Fiction / September 2016 (Issue 33)


Keep the Change

by Craig Fishbane

The man in the blue suit was smiling. He stood on the wooden pier at the end of the alley, gesturing for Kaufman to come closer. The man called to him, practically shouting into the stagnant morning air—an inescapable brew of car exhaust and curry. Although Kaufman could hear the sounds being directed at him, he was still too far away to make out any words. An urgent voice echoed in the narrow space between high brick walls, inviting Kaufman to proceed along a gauntlet of boarded-up windows and gated storefronts.

Kaufman was already perspiring. He tried to present the image of a sophisticated traveller in his thirties—sporting a wardrobe of neatly pressed jeans, an ironed cotton tee, a short-sleeved buttoned-down white shirt and black loafers—but his carefully crafted presentation was undermined by the heat. His clothing was stained by both sweat and soot. As the exclamations from the pier slowly cohered into phrases and sentences, Kaufman reached into his backpack and wiped his face with a scrunched-up napkin from a fast food restaurant.

"Never get better," the man in the blue suit said. "Bangkok never get no better."

The man's body matched his voice. It was a booming presence, an array of broad-shouldered gestures and rapid tilts of a pompadoured head. He pulled a navy cloth from his breast pocket, waved it with a flourish and then playfully tapped the fabric against his own dry forehead.

"Always hot," the man said as Kaufman joined him on the pier. "Hot in the morning. Hot at night. Sometimes hotter at night than during the day."

Kaufman stepped to the edge of the wooden platform and surveyed the waterfront. The river was nearly empty at this hour—a dismal grey current snaking between low-rise shacks and glass office towers. Three long-tail boats were tied to the pier. With their green canvas awnings and outboard motors, each one bobbed in the current like an olive-winged insect feeding through a metal proboscis.

"Can you take me in one of these?" Kaufman asked.

"Of course not!" the man in the blue suit said. He clapped his hands at the absurdity of such an idea. "I am the manager."

"The manager?"

"You make deal with me. Then I make deal with him."

The manager extended his blue-sleeved arm toward the other person on the pier—a plump bald man in overalls snoozing barefoot on a wooden bench. The sleeping man stirred slightly at the sound of the conversation, reaching for a straw hat that formed a tan cone on his belly. He covered his face with the hat and began snoring.

"Best guide in Bangkok," the man in the blue suit said. "Captain like no other. Show you best tourist sites in Thonburi canals."

"No tourist sites," Kaufman said. "I want to see the real Thailand."

The manager laughed.

"Of course."

He pointed to a map that was painted on the brick wall behind the sleeping captain. It indicated a variety of routes through the canals on the far side of the river. Several sites were marked with bright red circles.

"Snake farm. Crocodile swamp. Fish hatchery."

"No," Kaufman said. "I want the real Thailand."

"The real Thailand?"

Kaufman wasn't sure he could explain it without wasting half the morning. His supervisor had warned him not to bother with Bangkok. They discussed it last night at the hotel bar, unwinding after the final meeting of a conference in Phuket: an extended weekend of mango, massage and marketing techniques. Kaufman had mentioned his plan to catch an early flight, giving himself a day to pursue his affairs in the city before making the late connection back to the States.

"You're setting yourself up," the supervisor said. "You'll be a walking dollar sign. Those people will think you're flaunting it, begging for whatever happens next."

Kaufman wondered what the man in the blue suit thought he was begging for. The man held up a business card with a photograph of a naked woman.

"Maybe I've come to the wrong place," Kaufman said.

If it weren't so hot, he would have already started back towards the alley. The big hotels couldn't be more than a mile away. As long as he offered a large enough tip, he would find a concierge who could help him.

"No," the man in the blue suit insisted. He returned the business card to his hip pocket. "We show you exactly what you want."

He whispered instructions as the captain pulled the straw hat off his face and rubbed his eyes. Kaufman could see now that it was not an authentic farmer's hat but a cheap replica covered with a layer of plastic. Something from a souvenir stand. The captain pushed the hat aside and stood up. Then he pressed both hands together and bowed to Kaufman before stumbling towards a wooden shed at the end of the pier.

"He give excellent price," the manager said, holding up five fingers. "Everything one hundred percent real."

"I'm not so sure now."

The manager held up four fingers.

"Best time for going! No one else in canals."

Kaufman raised an eyebrow. "No one?"

The man in the blue suit held up three fingers.

"Only real people," he said.

Kaufman handed over three hundred baht as the captain emerged from the shed. Chewing on a plastic straw, he huddled with the manager and accepted one wrinkled bill in the top pocket of his overalls. The captain climbed down onto a long-tail boat and held out his hand to help Kaufman aboard.

As Kaufman got settled, the man in the blue suit stepped to the edge of the pier. "You come see me later," he said. "Tell me about the real Thailand."

Kaufman laughed as the motor coughed to life.

"I'll tell you everything I know."

***

Kaufman reached for his camera as the long-tail boat eased past the hotels that hugged the winding banks of the river. Hilton … Sheraton … Marriot … Kaufman's entire life had become a collection of reward points at the major chains. In his position as Assistant International Sales Consultant for Global Solutions LLC, Kaufman had marketed software products in more than fifty countries. Whether he was in Beijing or Bali, it was all the same hotel.

Only on rare occasions did his schedule provide him with a reprieve—a one-day layover in Jakarta, a missed connection in Singapore. It was during these gaps—these interruptions in the smooth machinery of his days—that Kaufman could glimpse beyond the glass walls of atrium elevators, the windows of air-conditioned suites.

These moments stayed with him like photographs, each one engrained in the fabric of memory: a morning hike through the rice fields on the outskirts of Hanoi, an afternoon visit to the funeral pyres along the Ganges. He could still taste the wine he had shared one evening with a raven-haired graduate student at a café in Kyoto, the flavour of plums on glossed lips.

"Are we almost at the canals?" Kaufman shouted over the motor.

The captain manoeuvred past a flat-topped rice barge and then accelerated on the open water.  After passing under a cantilevered bridge, the boat reduced speed and entered a narrow channel on the right bank of the river.

The canal was lined with stilt houses. These houses looked nothing like the bucolic huts in the paintings that decorated the lobby of the Hilton in Phuket, whimsical cottages standing beside blue streams. These were rancid constructions, shanties with a pedigree: each one hammered together out of misshapen beams and boards, all of them hovering over a muddy current on wooden pillars.

Kaufman snapped several quick photographs as the long-tail boat pulled up to an empty pier. A whitewashed concrete wall extended between two groves of palm trees. Cobras, pythons and lizards were painted along the wall in faded shades of red and green. A canvas banner hung from the arched gate, greeting visitors with a message etched in black capital letters: "WELCUM TO THONBURI SNAKE FARM!!"

"You've got to be kidding me," Kaufman said. "Let's get out of here."

The captain reached for a towel to wipe his bald head. He smiled at Kaufman and adjusted the straw in his mouth, staring at his passenger as though he were observing the amusing rituals of some exotic bird that had landed on deck. He watched Kaufman shake his head and wave his arms, wiping the furrows in his brow until another voice called out from the pier.

"Just in time! We were expecting you."

As the man approached from the snake farm, Kaufman wondered whether he was the butt of a practical joke—or just the victim of a scam. With a broad torso and a mane of grey hair, the man hurrying to greet him could have been an uncle of the manager at the Bangkok pier, an older relative with an ample belly protruding from an unbuttoned sports jacket. Instead of blue, however, this man's double-breasted suit was dyed a shade of green, the distinct hue of jungle camouflage.

"Welcome to my snake farm," the man in the green suit said. "Always like to greet first customer of the day!"

"You were expecting me?" Kaufman asked.

"Of course! I always expect customers. Keep me in business!"

The owner of the snake farm offered his hand to help Kaufman off the boat. Kaufman looked at the captain, who was now patting down his eyelids with the towel.  

"Special morning show!" the owner said as Kaufman climbed onto the pier. "Excellent tourist price."

"I'm sure."

Kaufman wondered how large a cut the captain would get for this discount transaction. He glanced at the long-tail boat as the engine sputtered back to life. Kaufman could only watch as the captain pulled away from the dock and disappeared behind of grove of mango trees.      

"He's coming back, right?"

"Almost time for show!"

The man in the green suit whisked Kaufman past a collection of lizards in glass tanks, hurrying towards a small concrete amphitheatre. A woman was standing at the entrance, accessorising her cotton t-shirt with a sluggish python around her shoulders. As the snake flicked its tongue, the woman indicated that she wanted to take a picture of Kaufman festooned in green coils. Kaufman waved her off but the woman snapped his photo anyway and then requested the admission fee as she lifted the python off her shoulders and lowered it back into its tank.

"Best show in Thailand," the man in the green suit declared as Kaufman pulled out two bills. "Boa, viper, cobra. Cobra very dangerous. Almost as bad as tuk-tuk driver."

The man laughed at his own joke and led Kaufman into the arena. There were no proper seats—just three concentric levels of steps inclining towards a dirt floor. The owner started walking down to the lowest level, but Kaufman stopped and seated himself in the rear.

"I don't want your cobras attacking me," he said.

The man in the green suit shook his head and pointed towards the front row.

"Included in price."

"Keep the change," Kaufman said.

"Keep change? Not possible!"

"Possible?"

"You can keep something or you can change it. Not both."   

"I guess that's the problem," Kaufman said.

"Problem?"

Before Kaufman could explain himself, the barefoot snake handler entered the dirt ring, hauling two elongated bags of zippered canvas. The man in the green suit excused himself as the snake handler unzipped the first bag and danced away from the jaws of a black cobra. Kaufman glanced at his watch and wondered how much it would cost if he had to hire a ride back to Bangkok. He looked up with a start as the snake handler grabbed the cobra by its tail, whipping it towards the empty seats in the front row like a strand of venomous rope.

Kaufman endured a half hour of aggravated serpents flailing at the snake handler's limbs before stepping out of the amphitheatre. Anxious to get back to the dock, he hurried past a gibbon clinging to the bars of a rusted cage and a monitor lizard sunning itself on a concrete slab in a brackish pool. He had to stop, however, at the thatched kiosk positioned just in front of the path leading back to the main gate. He stood outside the doorframe and squinted at the display set up on a wooden counter.

His head was staring back at him. It was positioned perfectly in the centre of a white dinner plate. His expression was a symmetrical blend of agitated eyes and a mouth curled with surrender. Kaufman saw himself glowering from the bottom of a soup bowl and glaring on the side of a coffee cup. The woman who had snapped his picture was waving ringed fingers across the array of saucers, salad plates and platters spread out on the counter. There was virtually no limit to the servings of steamed rice or fried noodles that could be generously heaped on Kaufman's face.

"Excellent tourist price," the man in the green suit shouted, clapping his hands as he emerged from the kiosk. "Whole set—500 baht."

"I couldn't," Kaufman said. "I already have one just like it."

"Souvenir of marvellous adventure."

"I really do have to get back to my boat."

"Before you go," the man in the green suit said, "you must tell me more about this keep change."

Kaufman smiled.

"There's really nothing to tell," he said. Then he started for the exit. The man in the green suit followed, struggling to remain a step behind as Kaufman hurried down the asphalt path.

"Very strange idea you have. Keep something, stay how it is. Change something, not yours to keep.

"I think you're onto something."

"Onto something?"

Kaufman sighed when he stepped through the gate and back onto the pier. The long-tail boat was bobbing in the current as the captain slurped noodles from a paper dish. The bald man wiped his mouth with a towel and then helped Kaufman climb aboard.

"I know what you doing," the man in the green suit said, leaning over the edge of the pier. "Trying to fool with me!"

"Just having a little fun," Kaufman said, stowing his backpack under the plastic seat.

"Fool with me all you want, but soon you must decide."

"Decide what?"

"What to keep, what to change."

The captain took a final bite of noodles and fired up the engine.

"I wouldn't know where to begin," Kaufman said.

"Start with what to keep," the man in the green suit bellowed as the boat pulled away from the snake farm. "Always time to change it later!"

***

Kaufman opened a bottle of soda as the long-tail boat sailed past rows of stilt houses. The last home on the right had a satellite dish attached to a wooden roof. Hints of blue light flickered through the edges of a shaded window. One of Kaufman's largest clients was an advertising firm that dominated the market in Southeast Asia. He wondered if their award-winning animated chocolate bars were dancing across a high definition screen. Kaufman took a swig of lukewarm cola and returned the bottle to his backpack.

The long-tail boat cruised past a field of bamboo shoots and then approached a dock on the left. The captain manoeuvred alongside a canvas sign that hung across the edge of the pier. Kaufman stood up to inspect the illustration stretching across the taut white sheet. Standing on two legs, a crocodile was flashing a set of sharp teeth. A speech bubble next to its snout welcomed visitors young and old to the Crockdile Swamp.

"Perfect," Kaufman said. "Absolutely perfect."

The captain adjusted the straw in his mouth. He watched Kaufman pace back and forth across the deck and then looked up to see another boat arriving at the pier. The two passengers—a man whose arms were covered with tattoos and a woman with piercings on both her nose and her lower lip—were already standing, clutching at the overhead rails as the boat settled next to the mooring. The man helped the woman onto the pier and then lit a hand-rolled cigarette.

"Nothing like hungry crocs in the morning," he said. Sweeping dark braids from brown eyes, the man took a drag of the cigarette and squinted at Kaufman. "Hey," he said. "How'd you enjoy the show?"

"I just got here."

"Well, come on then. What are we waiting for?"

Kaufman smiled. He could smell cannabis drifting through the stagnant air. With the assistance of the captain, he clambered onto the dock.

"I'm Braden," the man said, offering Kaufman the joint. "This is my wife, Marguerite."

The three of them smoked as the boats pulled away.

"This place is great," Braden said.

"First time in Asia?"

"I guess you could say that."

"We've been teaching in Laos for seven years," Marguerite explained.

"But we'd never been to Asia before that," Braden added. "So technically this is still our first time."

"I've never been to Laos."

"Don't bother," Braden said. "Tourists have ruined it."

"We're thinking of moving to one of the villages near the Mekong," Marguerite said.

"At least until the tourists catch up," Braden said.

"And the corporations," Kaufman added.

They each considered the implications as they smoked.

"You start out trying to run away from home," Braden finally said. "Then you wind up running away from the other people running away from home."

"This is our first vacation in three years," Marguerite said.

Kaufman watched the brown current splashing against wooden pillars.

"Don't you find this whole thing a little bit touristy?"

"Dude, what did you expect?" Braden said.

Kaufman passed the joint to Marguerite.

"I can't believe I've got to get on a plane in twelve hours."

"Going home?" Marguerite asked.

"Back to work."

"I envy you," Braden said. "I don't know if I could handle a job anymore."

"You get used to a certain way of life," Marguerite said.

"Don't you guys teach?"

"Something like that," Braden said.

They passed the joint around one last time and finished it.

"They're always looking for tutors." Marguerite said.

"Go to Myanmar. I'd go myself but the missus is against it."

"I don't believe in dictatorships," Marguerite explained.

"I don't know what a dictatorship is anymore," Kaufman said.

"That's what I've been trying to tell her," Braden said. "It's all a bunch of words that get in the way of understanding what's really going on."

"I don't know if I believe in understanding," Kaufman said.

"What do you believe in?" Braden asked.

"A well-tailored suit."

Kaufman gestured to the man draped in ivory fabric walking through the gate of the crocodile swamp. His motions were jaunty—all knees and elbows—as he piped a high-pitched greeting. With his plumes of black hair, the man in the ivory suit could have been the younger brother of the manager at the Bangkok pier, a sibling looking to make his own contribution to the family business.

***

After allowing sufficient time for trained crocodiles to eat live chickens on a ramshackle stage, the captain returned to pick up Kaufman. As the boat manoeuvred past fields of elephant grass, Kaufman reached into his backpack to see if he had any soda left. He finished the last warm sips of Coke as the boat passed under a wooden footbridge and an enormous figure emerged from around the bend.

Rising at least two stories above the stilt houses, the stone Buddha was seated on an alabaster cushion. Perched above the gate of a courtyard, the statue faced away from the traffic of the canals, gazing instead at the spire of a golden temple, both eyes glistening with ruby speckles.

The long-tail boat came to a halt in the centre of the channel and the captain pantomimed the act of taking a picture. Kaufman had to agree that it was a perfect shot—pure wallpaper for a computer desktop—but he was not yet ready to impose a lens between himself and the statue.  Rather than capturing the scene on a memory card, he wanted to commit it to memory.

As Kaufman surveyed the jewels framing the Buddha's curved lips, he heard a voice, a woman's voice, calling to him from the canal. A woman shawled in faded denim was paddling across the current in a wooden rowboat. Gripping the oars with trembling fingers, she gradually positioned herself beside the long-tail boat. The woman tucked strands of grey hair under a straw hat and greeted Kaufman with a hearty yawp.

"Best prices!"

The woman waved both hands over the cargo laid out in front of her: five wicker baskets filled to the brim with souvenirs. There were wooden elephants, plastic frogs and even calcified scorpions with tails poised to sting. The woman lifted a plush monkey and tugged on its brown fabric tail.

"Best prices!"

Kaufman shook his head and reached for his camera. He knew there was no point in explaining to the woman how she was interfering with his glimpse of the real Thailand. He doubted that even a UN interpreter could have made that case for him. Kaufman understood he would have to settle for a photograph, one more picture to add to his personal slide show. He lined up a shot and tried to zoom in on the face of the statue. When the image did not enlarge, Kaufman squinted at the glowing screen and noticed the red light indicating low battery power. Before he could snap one photo, the camera shut off.

"Damn!"

Kaufman rummaged through his backpack for extra batteries. Although he vaguely remembered purchasing some in Phuket, all he could find was the empty plastic container partially ripped away from its cardboard backing.

"Do you have any of these?" Kaufman asked. He popped a coppertop out of the camera and showed it to the woman. "Do you have any batteries?"

"Best prices!"

The woman waved her bony fingers over collections of rubber snakes and plastic crocodiles. She offered bottle openers and toy drums. There were no batteries.

"Let's go," Kaufman told the captain. "I've seen enough."

The old woman unveiled the final set of items for sale—bottles of water, soda and beer packed with ice in a cooler at her feet. After Kaufman shook his head, the woman pulled out a bottle of beer and gestured towards the captain. She seemed to be suggesting that if Kaufman himself wasn't thirsty he might want to offer his guide a reward for a job well done. Kaufman couldn't argue with that: the captain was doing his job. He sat behind the wheel and wiped his head and waited for the transaction to be completed. There was no rush, no sense of urgency. Sooner or later, Kaufman would have to buy something. It was only a matter of time.

Even more than language, Kaufman realised, it was time that separated him from the captain. For Kaufman, time was a stream, a steady flow tending in the direction of Suvarnabhumi International Airport and a business-class seat in aisle five. But for the captain, time was as meandering and convoluted as these canals, a grand procession of events accumulating like silt, a thousand layers of history unfolding in the same weary moment. Time was an elephant jockeying for position with a motorcycle in a traffic circle, a monk contemplating the ringtone on a cell phone. Time was the light of a Coca Cola sign flashing from the roof of a temple. There was no cause to move, no reason go anywhere. If you waited long enough, time brought everything to you.

Kaufman finally purchased a bottle of beer as the sun began penetrating the bluish smog. Slanted beams shimmered on the white robes of the statue, the serene face turned away from the vessels on the water. Its designers had known all along: they knew what kind of business the Buddha would be watching if he glanced at the canals. In all the centuries since those eyes were first shaded with golden lashes, nothing had changed: all the world was curry and currency. Kaufman could see it now—he had seen hints of it all morning. There had been glimpses of it in everyone: the tourists, the sales people, the men in their varying suits—each person making ingenious adaptations to provide the day's nourishment, each soul with a means and a method to silence its own cry of hunger.

When Kaufman started to drink, he could not remember a beer ever tasting so crisp, so elemental. He finished the bottle quickly and signalled for two more—one for himself and one for the captain. The bald man plucked the plastic straw from his lips and tucked it behind his ear. Then he pressed both hands together and bowed. After Kaufman returned the bow, he indicated that the old woman should take something for herself. She protested at first, chuckling at the very idea of drinking her own merchandise. Then she took Kaufman's money and toasted him with a bottle of water.

The woman chatted with the captain as Kaufman began inspecting the trinkets in the rowboat. He could not believe that he had shown such contempt for these items. One object in particular caught his eye. He reached down to lift it out of a wicker basket. As soon as he held it in his hand, Kaufman knew he could never leave Thailand without this wooden elephant.

At some point in the future, this splintery little souvenir would stand as a prized possession, prominently displayed on a mantle. Kaufman would stop each morning to consider the delicate curvature of an upturned trunk. He would gaze at the animal's hearty posture and pause to appreciate the nature of his own adaptations, his gift for survival in a stark and unforgiving climate. For ten years, he had managed to find sustenance only during these rare and precious intervals provided by international flight schedules. Caressing the tip of a toothpick tusk, he would laugh at how it took so long to discover that he didn't need to depend on the accidents of other people's itineraries.

But all that was for another time, another bend in the canal. For now, Kaufman was content to participate in this most authentic local tradition. He purchased ceramic frogs, calcified scorpions, plush alligators and even a small plastic model of a long-tail boat attached to a bottle opener. Kaufman filled his backpack with bags of carefully wrapped artifacts. The old woman smiled as she handed over the final items, and Kaufman reached into his pocket to pay. All he had left were five bills, big ones that he should have broken when he checked out of the hotel. Kaufman tucked one away for the ride to the airport and handed the rest to the old woman. The look on her face was worth every penny.

"Keep the change," Kaufman said.

 
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