“There’s man all over for you, blaming on his boots the faults of his feet.”
Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot
I was sprawled out, wrinkled, rumpled, unbuckled, slouched out all over the carriage of a tuk-tuk. Informal pose, semi-formal wear. If a person can still qualify for “semi” just by wearing a tie, even as he’s sweating like Chris Farley when he was looking sick and like to die, mid-sketch, full sketchy, right there under the Klieg lights. I was prone and pathetic in a gesture of obeisance to the heat, a lazy surrender, a dog rolling over and showing its belly to some unseen Alpha male.
I had become accustomed to the objectionable. An unreasonably endless drive into town, to get from the room I was renting at a house on the outskirts of the city, out past the airport, reasons various for my presence there, none of them compelling. If I wanted to engage with Phnom Penh proper it meant an unhappy superheated commute to and then through the busy streets that serve as the trash-strewn centers of the city for barang of all stripes and types and inclinations. When traffic was heavy my eyelids got heavier.
I passed most of the late morning insensible, laid out length-wise, like the corpse of a Roman Senator at the end of all his feasts. His body still bloated from feeding, just moments ago he felt nauseous from wine; but now he feels nothing, no pain, no desire, and that nothing is something divine.
Which is to say: I was out of it. Half-dozing, near-drooling, nodding off, dope dreaming in the innards of my own mobile opium den, blissfully asleep and mostly unaware of bodily encumbrances and physical realities. Hot? Cold? Unconscious. Pain? Pleasure? There is no weather. I’d taken nothing pharmaceutical nor chemical, medical or recreational, but the heat had me beat. Beat down and tired out and my clothes needed to be wrung out, and maybe I was hung over, but then who wasn’t these days? I’d survived thousands of those and I’d kept it upright and could hold on steady come the rain, sleet, or snow. Please? Please come? Rain? Come on, Sleet? Mr. Snow?
My blissful somnolence was often encroached upon and cruelly broken by ruinous roads that kept my world shuddering and shaking and I’d be jolted into sudden waking, lurching upright in little fits with excited starts of small dismay when I see that it is day, the Sun still hung high in our sky. I closed my eyes and hid from the angry light, and before too long I’d find that I’d lost myself, curled up comfortably in the corner of my mind, slipping to sleeping again and no more nearer to any new destination as not. Adrift, abroad, and at the mercy of the city.
The driver must have been in a deep trance of his own pathology, because he never bothered me with any doubts if he had them, never stopped to ask any questions of his fellow drivers, never just creeped to a halt, never coughed politely as he proceeded to wait for me to waken. He just kept going.
Eventually, of course, some little pangs of my anxiety began to perk up. My notably weak instinct for self-preservation is never of much use, so then probably it was just my weary curiosity. My misgivings began doing a slow burn on my theretofore bountiful patience, and as I lost faith in the wisdom of the whole endeavor, I began plotting to return to my remote headquarters and start investigating opportunities for teaching further north, much further north, maybe even as far north as I could go without finding myself heading south again.
I had no idea that the tuk-tuk wasn’t going anywhere in particular. I had no idea that the tuk-tuk had no idea that I had no idea where I was going either. It shouldn’t have been remotely possible for him to assume that some pale faced fatso from beyond the limits of the ocean’s horizon somehow knew how to get around town better than he did. Since this was WHAT he did. For a fucking living! And yet, within a few months he’d be right as rain in the monsoon months; I would know where to go, how to get there, no problem, and yet – still, he would not.
How could this possibly be? It is an enduring mystery. I’d do a study, but I’m no scientist. I’d write a book about it, but nobody would read it. Cambodia for Beginners: A Teacher’s Guide to Learning How to Teach Motodops to Learn anything about a map of Phnom Penh. A Street 51 Named Desire. Bury My Heart at Street 104. I’m no Graham Greene. I’m just another quiet American.
I’d like to say our epic journey to the Ends of the Afternoon was a bonding experience, and we’d become lifelong friends since then, but this was not to be, partly due to me, you see, because I very firmly wanted him dead at that point. I’d have paid another driver $10 to run him over for me if I thought any of them would be able to make change on a $20, but even I wasn’t that naive.
Want to know when he stopped driving aimlessly? When his brain hit pause to examine the flaws on our Long Day’s Journey into Night of the Living Brain-dead Tuk-Tuk? (And let me take pains to include myself there in the zombie horde, just one small step ahead of The Walking Dead by Riding instead.) Ahem.
When did he finally put it in park and wonder where his life was very literally heading?
When he straight up just ran out of fucking gas.
Had Tesla or some such inventor created a miracle motor, one that ran forever, I’m confident that we’d still be going, the pair of us, not slowing down in the least. In fact, most likely, we’d start accelerating and through some trick of gravity we’d attain tremendous speeds and finally, with enough momentum built up, we’d launch skyward, escape orbit, and rocket directly outward so that we’d be in perfect position to eventually find out what the King Father was doing puttering about up there on the moon, peering down on Cambodia like a confused but kindly Grandfather trying to operate a webcam for the first time.
Not to be, sadly. Sadly, not to be. I was in the middle of yet another attempt to make myself understood or make myself understand him, to negotiate some peaceful end to what was beginning to feel like a hostage scenario though I wasn’t sure who was holding who captive, and the matter resolved itself quietly, even gradually.
The tuk-tuk rolled to a stop and the driver hopped off his seat and scanned the horizon intently like some starving sailor trying to sight the salvation of a distant and, before now, unknowable land. Very romantic. The reality? He was a tuk-tuk driver, a peasant gone urban, meandering about the city in perpetual shock like Alice in Wonderland or Dorothy in Oz, despite the fact that he was indeed perhaps only twenty minutes away from the place where he usually laid his head.
It occurred to me that the appointed hour for my meeting at the school, though always somewhat loosely fixed, had (even loosely) come and gone some time ago by any decent standard of timekeeping. I got on my $14 Metfone and dialed the number for the school. Already, I felt nervous. Before I even started work there, I was already a no show. Who the fuck manages to do that? Seriously? Other than me, who pulls shit like that? Nobody. Ever. That’s who.
Music to my western ears discordant played in place of ringing. It ceased and then a quiet voice, hushed, whispering carefully. I couldn’t fucking hear that, so I interrupted him.
Ah, uh, yes, yeah. Who call please?
This is Ned Kelly, I’m a teacher from America, we spoke on the phone very briefly earlier in the week and I —
YES YES YES I know, I remember. Yes. Ok. Well you see because of my father, he died. I am not go work today, because of pagoda.
Ah, so – then, well could I meet with some—
NO-NO-NO-No-no, you meet me sure, but never today, you come on Monday if you can please.
Uh, I can do that. Ok. Sure.
I apology, but very busy for my family.
I understand entirely, uh, my condolences … You know, my father actually just di-
He was off the line and gone. Both of our fathers, apparently, were very permanently and personally offline. Very gone. I hope his went before discovering that his son was calling himself fucking Ricky. Whatever his name was in Khmer, it couldn’t have been as bad as that. In all fairness, I couldn’t possibly blame him for my day wasted roaming the city barely awake or half asleep, take your pick, inexplicably unable to rouse myself from vegetative torpor or clear my head of careless stupor. I figured it was the heat. Right? Just the heat. Right? I wasn’t ready for it and it made me drowsy. No big deal. Right?
I heard laughter from a distance, on high but impossibly so. Up high – but higher than overhead. Bellowing across the astronomical distance separating us, rolling through the void of space, hammering at me, inside my head, in waves of choking heat. As the Sun dipped down to disappear for the night, I felt it focus itself on me so that I was illuminated by a solar spotlight, flaring forth, a brief pause in the process of setting. As it shined on me, only for me, the Sun smiled. It smiled at me without lips or face, just the merest hint of features etched in the flames. With a sudden spreading, the vague expression on that celestial body went through a rapid detuning, losing all harmony, dropping down into blazing distortion and blowtorch feedback. The Sun had opened the primordial furnace it had put to purpose as a mouth… and it showed me its teeth. An inferno of fiery teeth.
It was going to get hotter.
Ned can also be found on Twitter.