Brian Park: “The Return of Jack and Johnny”
Brian Park was born and raised in New Jersey and graduated from Rutgers University with a bachelor’s in English Literature. After graduation, he moved to Seoul, South Korea where he currently resides. He has travelled throughout much of the last few years, which is the basis for the stories he has written.
The Return of Jack and Johnny
Serena and I parted over a cup of Lao coffee. She was going to stay in Pakse and I was going to get on a bus to Stung Treng, Cambodia. My trip was nearly at an end. I only had five days left.
We sat there talking about Lao coffee, about the plateaus where it came from, the high and misty jungle villages she would soon be visiting, and found ourselves staring at the grounds at the bottom of the mug with nothing else to say. I told her she would have a great time in Pakse and she wished me luck in Cambodia and a safe trip back to New York. I picked up my bag and hoisted it over my shoulder again. Here was our fork in the river, so we watched each other float away laughing. So goes another goodbye in the morning.
An hour later, I was riding in the back of a covered-truck driving towards the southern border of Laos and Cambodia through the flat plains and fields of yellow-green grasses. The back of the truck was lined with two benches on either side so we could ride facing each other or lean out to watch the countryside pass by. The women covered their heads and their faces with scarves so only their eyes were showing. The school-children sat silently, patiently waiting, speaking in secret conversations amongst each other, riding hours away from home for whatever reason, something in the city. At some rest-stops along the way, brief as they were, the sides of the truck would suddenly become filled with food and hands and down on the ground the eyes and faces of girls trying to sell the little bundles they had. I bought plenty of food to eat along the way. Sticky rice rolled in bamboo was essential. The chicken a godsend. The lychee branches a much needed touch.
And then sometime around noon, when the sun was high in the sky and burning its intense yellow light over the lush fields of green, the truck stopped and I was motioned to get out. I was one of the last ones left in the truck. Where the rest of them would go, I did not know. Where I was, I did not know. All I knew was this was where one ride would lead to another, and then another, until at the end of the day I would finally get there. I had done this all before. I knew the system well. There was a motorbike parked at this small crossroads in the middle of nowhere and that’s where I got on. I waved goodbye to the kids left in the covered-truck and then got on the back of the motorbike. We rode through the fields and then took a shortcut through an emerald green forest down one long dirt path in the middle of the woods. I was having flashbacks of falling but feeling peaceful for the trees surrounding me. And then we arrived at the border and the peace stopped. Here were the complications.
The guard sitting at the border was a rough intimidating character, a person who seemed like he hated his job. Perhaps he was angry over the little amount of power he had in the destiny of the world and had to compensate by controlling the destinies of those who came to his gate. I had come to the wrong gate, he told me. I had to get a visa at the other gate.
“How much is the visa?” I asked, even though I already knew, just to see if he would jerk me around.
“Twenty-five dollar,” he told me with that hard look on his face.
“How am I supposed to get there?”
“You figure out! There are driver over there,” he yelled and pointed. I felt my blood rising and struggled to suppress Jack Bauer. Nobody yells at Jack Bauer and lives to yell again…
“Ok, take it easy, Jesus Christ…” I muttered and walked towards where he was pointing.
The border consisted of the guard shack, the roughly built wooden office, and a small family-owned restaurant with a wooden overhang where currently five or six boys and girls sat quietly in the shade playing on the dirt floor; the two drivers, one with black sunglasses and the other with a blue-striped polo shirt, stood about laughing and talking with the motorbike guy who was apparently a friend of theirs. The fish had begun to fry.
“Hi, how are you doing?” I said amiably, concealing my suspicion. I could already see a three-pronged effort on the cooperation of these drivers to try and shake me of what precious bills I had left. I was down to my last hundred-dollar bill. Besides that, I had a handful of kip which would soon be obsolete. In Cambodia, the currency is riel, but like Laos, dollars talk the loudest. Prepare for the ugly surprise.
“Hello,” the one in the blue-striped shirt said. “Do you need a ride?”
“Uh, yes. Apparently, my driver,”I said nodding my head towards the dirty and deranged motorbike driver, now looking like an escaped mental-patient with his helmet off, “took me to the wrong border. So I need a ride to the visa office and then to Stung Treng.”
“Stung Treng,” blue-stripes guy repeated thoughtfully. “Stung Treng, maybe we will do for fifty dollar.”
“FIFTY DOLLAR?!” I shouted.
I hadn’t meant to lose my cool so early. My plan was to, with calm and Oscar-worthy hustle, ask their price and then pretend to lose interest saying, “I guess I’ll just walk there”, or “Eh, nothing to see in Cambodia anyway. Well, thanks anyway fellahs,” ever so casually walking away whistling a tune as they called after me asking me to name my own price. But the shock of his first price was so great, I nearly lost it. All I could think was, “Oh my god, what if it really is fifty dollars? I’m screwed!”
I quickly regained composure, the little boys and girls and the puppies and the soft yellow chicks now looking at me from the cool dirt floor. And then blue-stripes guy added,
“And you must pay the motorbike… (He conversed in Lao with the motorbike guy)… ten dollar.”
“PAY THE MOTORBIKE GUY??? TEN DOLLAR???”
They were quite curious about my reaction. “These foreigners sure do have quick tempers”, they must’ve been thinking…
I was pacing back and forth now, calling the only one I could rely on in a situation like this. It was time to resurrect J.C… Johnny Cochran!!!
“Now hold on, hold on, hold on just one minute. Let me get this straight gentlemen,” I said walking before the jury of children, puppies, and chicks, “let me make sure I’m clear. You’re telling me, the ride to the visa office is double the amount of the visa itself? Preposterous! And you,” I said, now addressing the motorbike guy, “it seems rather curious that you would take me to the wrong border, just where your two friends happen to be standing around waiting. Tell me sir, how long have you known these two gentlemen?”
Motorbike guy gave me a puzzled look and looked to blue-stripes guy for help.
“We work together for many year,” blue-stripes guy answered for him.
“Yes, I’m sure you have. Bringing people to the wrong gates and then SKYROCKETING THE PRICE! Gentlemen,” I said leaning in now, “I’ll tell you what I’ll do. I’LL TELL YOU WHAT I’LL DO,” I said making a big show for the children, puppies, and chicks who now stared at me with wide-eyes,
“I’m going to forget the insult of that first asking price. I’m going to PAY THIS MAN,”I said loudly so all could hear and bear witness as I counted out wrinkled bills of kip into the bewildered motorbike guy’s ripped and dirty glove, “I’m going to PAY THIS MAN the amount that I feel HIS SERVICES earned him this day. Now let’s see, we rode on the dirt road for about thirty-minutes, at about fifty miles per hour… who’s good at math here?”
“Sir,” blue-stripes guy said stepping in, “that is not enough. Do you have dollar?”
“I don’t know… do you have a car?”
He looked at me with a puzzled expression.
“Alright, let’s end this. I don’t have all morning,” I said, even though I really did. “I’ll pay you fifteen dollars. That’s fifteen,” I said showing them the hundred-dollar bill (I didn’t have change), “good old greenback Americana. What do you say?”
“AND I’LL PAY THIS GUY,” I added motioning to the dirty and confused motorbike driver, “five bucks, which HE DIDN’T EARN, but just so we all go home happy? Ok?”
They talked amongst themselves for a minute. The children and puppies and baby-chicks looked at me with wide-staring eyes as I apologized to them silently for being such a jackass. “The world made me this way,” I mouthed silently to them, but they didn’t understand. Not yet anyway…
“It is too small,” blue-stripes guy said. “Not enough to even pay gas. Stung Treng many kilometer. Take two hour driving.”
“What? Hey, come on. I could drive on twenty dollars easily in America! Are you telling me—”
At that point, the-angry-guard-who-hated-his-destiny came up and began getting involved after hearing all of that yelling; deciding to take care of the small zone which Providence had left in his control.
“You must pay driver!” he yelled. “You come to wrong gate! You buy visa, then you go to Stung-Treng!”
“Stay out of this you goddamn deputy!” I snarled. Jack Bauer was beginning to rear his larynx-cracking head from beneath the muddy waters…
“WHAT?! I’LL KILL YOU!!!” the guard screamed and grabbed his machine-gun as I quickly dived to the ground and pulled the revolver out of my ankle-holster, squeezing off three shots before hitting the ground…
Just kidding. That’s not what happened.
What actually happened was the guard came over. We drank some tea and worked out our misunderstandings. And it turned out that I was right, he really was unhappy with his destiny. Who knew on that early afternoon on the border of Cambodia and Laos, two grown men would be crying in reconciliation…
“You have to be tough in this business, you know?” blubbered the angry guard, “Do you know how many pedophiles and child molesters and drug addicts come through those gates every day? You think I don’t want to smile? You think I like yelling? Every day, I wave these bastards into my country so they can corrupt and molest and destroy the innocence of my children, our children. I have to be tough! I have to be mean!”
“I’m so sorry,” I said sympathetically, “If only those sons-of-bitches in Washington… It’s just this war keeps dragging on and on… and that lying son-of-a-bitch Johnson!”
“Why do we do this to each other?” he asked with tears in his eyes. “Why do people always destroy the things they love?”
At about sunset, the ride to Stung Treng was complete. I paid sunglasses guy the $20 we agreed on even though I knew I was being ripped off. The motorbike-guy got $5. That meant I had $75 left for five days. Plenty of money for a short stay in Cambodia, as long as there were no more ugly surprises. But there were always ugly surprises. They grew everywhere like daisies concealing Africanized-bees hidden inside with itchy stingers on their asses. And I was trying to stop and smell as many flowers as I could before that plane ride back to winter in New Jersey…
Stung Treng is a small town built with wide-open streets and no traffic, dilapidated buildings that offered nothing. In the centre of town was a small street-market which sold bootleg clothing and other knick-knacks. There were small shops selling cigarettes and soap. Barrels filled with ethanol where motorbikes would stop to refuel their small gas-tanks. A few barbecue stands with no meat stood waiting along the sidewalk overlooking the blue Mekong River offering warm cans of beer and soda floating in coolers filled with water. As far as the good old distraction of commerce was concerned, that was about all that I could see happening in Stung Treng.
I was dropped-off in front of a guesthouse on a street near the city square and street-market. The guesthouse had an open entrance into a sort-of lobby with some books and computers that didn’t work, some tables with dusty homemade menus. It was an old rustic sort of building, the kind that didn’t instil much confidence or expectation, but instead simple resignation, a deep breath saying okay, how dirty is it going to be? Fortunately for me, the room wasn’t the dirtiest I had been in so far, though it was certainly the ugliest. The bed was a dingy thing with speckle-white sheets, a mirror on the headboard so I could I watch myself having sex with invisible hookers, rusty-brown stains of blood coagulation, the remnants of someone getting their head blown off while watching themselves having sex with invisible hookers. The only upside was the bathroom didn’t smell like evil piss. Be thankful for what you got.
Before I wandered town till night, I decided to sit down at one of the wooden tables outside with a view of the river and the people walking around, playing hacky-sack in the street, and otherwise sitting around gambling and smoking and talking, riding by slow. The menu was written in Chinese, English, and Khmer. I wasn’t that hungry and was more or less just ordering food and a beer for the activity of eating and drinking and smoking and watching the golden glowing twilight of the river and the sunset streets. What else was there to do?
As I sat and waited for my meal to come, I looked at the message board on the wall next to my table. It was mostly just flyers for other guesthouses in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. I took note of one for Siem Reap called something Gardens. I didn’t bother writing it down. I was sure I would have no problem finding it, as if there were no other guesthouses ending with something-Gardens…
And then as my eyes continued to roam, there was one flyer, which caught my eye, as it was clearly graphically-designed to do. It said,
“PROTECT OUR CHILDREN FROM SEX CRIMES!!! IF YOU SEE …” and featured a shadowy photograph of a grown man and a little girl… in any case, it was subtle and illustrative.
It was similar to the big sign I had seen at the border. The sign encouraging people to report pedophiles if they saw any. They’re everywhere in Cambodia. Everyone knows that. It was only months ago, platinum-selling British-pop has-been Gary Glitter was reported in these parts, a frequenter of the Indochinese region for the young pretty girls. They kicked him out. But many more less famous than he still roaming. Report suspicious activity… as if it was that easy…
But then as I rolled my tongue in a mouth full of skepticism, I glanced at a table on the other side of the room. They were the only other people at the tables at that time, four middle-aged white men sitting by themselves waiting for their food. I saw them when I sat down obviously, but now something inside me stirred. I began to look at them with a deep burning passion of justice in my eyes. I felt The Diplomat rising…
Four middle-aged white men in Cambodia? Just taking in the sights, eh? Cut the crap. You make me sick…
It was the pancakes that convinced me. When they received their food, I stayed watching (secretly) the skinny one methodically slice and chew his pancakes. Drizzling the pancake syrup in slow perfect lines like the commercials, his knife pressing against the soft dough in perfect symmetrical triangles. It’s well-known that pedophiles are neat-freaks and control-freaks. Abusive child-hood, often abused for being messy as children… they hate filth, they hate it! Love giving children baths, the fucking perverts…
I watched him eating his pancakes slowly, chewing robotically, his eyes focused with the flavor of the maple syrup, the fucking bastard. The rest of them carried on casually as if thinking nothing of the shameful wrongs they would commit against innocent children to fulfil their dark desires. Coming to this land because of its weakness for money, its desperation, and the renowned beauty of its children. I wanted to choke the pancakes out of that motherfucker until Aunt Jemima came and slapped me two times. And even then I wouldn’t stop…
Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore. I had to say something. I couldn’t just let these sick-fucks come into this country and defile the innocence of children. I wanted to smash the plates on their table and feed them the shards, the bastards. So I stood up and said something.
“You guys think it’s fine? Eh? Dinner’s good? Enjoying your dinner, eh?” I said transforming into The Diplomat, rounding their table, fingering their plates, dipping my fingers in the syrup and tasting it crudely in their faces.
“How are you guys enjoying your stay, hmm? Everything is nice? These shitty bedrooms holding up for you? Watch yourself fuck any little boys and girls in that mirror yet? Not before dinner, eh? How nice,” I said my hands now on their shoulders.
“I’ll give you guys five seconds, to get the fuck—”
Before I could finish my ultimatum of a proper Diplomat delivered ass-whipping, their wives came into the guesthouse and looked at me curiously, probably thinking I was the waiter. The Diplomat was shot; he was crawling on the bathroom floor, a trail of blood as the urinals overflowed…
“And, I recommend the soup! It’s excellent!”
I left before my food arrived.
I couldn’t return to the guesthouse until nightfall. I had arranged for a bus to Phnom Penh and then Siem Reap early in the morning. As long as they weren’t on the same bus, I would be spared the humiliation and blubbering apology that would surely follow. I spent the rest of the evening down by the river. There were lots of people there, cleaning up for the day. There were chickens tied up together and clucking under woven baskets. Small silvery fish laid out on piled lines. On the blue river, where the sun was now setting, the entire sky became blue twilight, and the river an even brighter shade of blue despite the depth of the sky. In the water was a man washing his motorbike with love and care, making sure it was polished, bright, and clean so he could ride with pride through these defeated streets. And then there were some naked boys dancing in the water, their mother giving them their bath in the same waters as the motorbike, the waters that gave them the silvery fish, the same waters that gave this small town with nothing just a little bit of something, that something that they had always had, that something that they would still have when everything else is gone. The old man sings of rivers…