Fiction / August 2009 (Issue 8)


by Christopher Luppi

Over the weekend I hear the sound of a bulldozer and hammers behind the back wall and I pull myself up high enough to see over the top. A clap-board tin-roofed shack is going up about twenty-five yards back. This usually means some kind of construction is about to begin … The shack the first of many, I presume, to house the illegal Cambodian laborers who will fight back the jungle, dig deep, and lay concrete foundations for upcoming Moo Bans, gated communities of identical houses to shelter Thailand's fast growing upper middle-class. I've been meaning to replace the barbed wire that tops the back wall for some time now and figure since we'll soon have a small village just over the wall I should do so sooner rather than later.

Before I begin stretching the wire, I have to jump the wall into the back field and cut some of the vines that have crept up into the canopy of the mango trees, smothering them it seems. About five minutes in, standing knee high in reeds, I suddenly begin to itch like mad, the lower halves of my legs, from the knee down, on fire. I hurry over the wall, run inside, drop my pants and head for the bathroom. My legs are covered in a sort of fuzz; some kind of spore that digs itself in like fiberglass insulation. The water isn't helping. I'm on fire.

Na comes in and takes one look. "Wait," she says and walks quickly out the back. Less than a minute later she returns with a clump of green leaves that she is mashing in her hands. "Give me your leg." She rubs the mashed green leaves over my legs, one at a time, squeezing juice from them, massaging it into my calves. The burning itch goes away almost instantly and I breathe heavily and shudder with relief. "What is that?" I ask. "Leaf from tree outside," she answers with a smile. "Work, mai?"


"My mother teach me. This tree for this," she says motioning at my red legs with her face.

I get back out and stretch the barbed wire to replace the pieces that have fallen away with time. I can do this from the inside of the wall and don't have to worry about the dangerous botany outside. I tend to the task knowing full well that anyone who wants to get through it can and will, or could just as easily cross a neighbor's back wall, or come over mine via the mango trees that hang over it. But I know I will feel better with it there than with it not. Just as I'm finishing the job my eyes pick up some movement around the newly built shack and I focus through the head high greenery; sitting with his back to me, next to the shack, is an old monk. Weather-worn and sun-bleached saffron robes are hung over some nearby shrubs to dry. He appears to be in meditation. This is curious… perhaps there will be no laborer's camp after all.

... and so the old monk, his quarters having been humbly constructed, settled into his solitary existence of silent mediation. On the third day, hearing a sound of clipping and snipping from the wall behind him, that which separated his quiet place of reflection from the village of sense fulfilling laymen and women, he turned to see the face of a man stringing protective wire between the two places. And to himself he smiled, in a way imperceptible to the eye, and then turned back, focused again on the empty field before him, breathing deeply and knowing that he had chosen wisely...

This morning, coffee. Kenny Loggins' December, a Christmas special, is on the TV and I can't not watch it. At least for a few minutes. Kenny and Olivia Newton John sing "Have yourself a very merry Christmas" on a stage set to look like a cozy New England living room, fire in the background, stockings hanging from the oak mantle, a Christmas tree. The studio audience, hand picked to ensure that not one of them has any distinguishing characteristics of any sort—no unconventional haircuts or prominent noses or bushy eyebrows or disproportioned ears—all sit, hands folded on laps, contented smiles. Kenny and Olivia look each other in the eye and then turn to look into the camera, to make that connection with me, the viewer, to let me know that it's OK and it's a warm time, a special time, a time for family and quiet chats and joy and love and holiday cheer. And then they go back to the fireplace where they are joined by Kenny's wife and famous country music star Clint Black and his wife and they all start talking about the first time they bought someone a gift, because Christmas is about giving, not receiving, and they're all chatting away, softly, sitting on two sofas facing each other, and it's all so warm and right and just as it should be and I feel as if I am right there with them.

Kenny MCs, his adoring wife at his side nodding and laughing where appropriate. Olivia talks of her struggle with cancer and how through that struggle she was given the gift of time and used it to hand paint cards for those she loves and everyone nods and smiles and approves and then Clint chimes in, talks about how one of his favorite gifts ever was a flossing tool from his wife because he'd always had a hard time flossing with the regular floss and this gift, though humble, showed how much his wife understood him and how thoughtful she was. Then Clint goes on to talk about the imagery of Christmas, the tree, he says, originating from an ancient stage play in which the director used a small pine to represent the garden of Eden, and the wreath a representation of the crown of thorns worn by Jesus on the cross, the red berries there to represent the droplets of blood drawn from the head of Jesus, and this brings the nods and uh huhs and Yes, it is such a special times and we all come to remember, together in that room with Clint and Kenny, their wives, and Olivia, that Jesus, in fact, is the reason for the season.

Two happily married couples, well into middle age, practically sexless, there to represent to all of us the power and the sanctity of marriage and the possibility and the promise of forming such a union. And then there's Olivia, the Mary figure it seems. If she has ever been married or even in a relationship, that is not how we remember her—that clean cut, blond haired, blue eyed, Australian lass who came dancing and singing into our lives so many years ago and has come back these many years later, having never to our recollection ever been involved in anything even resembling scandal.

I sit smiling and watching, thinking about Olivia and Kenny and Clint and their nameless wives and America and Thailand and Na and me and the monk and Christ and Christmas and Buddha and the war and nationalism and entitlement and class and nature and walls and wire. They break for commercial and I turn the box off, take the last sip of my coffee, stand and walk outside. Na is next to her garden; basil, aloe-vera, and a small chili plant that hasn't been doing so well for the last few weeks. She is squatting, flat footed, in an intricately patterned earth toned sarong and a light blue T-shirt with the words "girl style magic" in glittery script written across the chest. There is a breeze carrying the scent of the sea and there is the sound of birds; dozens of birds. The morning sun sends angled beams of light through the canopy of the mango trees that line the back wall. Na is not aware that I am watching her. She is gently cupping a branch on the chili plant, fixated on it. After a few moments, she looks up, sees me, smiles with her whole face, and brings her hand down. In front of her, dangling from a thin branch near the top, is a chili; small, fiery red, brilliant, perfect.

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