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The Deserted Country

A pack of boys, stuck close together like ducks, came up the hallway while I was telling my best Army story to thirty Thai students. It was half an hour into a class that lasted three. Rules at the little college were severe, enforced by a pack of Thai professors with Ajarn Wachuree at the helm. Classes met only once a week and letting students out early was one of those tight, little rules. I stepped outside to watch the escaped students, hoping it wasn’t a sign of early trouble with Linda, the Western woman we’d been torturing the past two weeks.

I leaned over the balcony an arm’s length from a tangle of live electrical wire. The carcass of a rat decayed beneath where the wires met and coiled. Jackfruit trees, fat with spiked melons, rose up and shaded the hall and a few of my students leaned with me and we watched together, like sailors, Linda’s class walk across the shimmery hot street beneath the catwalk.

The catwalk was shaded with a high-pitched tin roof and decorated with a species of orchid proven hardy against the weather. Our campus had been built long ago with a nautical motif: tiny decorative bridges, round windows (portholes) and elevated walkways (catwalks) as if flooding was imminent (and perhaps it was). The whole campus was striking in a floating, colonial prison kind of way. In just a handful of months I was calling it home. I’d escaped the U.S. in a hurry, leaving three months of unpaid rent, a mailbox full of student loans and a dim future in the English major job market.

The catwalk led to the offices where Ajarn Wachuree ruled because she was the only Thai at the college who spoke English well enough to understand the strangeness of Westerners. In fact, it was often stated that because Wachuree had spent three years in Sulphur Springs, Colorado during the end of the Vietnam War as an exchange student, she was uniquely qualified to comprehend the Western psyche. During my first week working at the college she’d told me her famous summer camp story.

One hundred Thai students at a camp in Roet, a last century resort town near a waterfall. Off season. Water trickling into dry, man-made ponds. Hungry Koi swam in circles under the boardwalk where employees walked. Fried rice and pork left in the sun too long. Forced camp activities such as Simon Says, musical chairs and singing Old MacDonald in the middle of April. And this American, an accountant from Des Moines with alcohol issues, forced a student to stand in the sun with his arms stretched out like a scarecrow for refusing to sing. When Wachuree finds out she tells the drunk accountant to pack up his troubles in his old kit bag and get the hell out. It was 180 kilometers from campus and home. No taxi offered. Visa revoked. Just get out.

“No bad camp songs. Check,” I’d said.

But really, it was tough to get fired. Few Westerners would come this far into the desolate northeast of Thailand, called Isan, with its hot season and strange food (that would be birds, roaches and worms, fermented fish). When they did come they often left before their contracts ended. Linda Rivers, the western teacher to whom the escaped students belonged, was a suspect for early departure.

She was a midwestern English lit graduate student with Oriental dreams. Didn’t we all have those dreams? Yes. But of distinctly different flavors. Linda gave the impression of packaged tea and two-day old jelly doughnuts. She touted the superior qualities of a western education. She disinfected chairs with an alcohol swab from her purse before sitting in some places. Her master’s degree glittered in its gold frame.

She was a straight line from her heavy shoulders to the ground. A pair of hazel eyes that would not look straight at anything. Clumps of hair like unstirred coffee. Thin-framed glasses that made her seem like she was squinting. A nervous voice that hit all the wrong notes. She was destined for trouble in life. But weren’t we all.

If she did quit her classes would be divided amongst the rest of us, which meant I would have to give up my morning swims, or the extra class full of nurses I’d taken on for ten-thousand baht a month. Just seven months into Thailand, and I was dropping a lot of weight, catching a tan and basically ecstatic about the empty, glimmering pool at the old resort and the free time available to pursue the abundant interest of women in rusty little outdoor pubs.

Of course I knew something was wrong. Despite the general attitude that Linda was a Western woman trespassing where Western women were not welcome, I walked down the hallway to find her sitting alone in front of the classroom, staring into the mass of empty chairs with red eyes, matted hair and tears.

“First days are hell,” I offered. “Don’t give up.”

Without turning she mouthed through clenched teeth, “someone stole my notebook.”

I knew this notebook. Everyone knew. It had been a source of jokes and discussion during the time Linda had prepared it. She’d left Ohio two weeks in advance to organize lesson plans, overheads, handouts, newspaper clippings, photos, cartoons, and cloze dialogues. We’d all been asked questions by Linda at some point about adjectival phrases or if we thought a Thai student would enjoy this game or understand this joke (her best jokes were riddles). The notebook was Linda’s security, her guide through the hostile lands of Siamese reluctance, secret giggles and notes. There were only a few suspects.

Number one: She had asked Danley where to buy a cell phone and Danley had taken her to a friend in a makeshift stall at the weekend market (tarp walls and fold-up tables) who, arranged in advance, had charged her at least triple the actual price. So it goes. Danley claimed she reeked of ketchup. He hated the smell of America, which was ketchup to him. It was also generally known that he’d introduced her to papaya salad made of un-ripe papaya strips pounded with high-grade chili and spruced up with small, black crabs and the oily parts of fermented fish. She had not left her room for three days. This was no surprise.

The notebook was covered in silk elephants (clearly from a local market). Linda had pasted a votive medallion (a gold coin with a local monk embossed on one side) from the city’s temple on the front and the glue had leaked out around the edges. This was probably a sin. Because of the complicated binding system and the various sizes of papers stuck in here and there, it was somewhat awkward and heavy. It carried like a phone book.

Robeck, the Englishman who had been teaching in Thailand for twelve years and rarely spoke, said it was the most useful, most colorful notebook he’d ever laid eyes on and if given the chance he would gladly toss it into the Bang Pakong River. And so forth.

If I had thought it was disorganized I would soon realize that each class had been planned step by step. One day’s lesson built upon the next culminating in a comprehensive and eloquent final exam that rang with excruciating competence. Maybe they would learn to speak English.

I returned to my class and story and never quite picked up the thread of losing my rifle in the dark, Georgia woods (or was it a river?). After class, I thought about the resort I might soon lose. The clean scent of chlorine rose from the Olympic-sized pool. I pictured the statues of robed Aphrodite and the long corridors heavy with dampness that were once supposed to be filled with tourists (their pockets spilling greenbacks). But the economic crash of the nineties had left gluey, black smudges where the tiles had cracked, weed choked tropical gardens, carpets writhing with mildew, an outdoor bar with empty bottles, coats of dust and dry sinks. The windows in the old gym by the pool had been stopped up with cardboard (never glassed). The exercise equipment looked like the remains of an old movie set. It was my palace. It was everything I’d dreamed Thailand would be. My dreams followed me back to the office.

Robeck the Englishman tapped the keys to the computer with an aggressive wack and Danley scribbled notes from a book of poems at his desk. Linda’s chubby face moved in the glow of her desk lamp at the back of the room. Wachuree emerged from the doorway where the Thai professors kept separate offices. Her silk dress was immaculately pressed and her hair was curled in a tight wave, like an old Beatles haircut, made even stranger by obscenely large eyeglasses.

“Did I waste my time,” Wachuree shouted. “Mi pie, Mi pie,” she repeated sarcastically in Thai. “You tell them don’t go anywhere and that’s it!”

Silently, I agreed with Wachuree. The Thai students, especially boys, responded best to the chain of command. The rest of us had agreed not to re-invent wheels. Just tell them where to sit and when to breathe. There were no real job opportunities awaiting our graduates. But of course it wasn’t easy for Linda. Four thousand miles from familiar shores with boiling bowels, strange smells and sounds, language, skin colors and eyes, strange hats, stray dogs in gutters, squat toilets, slow service if any, et cetera, and so on.

Then again, Linda reminded me of the kind of woman I despised. A short time Peace Corp volunteer who hated Ernest Hemingway, but had never read his work. A state-educated pseudo-feminist. On the other hand, the crew of Westerners at our little college was a study in extremes. Danley, for example, was the kind of man Linda had been taught to hate. He’d spent years in college towns and never earned the proper degrees. He drank and sometimes arrived in the morning smelling like Mekong whiskey. But he was also a natural athlete- a champion badminton player and golfer (even after five Singha beers). I liked him because he was a failed writer and would admit it readily, because he was not handsome and a bit vulgar, fond of Jack London and seedy bars.

Then there was Robeck the Englishman who was also a failure, an environmentalist who had come to Thailand optimistic to save elephants, monkeys, especially monkeys, but found over the years he was only a poorly educated, hot-tempered man, much too tall for the Asian architecture. He’d been surprised by middle age and a recurring case of the clap.

It was difficult to confess I was somewhere between these extremes. Having just finished George Orwell’s Burmese Days, about an expat deep in Burma working in the lumber industry, I was amazed at how little had actually changed except perhaps one key point. In Orwell’s book a young white woman arrives from England to visit her aunt and uncle and quickly becomes the obsession of every unmarried man in the expatatriat community (centered on “the club”). White women were scarce on Burmese soil and hence highly desired. But in Thailand, I had yet to meet one western man who yearned for a white woman. In fact, most of them suffered from an aversion to any kind of woman other than the native variety.

Hence, Robeck the Englishman would not speak to Linda, even when she was standing no more than a few steps away. People in the office would pretend with their fingers to speak on a cell phone when they saw Danley. Wachuree’s temper was proven legitimate. Her dedication to order unshakeable.

I have never been cruel to people, even in America, which may, I have come to think, have been my downfall. So it wasn’t a surprise when Linda found me alone in the canteen a week after the student walk out. I was the only person who had not been directly cruel to her. And things seemed to have cooled down, though the notebook did not show. During my morning swim, two Thai girls had sat at the edge of the resort pool with their Lhasa Aphsa puppy. The puppy had bounced in and around the girls’ tangle of tan legs. We’d spoken in that strange place between a little English and a little Thai. I had a cell phone number crumpled in my pocket and was unsure to which girl it belonged.

The long, white benches of the canteen were dotted with students. I was feeding one of the local three-legged dogs shreds of ginger under the table and enjoying the giggles and stares from a group of students eating ice cream. I pushed a plate of pineapple to Linda’s side of the table. She jabbed a toothpick into a slice, and said, “it hasn’t been an easy week.”

I shrugged and tried to smile. “Maybe you should exercise,” I advised.

“Exercise what,” she asked.

A reasonable question. But I wasn’t thinking of exercising discretion or caution. “Your body,” I said. “You know run, jog, swim, et cetera. It’s good for stress.” I made some visual cues: a stroke for swimming, a stride for running with my arms.

“You’re saying, A, my notebook was stolen because I don’t exercise?”

“In a way,” I interrupted. “I’m saying that this might help.”

“And B,” she cut in a much softer voice. “I’m fat or something? Or stressed?”

“Exactly. Thais care a lot about appearance,” I said. “If you’re direct, confident.”

Linda’s face went white. An ugly thing to see up close. “You were nice,” she said.

“I still am. How do you want to see it?”

“Do you know who took my notebook?”

“Wasn’t me,” I said.

Linda snorted. Clearly, I’d just made her list of suspects.

We, the Westerners, shared a hidden bone of camaraderie – or seemingly so – with other expatriats; right or wrong, we were by definition, misfits. Even if we’d once come pure and optimistic, just being in Thailand made us sex tourists, pedophiles, miscreants. Truth? We were keeping truth a secret. A better life of resorts and low expectations made us human again. Linda, from the start, had never planned to stay more than a year or two. We knew this without asking. We wanted to stay forever. The notebook was a symbol of her desire to change Thailand, to modernize, to Westernize, to Christianize. I was not sure if I hated her, myself or the deserted country. I was too busy to decide.

Wachuree had something to show me in Building Six. This was intriguing because the closest I’d ever come to Building Six was after last year’s final exams when Patchuree, one of the Thai teachers just weeks away from retirement, had wandered off in that direction with the exams in a folder tucked under her arm.

We’d balanced on the edges of a cement gutter and squeezed through an alley, emerging at the side of the oldest building on campus. A high, cement wall was topped with razor wire and dead vines that looked like rope. I saw an old greenhouse. A crumbled tile roof open in the middle to let in the sun. Bamboo poles hung in a checkerboard across the ceiling. Flower beds like water troughs made of cement lay overgrown with dieffenbachia. This, Patchuree had said, used to be her orchid garden. She sat on the ground in the lotus position. I grabbed the folder of exams. For years she’d come at lunch to water orchids and cut flowers and just sit.

“Japanese department on the third floor,” Wachuree interrupted as we approached the ancient breezeway of Building Six.

“I had no idea,” I replied coming out of my reminiscence. “We teach Japanese? How is Patchuree,” I asked as we came into the shade.

“Patchuree grows sunflowers as tall as men and feeds her cats. She’s working on a book about the revolution,” she said. “Come on. I want to show you something.” This was spoken with a slightly impatient wave of her hand as if she were feigning enjoyment and her time with me was a chore. Déją vu.

The trick of Building Six was that the elevator would only go to the third floor. Once there, you exited and found the stairs, which were partially barricaded by a pile of rickety desks, and climbed up to the fourth. And then two sets of doors at the far end of the hall. Wachuree chose the farthest set and flipped through her big ring of keys, finally opening the first of three locks: a padlock, a deadbolt and a knob.

“This used to be my office,” she said and flung the doors wide.

“Where are the Japanese,” I asked.

“Not sure,” she said and showed me her teeth.

Her top lip seemed to fold up when she smiled. Waves of dimples framed her mouth and pooled in high cheekbones that buoyed the big frames of her glasses. She wore heavy silk dresses with long sleeves and padded shoulders, a dragonfly pendant above her left breast. She was patient with my ignorance. Not knowing what food to order when I’d first arrived, nor having a towel, a way to clean clothes, understanding squat toilets, directions; I foolishly waid bus drivers because they were old men and embarrassed her. She’d touched my arm and explained that it was status over age.

One time I went to dinner at her house. Her daughter, a chubby college student with a squeaky soprano voice, showed me pictures of Wachuree as a young woman. Standing in the deep focus of an old photograph on a dusty road, wild grass and bamboo forest in the background, a dark, wooden house on stilts with slatted windows, Wachuree leaned slightly to the right. I found the shape of her tan legs strangely attractive, the thin waist and full chest now so deftly hidden by heavy silk, impossible to turn from.

Wachuree let the padlock hang from the latch. Behind the wooden doors, a slider made of glass. Through the glass I saw heavy objects: a wooden hutch as tall as the ceiling, couches and chairs, air conditioning, two metal desks. The curtains at the far side of the rectangular room glowed yellow with sunlight. The hutch was filled with sweaty books. The right wall was completely glassed and covered with heavy, white curtains. There was a door.

Wachuree dropped her purse on the desk, glanced through a few papers then fell heavily into a leather chair. I flicked on the air-conditioning and Wachuree waved as if she didn’t need the cool air. She was a temperate phenomenon.

“Okay,” I said. “What’s in there?” I pointed to the glass wall behind Wachuree’s head.

“Your new job,” she replied.

Sometime before the economic crisis of the mid-nineties a grant had arrived from the Thai Ministry of Education in the hands of a Swiss ex-baker named Hans. Gambling debts from online roulette sites had prompted Hans to seek employment outside of the country. He believed a drastic change in environment would create an equally drastic change of habits. So, Hans became the Far East representative for an electronics company that sold an intricate and over-priced language sound and learning system consisting of booths and cassette recorders, headphones and microphones centrally wired through a control panel at the head of the classroom.

It was in this contraption’s leather captain’s chair where Wachuree sat and twisted dials. She slipped on the bulky headphones and spoke into a microphone that curved from the headset like pilot’s gear. “Test me. Test me.”

I opened a row of heavy curtains and looked below at a pond. Seen from above it was shaped like a dark kidney. A bamboo dock just wide enough for two people, curved out to the middle. A shirtless man stood at the end of it with a wicker basket. His walnut skin printed with muscles as he dipped the basket into the water and trolled. The soft bellies of little fish caught in the basket flashed white.

“I can’t remember how this works,” Wachuree said while pulling at the headphones.

A greenish monitor with a seating chart flashed numbers and icons imbedded in rows of dials and switches. The classroom was full of glass booths with small panels to record and speak and ring up the teacher.

“We want to get more use out of all this, but no one took the time.” She waved her hands at the room and rolled her eyes. A sarcastic invective for upper management.

I ticked off the advantages in my head: air-conditioning, a leather couch and chair, curtains, privacy, separation from the other Westerners. Less work.

I saw myself years, even decades later in those back rooms, with a tan and lean muscles, staring down at the pond, meeting students, saying easy words into a microphone, pressing buttons, recording voices. “I can’t find the instructions,” I said while digging through a drawer next to the control panel.

On my way back to Wachuree’s office to find the manuals, Linda caught me on the catwalk. “I know who stole my notebook,” she cried while wringing her dry hands in a knot at her breast.

“I’m in a hurry,” I replied. “We’re looking for the instructions. Everything’s in German.” I told her, but realized it was too much useless information. I was avoiding, maybe torturing her a little more.

“I really must speak with you.” She breathed.

“And?” I couldn’t throw off my impatience. “Who is it?”

“Wait.” She looked around her shoulder. “First, I have something to say.” She said it like a question, then continued without meeting my eyes. “It’s the whole western thing. They don’t trust it. Like TV,” she added with a little uncertainty. “it makes perfect sense. Listen! Comfort. You know?”

“Comfort,” I asked, a little vexed.

“I make them uncomfortable because I remind them of other women,” she said and looked both ways as if crossing a street. “Women who rejected them!”

“What other women for God’s sake? What are you saying?” I found the knife edge in my voice a little surprise.

At the sound of it the dog with one good eye poked its head beneath the railing and blinked. “One more thing.” I caught Linda’s chubby arm and squeezed until I felt her flesh ball in my palm. “I stole your goddamned notebook.”

It was a lie of course. I had no idea.

Three weeks later Linda was gone. We found a forty-something yoga instructor from New Zealand to replace her. Two months after that, Wachuree appeared in the office one afternoon with the notebook. She claimed to have found it behind a file cabinet in the lounge. We opened it on Danley’s desk (his was the cleanest and closest). A crowd formed around it as Danley thumbed through. Shortly, we were tearing pages from it and passing the pieces around like wedding cake. I kept a slice of good dialogue about poisonous snakes as well as an overhead with a diagram of the human body and lines pointing to body parts that students could name. Pretty soon the notebook held just a few torn sheets. We’d picked it clean. We had a laugh about Linda and her cell phone. Then, everyone went home or to class. I was in the office alone. I carried the notebook to a glassed-in bookcase. Inside the bookcase there were rows of identical spines. I remembered when Linda had first arrived and I had come here and pulled one out for her. How then I had been so happy to help.

about the author <$author?>

Erich Roby Sysak teaches writing and literature at Webster University, Thailand. His recent work has appeared in storySouth, Oxford Magazine, The Bangkok Post and Projected Letters.