That Moment in Lao
by Alle C. Hall
In Japan, Lena ate a live frog’s freshly skinned legs while the top half of the luckless creature grimaced and bulged its eyes from her plate, pure decoration. She drank a great deal of sake with that meal. In Vietnam, she ate cat. Grilled, chopped, and tossed with sesame seeds and fresh coriander. A dainty dish. Lightly chewy. In Bali, a simple egg, steamed in a hole dug into the side of an active volcano. At the top, Lena made herself peer over the rim, into the pluming smoke. The mountain rumbled as if in a state of continual orgasm. Lena herself always used condoms. In Bangkok, purely curious, she went into the bar of a whorehouse. Hookers dry-humped the tabletops. She fled to the hash-growing regions of northeast Thailand, where she took one hit from a Canadian woman who told her how to cross into Lao: two days on two different buses to the border between Thailand and Lao, a town called Huey Xai. The engine made too much noise to carry on a conversation, spewing the smell of gasoline and rough road. Precisely the way she liked to travel. From Huey Xai, it would be a two-day trip, this one by boat, down the Mekong to the minor-league city of Luang Prabang, Lao.
Lena reached the border two years into her travels—one year studying in China, the second with a backpack. By the time she placed her backpack on the boat’s damp plank that would be her 48-hour perch, the sole mystery Lena saw left in this world was how she was going to die.
The first day, the Mekong looked dully similar to the Mekong in Vietnam and Cambodia: generally wide and flat, usually with jungle on one side and grasslands or rice fields on the other. But the engine was noisy and stank perfectly, and for a good while, the idea of being on a boat on the Mekong River filled Lena with wonder. Regrettably, by late afternoon, she fretted that the remainder of the trip would round down to avoiding the other travelers’ dirty feet.
There were nine other travelers. The white ones grouped: Lena, three muscled Germans and a cockney guy named Dale. Smoking, Dale attempted subtlety in his on-going appraisal of Lena’s chest. Lovely Mary-Ellens. Lovely.
Noticing Dale’s gaze, one of the Germans brought out a flask. “Good whisky.”
The German had to lean in so that Lena could hear. Lena was Charleston-born, bred to preside over tables of lovelorn swains in such a way that everyone felt attended to yet no one got shot. She shouted to the first German, managing to bring a second into the banter. “Single malt?”
The second bellowed, “Not quite so good.”
Lena tossed back a healthy mouthful. The third German reached for the flask. The boat jolted his arm against her breast. He blushed almost purple.
Lena clamped her hand to her head, to keep the wind from blowing off her hat. “My God, you can’t all be decent. Who knows what about these Buddha caves?”
There was no guidebook for Lao. It passed, Canadian woman to Lena, Lena to these four, that such a thing as Buddha caves glimmered approximately twenty miles upriver from their destination, Luang Prabang; two caves, crammed with Buddha statues, hundreds of them. Thus, the morning after disembarking in Luang Prabang, Lena was again on foot along the hot planks of the boardwalk. Lining the street opposite the dock stood shabby French Colonial architecture riddled with bullet holes. Lena barely registered them. She was intent on hiring one of the many shoddy longboats and its driver.
Where the dock supported a pagoda-shaped ice cream stand, Lena encountered a life-sized elephant statue with three heads, each facing a different direction. Lena had never seen a three-headed elephant statue, not even in India. When she was twelve, her parents moved the family from the sunny American South to sunnier India. Lena thought about elephants in terms of Ganesha, God of good business beginnings.
Unseen by Lena, Dale was down the boardwalk, eyeballing the pretty bird from the boat, gazing all dreamy at the statue.
He crept ‘round quiet-like, greeted her, “Oi, princess.” The pretty bird tried for the duck and dive, but she was in, wasn’t she, when he let on that he’d sussed out the Buddha caves? She’d already learned the Lao numbers, which helped score a Robin Hood price on the floater and the geezer to captain it. It came clear to Lena that Dale knew only one word in Lao: barang. “Bird shit white people.” She could tell he was bent on impressing her, telling her that in cockney, lao was slang for jacking off.
She said, “In Cantonese, guhm lao means to screw up, often followed by a swift kick in the ass.”
They launched. For the two hours it took to reach the caves, Lena paid little attention to Dale, a mosquito at her ear, leaning too close too often with that white-male-traveling-Asia blend of conspiracy and braggadocio. He would soon suggest a three-way. Lena had a few of those at NYU, before she left for China. She learned lot about sports. Dale caught her attention, though, caught it sharply when he motor-powered the conversation toward the smack he was planning to move to London.
“Meet a bird … lets me send her a box … trinkets and the like … always a hairy horse or two in the box!”
Fool, Lena thought. More to her interest were the rusted carcasses of Swift boats, high and dry along the Mekong’s grassy banks.
Lena was aware the boat driver was watching her. She didn’t know that his name was Keon, or that he had been a child when the war in Lao was coming to its end. Keon didn’t understand his longing to tell the quiet, curious girl how Lao people converted the American wrecks into double-decker growing spaces, how they yanked everything out of the hulls and filled them with dirt and the hope for life.
Lena was lost in the corn growing brightly out of the rips in the hulls. She hankered to stretch her fingers into them. Keon watched the corners of her lips bloom toward her eyes. He thought, Lao. Beautiful.
At the river’s mouth, Keon puttered the boat up to a dirt path. The barang splashed ashore. One and then two, he watched their backs disappear into the jungle, marveling that they would pay the indecorous sum of five dollars to visit holy caves of holy objects they had no reason to care about. He chewed the rice ball stuffed with pork that his wife had packed for him. He checked the sun. Then, he tossed out a fishing line. What could eat up so much time inside the caves? Lao people lit candles, clapped out prayers, and left. They had farms to work.
There were two caves. Inside the lower cave, dimly lit by hundreds of marigold-colored candles, Lena and Dale took in hundreds of Buddha figures, ranging from half-an-inch tall to over six feet. Standing. Sitting. On their sides, the classic Sleeping Buddha pose. Dale thought it right worth the look. Pretty Bird’s reaction was Aces. She confronted the tallest of ‘em, its left palm raised-like, bent at the elbow as if hailing her to join them, to be their Queen.
Lena could hardly wait to see what the second cave had to offer. She bolted up the stone steps. In the tight heat of still more mind-spinning yellow-orange candles reflecting off still more statues, Lena imagined that a group of one-inchers was a tiny, Buddha drug-dealing scene. Even Dale grew less nondescript. He had small ears. His teeth were widely spaced. Truly, Lena thought, here was where Dale’s connection needed to emerge from behind a Buddha. Fuck frog legs. This cave, what it offered, this was Asia for real: dangerous, stunning, unbearable. In India, her parents ran a free health clinic. They helped the survivor of an acid attack. On a normal day, when Lena was at school, someone firebombed the clinic. Her father blew to bits. Her mother. Her mother crawled, shrieking, burning, out a side door. The townspeople told Lena that her mother lived for twenty minutes. Lena didn’t think about her mother. She didn’t think about her every day.
Five more Buddha-ogling minutes passed. Nothing druggy continued to happen. Buzz-stomped, Lena said, “Let’s go.”
Dale trotted after her. At the river’s mouth, they found their driver, as Lena’s grandmother liked to say, sweating like a whore in church. Keon was terrified of the government, of a renegade Khmer Rouge. Quickly, he gave each barang a Beer Lao and aimed the boat downriver.
They traveled without the engine. The backpackers sat closer to Keon than they had on the outbound trip. Lena asked Keon’s name and about his family. Dale shared his cigarettes. Lena liked that he did so. Usually, the skinny traveler guys were parsimonious with smokes. Attention on a fish darting brass-colored through the grey-green water, Lena said, “Tell me again, the part about the heroin.”
Now it was Dale’s turn to lean an elbow onto the low, side-edge of the boat. He sipped his beer before saying, “Always keeping an eye out for a girl what’s headed home, that’s me. Wine an’ dine her, as it were, and she lets me send her a box of gewgaws for me mum…”
— utter shit, Lena thought, utter —
“…and the H is packed all up in the gewgaws.”
Lena crushed her beer can. “Precisely what level of lame-ass accepts an overseas package from someone she just met?”
“A daft bird.”
Dale allowed himself to be distracted by a long-legged waterfowl. Lena could have shaken the words out of him, pennies from a piggy bank. In due time, Dale continued. “Me associates pop ‘round to collect the box, then wire me my share, and in Asia I stay, in quest of girls and whirls and ocean pearls.” Brilliant, that bit. He knew Lena would assume “ocean pearls” was more rhyme. Chuffing truth was, merely another name for the Hairy. Dale presented Lena with a second cigarette.
She pushed his hand away. “As long as the FDA dogs or whatever you have over there don’t sniff—”
“You yanks and your dismal practicality.” Dale fired up the fag for personal consumption. “I’m in Asia, pretty one. I’m fine, I’m fine, I’m Calvin Klein.”
Lena snatched Dale’s cigarette from his mouth, mid-inhale, and launched it into the grey-green. Who trusted their liberty to a chirpy thing whose primary qualification was the stupidity to miss the ground if she jumped?
Grandmother, it hit Lena. Grandmother would never open a box Lena sent to herself, back home. Grandmother ran with Capone. After The Crash, Grandmother came down from the Carolina hills seeking a man such as Lena’s grandfather, an impeccably bred heir to nothing but a surname and a country house eight miles out of Charleston along Ashley River Road. His breeding, her money; by the time Lena came up, the DAR had all but forgotten about Capone. Lena never had.
Lena let her fingers skirt the Mekong. What appeared to be a dab of chili sauce on the toad-colored ripples turned out to be a flower, a single red hibiscus, drifting an arm’s length away. Her father was dead. Graveyard dead. But her mother. Her mother seemed just beyond the opaque. If the boat would only stop. Lena survived the years following her parents’ murder the way her blood survived, survived 250 years of Indian attacks, revolution, Malaria and Succession; of alcoholism, sex scandals, and depressions personal and Great. Survived the deaths of sons at war and daughters by the births and deaths of their own children. They passed through the wood of the house on Ashley River Road and into its stone. Yet there floated that fragment of flora.
Someone should be with her, to care that red existed.
Keon was angling the boat toward the boardwalk at Luang Prabang. They drifted through the welcome shade of the three-headed elephant statue. Feeling cooler after bidding goodbye to Keon and enjoying ice cream from the pagoda, Lena was able to enjoy Dale’s surprise when she said, “Yes,” to joining him in Bangkok. She said, “Meet me in precisely one month at Gulliver’s Tavern on Khao San Road.”
“I know the place. Best fish n’ chips in Asia.”
“Try the pigs ears. I like them extra crispy.”
They met faithfully. Dale showed her where to buy smack and how to pack off a box. She never so much as held his hand—but Bangkok was a month after Lao. For the final month of her two years abroad, Lena ditched the Dale for the party islands in Southern Thailand, noting which manner of traveler went to whom for what manner of relief, buying for herself not even a dime bag; and during this month, she wrote the letter she instructed her lawyer to send to Grandmother in the event of her death, the letter her mind began drafting that cooling moment in the shade of the three-headed elephant that she let go of feeling sorry for herself about hibiscus. The letter read, I have no excuse. And then she lied. She wrote, I am sorry.
© Alle C. Hall, 2019
Alle C Hall has just returned from SE Asia, where she is researching a new novel. Her work has appeared in Tupelo Quarterly, Creative Nonfiction Magazine, Brevity (blog), Word Riot, and Literary Mama; with journalism in Bust, Seattle Times, Seattle Weekly, and The Stranger, where she worked as a contributing writer. She is the Senior Nonfiction Editor at JMWW Journal and a reader for Vestal Review. JOIN THE FUN: @allechall1; Facebook: Alle C. Hall; allehall.wordspress.com
That Moment in Lao was read by Jessica Gallucci on 6th February 2019 as part of the Plots & Schemes edition.