But we were there for the fish family. All of the other vendors were ordinary, Josh said, nothing special, run-of-the-mill, the kind of stuff youd find outside the market of any two-bit town from Isaan to the Malay border. But the fish lady and family, boy howdy, they were something else. The prime ministers nephew told me about this place, Josh said, gesturing at the fish stall. Rows of silvery fish sprawled on a bed of ice, black-eyed, rainbow-gilled, and healthy-looking, as if they had just swum up minutes ago and were only resting; and below them massed ranks of clams, mussels, oysters, and ominous black anemones. Its better than the Oriental Hotel.
We sat down, and Josh ordered for us. Twice our waiter walked away from the table, and twice Josh called him back to order still more food. Josh was at ease in his domain, leaning back in his chair like a pasha. It was August, the trailing end of the rainy season, when everything oozes. Josh pulled a piece of toilet paper from the roll on the table and gently blotted his face and hands, then opened his satchel and pulled out a half-empty bottle of Johnny Walker Black.
Josh was a natural raconteur, but he wasnt much for the old give-and-take of normal conversation: he asked after my day and listened to my reply with a distracted air, nodding occasionally, until he could be patient no longer. Thats just great, he interrupted. He took another slurp from his drink. You know, Im glad youre in town. I need someone who really knows the up-country.
This was Joshs subtle way of forming a segue from conversation to monologue: in all his years in Thailand, Josh had come to know the north far better than I did. There was hardly a corner of the kingdom that Josh didnt know, where he wouldnt be greeted by the abbot of the Buddhist temple - or by the madam of the best bordello - with a huge smile.
I waited to hear what Josh had to say. He paused for a second, as if gathering his strength. He leaned his heavy forearms on the plastic table. He pouted his heavy lips and flared his nostrils. He strained his round neck from side to side. Then he launched his story. There is no other way to describe it: a Josh OConnor story is like a giant cruise ship leaving port, and when you make a dinner date with Josh OConnor, you know in advance that you are going to set sail. Its part of the deal. Its a design feature, not a bug.
Do you remember Wim DeKlerk? Josh began.
He didnt wait for me to reply. In any case, I did remember Wim: he was a functionary at the Dutch embassy, and a drinking buddy of Joshs. The last time I was in Bangkok, I took Josh and Wim home from Royal City Avenue in a taxi, both of them singing Steely Dan songs at the top of their lungs. They were celebrating a stock tip that Josh had passed on to Wim from the prime ministers nephew. Apparently, Wim had made a killing.
Well, about a year ago, I got a call from Wim. Some lady in Holland had called him, asking if he knew anybody who would go and visit her niece up at Chiang Mai Central Prison. This womanthe niece, not the lady in Holland, the niece is named Martiya, her aunt is Elena, both of them are van der Leun, are you following all this?her uncle had just died, and the niece, Martiya, has inherited some money. Wim tells me the aunt wants somebody to go up there and take care of the details, you know, look this Martiya in the eye, explain what happened, make sure she understands everything. The aunt is about a zillion years old, doesnt want to travel, the niece wont reply to her letters, so she wants somebody to take care of this in person. Wim asks if I want to do it.
The story didnt surprise me: I remembered Wim telling me about his job at the embassy. Every day, he had told me, a worried parent called him from Amsterdam looking for a detective to help track down a child lost in the island rave culture; or a textile importer from Utrecht would call, asking him to recommend a crackerjack accountant to go over a potential business partners books. Offering advice to Dutch people on how to get things done in Thailand was his specialty. Once, he told me, he had even helped a circus in Maastricht get an export permit for an elephant.
Excerpted from Fieldwork by Mischa Berlinski. Copyright © 2007 by Mischa Berlinski. Published in February 2007 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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