and self-confidence in the face and, as she returned his stare, a hint of several facets to her personality, like the different colored lights striking her face and curvaceous bikini-clad body.
Large crescent-shaped silver earrings matched her silver bracelet. A silver chain, with a large Buddha image attached, sparkled around her neck. Like all of the girls in the bar, whether dancer, waitress or cashier, she wore a small round red badge with a number in white letters.
Both her face and posture more than hinted at the sensuality of the girl. Despite her attire as a go-go dancer, she seemed removed from her surroundings, neither laughing nor joking with the other girls, nor jumping about while waiting for the music to begin. When it did she became the center of customer attention.
As the song began the female vocalist's voice bellowed out of Bose speakers on each side of the back stage and from yet another pair near the front of the bar. Red, green and blue sound level indicator lights jumped inside the disc jockey area in response to the song's dynamics. With few exceptions, the lesser attractive girls would dance for the customers, attempting to keep eye contact with them and smile at them, but most of the girls simply cavorted about and aimlessly danced their way through each number.
Nalin kept mostly to herself at the far end of the bar on a small stage and stared either into space or at herself in the mirror. Her movements were languorous, provocative and feline, but she seemed withdrawn inside herself, wrapped in her own mood. Whatever the music, she would begin by ignoring the rhythm, and sway sensually all the while narcissistically moving her hands slowly over her legs, hips and breasts, arms and shoulders. As her arms finally shot into the air, she would at last join into the rhythm, allowing her body to match the tempo of the music. She seldom laughed or smiled while dancing and never attempted to maintain eye contact. In fact, customers and their frequent shouts of approval were completely ignored. A fine, thin sheen of sweat glistened on her back. As she gyrated to the loud sounds and the incessant rhythm, the Buddhist amulet on her gold neck chain bounced from one well-formed breast to the other like a mountain climber trapped in a hurricane.
Above her head revolving globes shot sudden streaks of light and pavonine patterns of color across the room, green against a table of inebriated German tourists with bikini-clad dancers on their laps, red across the crowded bar lined with bottles of Thai beer and ashtrays, orange across the tank of exotic fish and blue across the Buddhist wall shrine shrouded in incense. To Brian, the change of colors and patterns seemed to come not from the lights, but to emanate from within Nalin, as a mood ring changes colors.
As the sound grew even more insistent, Nalin jumped from her own stage onto the one next to it and leapt nearly two feet into the air onto the vertical pole running from the ceiling to the center of the stage. The dancer on the stage had made little use of the device and simply retreated back to the wall, resignedly, almost forlornly, allowing Nalin to do as she pleased.
Nalin gripped the pole with her right hand and hugged it between her thighs, stretched her left leg outward, and threw back her head and left arm. With her eyes closed she pivoted upside-down on the pole a full circle allowing her long hair to slowly sweep the stage. Then she remained completely still, opened her eyes and stared directly at Brian.
"How does the world look upside-down, Little Tadpole?"
The concentric green circles emanated from Nalin's face and spread in a wavelike pattern, beyond the stage, across the wall, across the years, and dissolved to reappear at Ayudhya twenty years before.
"How does the world look upside-down, Little Tadpole? Any better than rightside up?"
The three-year-old girl giggled and without answering Brian's question, gripped the young palm tree and tried to bend backwards even farther. But her eyes never left his. Her pink dress blew up in the slight breeze, and she moved her head slowly, allowing her pigtails to drag along the ground. Brian got up from the porch steps and walked to Nalin. He took her out-stretched hands. "I think it's time this young lady had another swing, don't you, Paul?"
Brian glanced toward the house just before their expressions changed. He had caught them looking into each other's eyes and in that second, he knew. Suntharee had chosen Paul. With a sudden painful realization, he knew that he was to be the "best man" and "Uncle" to the little girl he held, never "father"; "brother-in-law" to the woman he loved, never "husband."
Paul quickly jumped up and walked over. He grabbed Nalin's tiny shoes in his large, crablike hands and lifted her feet off the ground. She giggled now almost uncontrollably. "I sure do. She's way overdue for a swing. Ready? One, two, three!" Nalin's shrieks of joy grew still louder and, as they swung her, Brian looked toward Suntharee. She looked away from his stare toward the ricefields in the distance.
"You don't feel so good?"
The ricefields waved mockingly in the breeze and their vivid yellow-green beauty blurred and intensified inside Brian's tears, and the day turned all shades of green. He looked toward Nalin but could see her face only through a kaleidoscopic maze of wet green.
"You sad, I think, you bet your ass. But nobody allow to be sad in Horny Tiger bar. This best bar on Patpong and nobody can be sad you bet your ass!"
Brian tried an embarrassed smile and wiped the tears away with the back of his wrist. He smiled at Oy. "I'm not sad; it's the lights in here. They bother my eyes."
He looked toward the stage and saw that Nalin had disappeared and an overweight girl with large-framed glasses was listlessly going through the motions of dancing to music. Brian's eyes searched the bar and finally found Nalin sitting alone on a stool set back in the darkness of the bar where none of the lights directly reached. He could see the glow of a cigarette near her face, and the lights reflecting off her earrings and necklace. She sat erect, with legs crossed, one elbow on the counter holding the cigarette, the other arm across her lap.
"It looks like Lek captured another one."
Brian turned to face the man at the next stool. He was hunched over his beer glass, almost as if protecting it. He looked in his late forties and there was more black than white in his wavy hair and thick mustache - but just barely. His well-lined and darkly tanned face sprouted about two days' growth of heavy beard. Deeply etched forehead wrinkles and a deep, puckered, magenta scar on his right cheek appeared and disappeared in the intermittent streaks of red from a nearby search light.
Chest hair sprouted above his brown shortsleeve shirt and a slight stomach bulge protruded above his belt buckle. Yet his burly frame was large, muscular and brawny, and he projected an image of strength, power and virility. He held out his hand to Brian. "Webb's the name. Roger Webb."
Brian shook his hand briefly. "Brian Mason. You a friend of Nalin? I mean, 'Lek'?"
"I'd like to be. But so would about a hundred other guys." The man laughed and took a long drink of beer. "You just travelin' through on business or plannin' on stayin' awhile?"
"I guess I'll stay awhile. I want to look up some old friends. Then it's back to New York."
The man turned on his stool to lean against the bar, his beer held tightly in his lap. "The Big Apple, uh? What line of work are you in - if you don't mind my askin'."
"I'm a publisher. I thought I'd check out Bangkok's printing."
"Well, Brian, old buddy, as you can see, the City of Angels - as this place was named by somebody long ago - is flooded. I bet you most of the printing presses in this city are three feet under water." He took another long drink and belched. "But this town can be under ten feet of water and I still ain't goin' nowhere else. I'm just gonna' sit here, drink my beer, and watch pretty girls dance. Hell, I'll build 'em an ark to dance on if I have to. Anyway, I'm also an owner of the place, and the show must go on as you New Yorkers put it."
"You're the owner of the Horny Tiger?"
"Well, if you're doin' business in Thailand, you got to have a Thai partner who owns more than half. Of course, that don't mean nothin'; just keeps the government happy. I actually own about thirty percent. Somebody else owns the rest."
The man's eyes suddenly drained of their merriment. "That's him. You know him?"
"We used to be in the army together out here."
"That a fact?"
"Yeah. In the 60's. You happen to know where I can reach him?"
The man scribbled out a number on a pack of matches and handed it to Brian. "Bangkok phones have improved a lot but during the rainy season you may or may not get through."
"Thanks. Does Bob come here every night?"
"Nope. He sure don't. You'll seldom see him in here. I kind of run the place along with Maew behind the counter and Nit the cashier and Boonsom. He's the disc jockey. And Oy helps me out. Of course, she cain't dance for shit. None of 'em can - except for Lek there. Or 'Nalin' as you call her. She shore is something, ain't she? We had some pretty ones back in Alabama but nothin' like that."
Brian swivelled on the stool to face Nalin. A well-built man in his mid-forties was leaning against the counter with his face close to hers. He was speaking to her and gesturing. She stared back at him with little expression on her face.
Suddenly, Brian felt Roger's hand grip his shoulder. He was already standing and starting to walk. Come on. I'll take you over to meet Lek."
The hand on Brian's shoulder was strong and insistent. Brian made a split-second decision to go along with him. He stood up but held back until Roger turned back to him. "If you don't mind, Roger, I'd rather you didn't give her my real name - not just yet."
Roger shrugged. "Well, I didn't figure you for the kind of schmuck that uses phoney names with bargirls but, if that's what you want, you got it."
Brian walked slowly, allowing Roger to approach Nalin first. Roger stood beside her, one hand gripping his belt, the other holding his half-empty beer glass, rudely interrupting and completely ignoring the man talking to her. "Lek, honey, I want you to meet a friend of mine; and a close personal friend of Bob's. All the way from New York. His name's...Gatsby. Jay Gatsby." Brian glanced quickly at Roger but Roger's deadpan expression gave no indication that he was perpetrating a practical joke.
Brian remained aware of the seated man's angry face out of the corner of his eye but gave his attention to Nalin. She stared at him without changing expression and said nothing. But suddenly she shook her head as if shaking hair off her shoulders and thrust her hand out. Brian took it and held it for several seconds before letting go.
The man stepped forward and spoke angrily. "Hey, Tex, if you don't mind-"
Roger spoke without looking at him. "I don't mind at all, partner, but seein' as I'm from Alabama, I'm not really a 'Tex', now, am I?"
"Yeah, well, I-"
"Let me tell you, Jay, old buddy, Lek here is the best dancer in the Horny Tiger and that means the best on Patpong Road and that means the best in all of Bangkok, City of Angels, and that means the best in the world. And since I cain't git nowhere with her, maybe you can. But, remember. As the Bard of Avon said, 'Drink, sir, provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance."
"Look, asshole, I already asked her to go with me tonight. So how about you and your buddy just-"
Roger placed his beer glass down on the bar and threw his arm around the man's shoulders in comradely fashion which belied the firmness of his grip. He now spoke in his conspiratorial tone to the man as he led him off toward the front of the bar. "Well, now, I figured that but, you see, you and me are a bit long in the tooth for a pretty little thing like Lek there, so why don't you and me just go off to Soi Cowboy or some other place and see what we can find?" Both men were of medium height and of similar build, and to anyone across the bar they would have appeared as two remarkably alike old friends who had one too many and who willingly supported one another as they walked.
The man's angry words were lost in the music. Brian turned to Nalin. Her dispassionate stare was now completely replaced by a winsome, engaging smile; a bright smile of perfect white teeth, full lips and tiny crinkles surrounding lively dark brown eyes.
Now that Brian was up close, he saw that her round cheeks, playful grin and slight tilt of the head gave her face an elfin even puckish quality, a pixy planning her next mischievous prank. It was easy to see in her the young Suntharee.
Brian now saw the number pinned to her bikini was "18." Beneath it the edges of several "lady's drink" bar chits were visible, indisputable proof of her popularity with customers. At the end of her silver neck chain, a finely wrought gold case held a tiny meditating Buddha encrusted with the wear and patina of age. Her smooth, light brown skin was still covered by a thin layer of sweat. On her right leg, just above the knee, was a tiny "L"-shaped scar.
She gestured toward the stool beside her. "Sit down."
"Thank you. I'm sorry we interrupted. This Roger is-"
At the word "Roger" her smile disappeared. "You know him long time?" Her voice was pleasant but deeper than he had anticipated. "Actually, I just met him. He saw me staring at you and brought me over."
"Why you stare at me so much?"
Brian couldn't help thinking how beautiful she was. "All the men stare at you."
Her smile returned. "Not like you."
"The truth is I'd like to talk to you."
Nalin quickly put her cigarette out and sat with exaggerated primness, her chin propped on her fists, her elbows on her legs. "O.K. I listen."
"I didn't mean here. I thought we could go somewhere quiet." She gazed at him with an expression he couldn't read but one unnerving enough to keep him talking. "I won't keep you long, Lek."
For the first time, Brian felt - beneath the facade of insouciance - Nalin's lack of confidence. "I don't...I don't know...." She let the sentence trail off and took a drink. She looked across the bar toward Roger and then back to Brian. "Roger say you close friend of Bob. True?"
"Yes. Bob and I...." Brian took a drink of his beer. "Look, I just want to talk to you for awhile."
"O.K., I go. You pay the bar three hundred baht. Give to Maew. I go change." Before he could say another word Nalin jumped off the stool, grabbed a white purse from a shelf full of purses and shoulder bags inside the disc jockey's area, and walked into the back room. The disc jockey's smile gleamed in the darkness of his booth.
Brian looked toward the front of the bar. Roger was leaning against the bar with a beer in his hand. He smiled in admiration, raised his glass, and nodded to Brian. Brian noticed the man who had spoken with Nalin sitting sullenly in a booth near the door, head down, eyes staring at his beer glass.
Beside the door the photographer was taking pictures of Oy, who had changed into a green-and-blue bikini and black mid-heel shoes with green studs. On her head was her Liberty crown and in her outstretched hand she clutched a styrofoam Statue of Liberty torch. She held a book under her arm in the manner in which the Statue of Liberty held her tablet, and from time to time she would check a postcard photograph of the original statue to ensure that her expression and posture matched that of the one in New York harbor. She waved her torch to Brian and smiled happily.
Brian walked to the stool next to Roger and took out three hundred baht. "I guess it's all set. Thanks for the introduction."
Roger slapped him on the back and laughed raucously. "That's all right, old buddy. You just be sure to report to ole Roger how things go. I'm dyin' to know if what I cain't get is worth what I think it is." He turned to the middle-aged woman behind the bar. "Maew, take this gentleman's money, will you?"
The door opened as a dancer tried to coax tourists to enter the bar. An elderly Caucasian couple smiled uncertainly and continued walking. Taxis and samlors sped through the flooded streets. The door closed. "Where you stayin', Brian?"
"I'm at the Oriental."
"Whoops! Oh, scuse me, that hotel is my very favorite. It's just that you can't bring any playmates back there. A few of the hotels here in Bangkok like to play up-market, you git me? And, unfortunately, that's one of them."
"I'll think of something." Brian handed the three hundred baht to Maew. "I'm taking Lek."
Roger called for his bill. "I think I'll see what's happening over at the Superstar. I shore would hate to go home alone on a rainy night."
Brian watched the photographer approach a booth with several tourists. He took their refusals politely and moved on to the next booth. Brian glanced about the crowded bar and stood up. "Roger, thanks for the beer."
"My pleasure, pardner. We'll most likely see each other around again. In fact-"
Brian noticed the grin on Roger's face widen as he stared at something over Brian's shoulder. "You picked a winner, amigo. No doubt about that."
Brian turned to watch Nalin walking quickly toward him. She had changed from a bikini and high heels to a red-and-white T-shirt, blue jeans and white sneakers. Without the high heels, she appeared much shorter than before. Her right hand held onto the strap of her purse hanging from her shoulder. Her hair was tied in a rubber band behind her and she wore only a minimum of makeup. She could have passed on the street as a young girl on her way home from secretarial school.
She stopped briefly near Brian, said, "O.K.," and started for the door. Brian looked toward Roger for one final wave but before he could bring his hand up, Roger shoved him roughly toward the rear of the bar just as someone's fist grazed Brian's ear. Brian caught a stool and jumped to his feet just in time to see Roger Webb hit the enraged and inebriated customer in the groin with his knee and finish him off with a right to the jaw. Bathed in pulsating lights and constantly changing iridescent patterns, bargirls ran, beer glasses and ladies drinks fell and customers ducked. The man lay completely still, sprawled face down across the table of a booth.
Nalin stood at the door. She turned, pushed it open and disappeared. Roger spoke to Brian while nodding toward the door: "Go!" Brian moved past Roger and walked quickly to the door. To Roger he said: "I owe you one."
"No problem, partner. Just enjoy, that's all."
Brian spotted Nalin getting into a samlor, a small, open, canopy-covered, three-wheeled vehicle with blue-and-yellow coachwork. He waded through several connected puddles of water and jumped in beside her, not sure if she had been planning to wait until he got there or, because of the unpleasantness, to leave without him.
Brian turned to Nalin, one hand clasped to his aching ear. "Look, Lek, I'd like to go somewhere and talk. It's important. We could go to the Oriental. The coffee shop, I mean."
She turned and stared at him with a level, penetrating gaze, then turned away. Brian couldn't decide if she thought his suggestion insincere, facetious or - considering the situation - insulting.
Nalin hesitated, then almost whispering, gave the driver an address. Brian understood enough to know she was asking him to take them to the nearby Suriwongse Hotel. The driver roared off immediately giving Brian a stab of pain near his ear. They both gripped the side of the samlor. A row of five bulbs inside the samlor behind the driver's head flashed back at him every time the driver hit his brake: red, orange, blue, green and yellow.
He fell silent for the rest of the short journey; past the bars on Patpong and around the corner onto Suriwongse Road. The samlor made a sharp right down the dark, partly flooded, narrow lane leading to the outside rooms of the Suriwongse Hotel.
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