Joe's Lament

"The women there have lovely thighs...."

The old man broke into a violent fit of laughter, launching his breath, spiced with curry and whiskey, across the bar.

"That's what they told me when I said I was coming out here," he continued, running his hand over his thin hair.

He never explained who "they" were, but I took "out here" to mean Thailand... specifically Northeastern Thailand, near the border of Laos, this rickety wooden outpost, this particular bar.

My backpack slid off my shoulders and dropped to the floor. I made no effort to pick it up. That morning Andy and I had set out before dawn to fly from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh to Bangkok to Udon Thani. From there we caught a minibus to Nong Khai and arrived around 8PM at this bar. We were heading, in our own roundabout way, to Laos.

Traveling to Laos through northern Cambodia would have been suicidal. So instead we followed a complex jigsaw pattern, all the way to this carefully selected location - The Meeting Place in Nong Khai. Visas into Laos are sometimes hard to come by, but according to several sources, the Australian owner of this border town bar could deliver the paperwork no problem.

The route from Siem Reap to Nong Khai sounded easy enough in theory, back when we mapped it out over a couple of drinks in Washington, D.C. But by the time we staggered through the door, I was ready to drop.

The drunk man across the bar draped his lanky frame over an Australian couple's table and began to stroke the woman's arm. "You're a very pretty lady," he slurred. He had the most stereotypical cockney accent I've ever heard - the kind I didn't believe existed. The "shine your shoes, guvnah?" type of accent in My Fair Lady. The Australian woman did her best to ignore his advances. As he caressed her hand, the woman and her husband carried on their conversation as if the drunk was a waiter refilling her water glass.

I stood across the room, admiring the grace with which they endured his pawing. Andy ducked into the back to find Alan, the owner, while I stretched and sat down at the bar. I could feel lines of sweat where my backpack had pressed up against my shirt. My long hair was lumped into a lopsided ponytail; flyaway strands brushed against my cheeks. My eyelids hovered at half mast, and my posture fell into an unattractive slump.

A black boxer, its tail wagging furiously, pressed his cold nose against my leg. He wore a heavy metal chain and padlock around his neck. With his black hair and chain link collar, the dog reminded me of Sid Vicious from the Sex Pistols. I scratched behind his ears, and he flopped over onto his back, exposing his embarrassingly large, uncastrated self. I slid off the bar stool and sat down next to him on the floor.

Across the room, a young boy played with a plastic frog. His mother smiled at me from behind the bar. Behind her, taped to the wall, was a poster of a Thai woman grinding papayas between her spread open thighs.

When the Australian couple stood up to leave, the old man insisted upon walking them to the door. Actually, he supported himself on the woman's elbow as he bumbled towards the door. He fondled her hand for a few more seconds and mumbled affections. Finally she pulled her hand away, smiled politely and left. He stood dazed in the doorway for a moment or two, then shook his shaggy mane like a wet dog. Finally he dropped his gangly butt on a bar stool and ordered a drink. Then suddenly, he got up and disappeared into the lavatory.

Andy emerged from the back room, sat down next to me and scratched the dog's throat. He said the owner was pretty cool and could take care of the visas in the morning. He started to pet the dog's stomach but quickly retracted his hand when he saw its enormous genitals. He shook his head in amazement, smiled and went back to scratching the dog's throat.

"I figured we could stay here tonight." Andy tilted his head towards the stairs. "The room's a dump, even the owner said that, but for three bucks a night, I won't complain."

I didn't feel like standing up, let alone putting on my backpack and wandering around the city to look for a hotel. Too tired to talk, I simply nodded in agreement.

"The owner tells me the rooms are for customers who are too drunk to go home." Andy wiped his face with his shirt tail and smiled. "It should be interesting."

The bartender, it turned out, was the owner's wife. Since no other customers were in the bar, she and a friend sat down on a couch by the door. A tan colored poodle ran out from behind the bar and jumped into her lap. She was a beautiful Thai woman, in her late twenties, early thirties. Her son, who looked about nine years old, sat on a chair beside them. The women joked with each other in Thai, then after a few minutes, turned to us and asked about our travels. As Andy told them about Cambodia, the owner's wife leaned back and tucked her foot under her thigh.

Suddenly, the lavatory door flew open, and the old drunk stumbled out. He flashed a goofy grin and sat down next to the owner's wife. She poked at his back and laughed. I couldn't understand what she was saying since she was speaking in Thai, but I could tell she was teasing him about something. He answered back in Thai, but by the look on his face, it was clear that his stuttered comeback was no match for her wit. Her friend put her hand over her mouth, trying to suppress a laugh. Even the boy pressed his lips together trying to hold it in. Finally, the owner's wife pulled a piece of masking tape off the man's back. The tape had words on it: "Joe" and then something in Thai. The women giggled and patted the drunk man on the shoulder. He ran his hand through his hair and laughed along.

When the laughter calmed down, the boy ran off to bed, and the friend headed home. I started to get up off the floor, but the dog whined, so I decided to pet him for just a few more minutes. The owner's wife pulled down a rack of metal bars and secured a heavy padlock. She switched off all but a few lights, and left us alone with drunk Joe, who was, as he announced, too tanked to make it home to his wife.

Joe struggled to his feet, and just as I thought he was turning toward the stairs, he made an awkward jerky adjustment and staggered over to Andy and me.

"Is she your wife?" Joe asked Andy, tilting his head toward me. "Yes," Andy lied.

Joe continued as if Andy hadn't said anything, "Because I wouldn't want to get a punch in the nose."

"Not from me," Andy smiled. "But you might get one from her."

Joe threw his head back and laughed.

"I warned you," Andy shrugged.

The old man was harmless really. He was way too uncoordinated to pose any real threat. His willowy frame couldn't stand up to a good gust of wind at this point, let alone any defensive reaction from me. Andy and I could see that, and besides, he had captured our interest.

Joe plopped down next to me and picked up my hand. He sat with one knee up in the air and the other on the floor. Then he began caressing the back of my hand in sloppy, crooked strokes. I politely pulled my hand away, but he grabbed for it, like a child reaching for a butterfly that had escaped his grasp.

"It's OK," he reassured. "I'm drunk. I only want to talk to you." He mumbled something else in a soothing tone, then staring talking about white women. The dog moaned and shook his leg, trying to wrestle my attention away from Joe.

The owner's wife came back out to wipe off the bar. She chastised Joe in Thai, and in turn, he let out a loud, guttural "gaaaaahhhh." She shook her head and went back to her room.

Joe turned his attention back to my hand. I let him paw it. What the hell. He was a drunk old man. There was no danger in this guy.

"I'm going to talk to you like a Thai woman," he forewarned. Then he spoke gently, soothingly in Thai, as if he had forgotten how to woo women in English. As he worked his charm, his eyebrows moved up and inward. His head tilted slightly to the left. I stared at the blue veins under his thin white skin and the deep wrinkles that framed his eyes. He drew my hand up to his mouth to kiss it. His black teeth hung precariously from his gray gums, and instinctively I pulled my hand away.

"Please," he dropped his head. "I'm drunk," he informed us again, just in case we had forgotten. "I only get drunk once every three months. I live in a village 15 kilometers away, and every three months, I come here to drink. A man can do that, can't he?"

He pleaded with us to have a drink with him, just one beer. But who knows how long that could last. Out of nowhere, he shifted subjects.

"I can't speak good Thai," he began. "My son can speak English, Thai, Isaan (the Thai dialect of northeast Thailand)." I've been here seven years and I still only speak Isaan. My son can sit in a room and speak English to me, Thai to his mother, and Isaan to his grandmother. Changing languages by just turning his head."

Joe changed subjects again, trying desperately to keep our attention. "He killed his first snake the other day," he said of his son. "We weren't mad. It could have killed him. It wasn't a big snake, but it was poisonous. If we hadn't gotten the antidote in a couple hours, if it bit him that is, he would have died."

"What kind of snake was it," I cut in.

"Oh, I dunno," he tumbled over his words. "It had stripes and green and colors. It was deadly poisonous though."

The dog wagged his tail as I scratched his neck. Meanwhile Joe rambled on about how he didn't normally like westerners, not even his own kind. But we were OK as far as he was concerned. The owner's wife called out to the dog from her room, but he just kept wagging his tail. Joe kicked the dog and pointed to the back room. The pup let out a high pitched yelp and ran away. Then, knowing that he finally had our undivided attention, he picked up my hand again. But just as he launched into a string of Thai affections, another westerner appeared at the metal gate.

"Where's Alan?" The man asked with a non-descript North American accent. Dressed in a cutoff shirt and a camouflage vest, he was an intimidating figure. He had tattoos all the way up his muscular arms, short hair and a kind a weathered mercenary look about him.

"He's in bed," I answered looking up at him.

"Eight o'clock and he's in f----n' bed?" The stranger scoffed.

"Are you ex-military?" Joe pointed to his camouflage vest.

"F--k no," he jerked his chin upward to accentuate his denial.

Joe picked himself up off the floor. "I'll get Alan," he slurred.

"Tell him Bob from Canada is here."

Joe stumbled off to the other room.

"And tell that Aussie bastard he owes me a thousand baht!" The Canadian called after him. "I'm going around the back entrance," he added, then disappeared around the corner.

Alan, the Australian owner of the bar, came out from his room. Joe followed close behind trying to tuck in his shirt tail. Alan had white hair, ruddy cheeks and a barkeep's nonchalant demeanor. He casually nodded our way.

As Andy and I stood up, Canadian Bob came in through the back. Alan slapped him on the shoulder like an old drinking buddy and poured a couple beers.

Joe, still trying to tuck in his shirt tail, urged us to have beer with them. But Andy and I were too tired and admittedly too intimidated by the paramilitary Canadian. Still trying to hold our attention, Joe quipped, "Where are from in the States?"

"Washington, D.C.," I told him, then asked, "Where are you from in England?"

From that simple question, Joe dove into the drunken, jumbled cliffnotes of his life. He gave us the PG-13 version, I think. A couple f--ks slipped in from time to time, and he threw in a few "I'm going to speak frankly" disclaimers. It turns out he was born in London in 1936. (I swear he looked much older than 61.) His wife died when Joe was in his twenties. Shattered by the loss, he left England and bummed around South America for some time. Several years ago, he and a friend decided it was time to move on. Joe wanted to go to Bolivia (or someplace like that), but his friend insisted that Thailand was the place to be. They decided to wager the location over a game of darts. Joe lost. He challenged his friend to a rematch over a game of pool. Joe lost. After a couple more rematches (and as many losses for Joe), they ended up in Thailand. They set up a business, which flopped because apparently his partner spent all the money on women. He started to talk about various three-somes he'd been involved in, then skipped ahead to the time he and his friend decided to take Thai wives.

"So I took a Thai wife, and I am so lucky. I could have got a bad one, but I got a good one."

After getting hitched, he started his own business selling sod.

"Nobody had sod here," he explained. "But do you know why? Because it doesn't f---ing grow here!"

So then he started a rubber tree business, and now he has a [mumbled] number of trees. But he went on to explain that he's not a happy man, even though his wife is nice. And every three months he comes to town to get drunk and could he please kiss my hand?

He picked up my hand again and brought it to his lips. "It's been so long since I've kissed a white woman," he slobbered. "About..."

I cut him off, "About 20 minutes since the Australian lady left."

His shoulders cringed inward, and he slurred softly, "I didn't kiss her."

Truthfully I don't know if he did or not. I didn't have the right angle, but at any rate, I was by no means the first woman to be "blessed" with his affections.

He lifted my hand again. I didn't pull away. He gently pressed his lips to my knuckles, then tenderly set down my hand. He bowed his head like a gentleman and said goodnight. Dishevelled, flattered and taken back by the tenderness of his kiss, I just nodded.

Andy and I walked up the stairs, and Joe joined the men at the bar. I dropped my backpack as soon as we entered our room and curled up on the lumpy mattress. The room was directly above the bar, and light from below shot up through the floor boards. Soon enough, I fell asleep... to the sound of glass clinking and Joe laughing.