Miss Thailand Country Band
Lek waited forty-five minutes in the university garden before he accepted that his student wasn’t coming for a guitar lesson. Each lesson was worth two hundred baht, and this kid had stood him up for the second week in a row. Lek lost four hundred baht altogether—a half a month’s rent he’d been stiffed. Now he would have to ask his landlord if he could pay her Tuesday night, after his other student paid him. He’d quit the band, just as the pastor told him to, and he thought he could survive on teaching money, but in just a month he’d gone from two students to one, from four hundred to two hundred baht a week. He could not live on two hundred baht a week.
He leaned his back into the bench and picked arpeggios near a wall papered with handwritten advertisements, including the one for his lessons he’d penned in bold blue marker asking for two hundred baht, or as little as he could, for hourly lessons. Students sauntered by: boys carrying badminton racquets and basketballs; girls sucking cubed watermelon from the tips of wooden sticks. A tall kid passed with a worn-out acoustic strapped to his back. “First lesson is free,” Lek called to him. “Afterward, one hundred baht for one whole hour.” He ignored Lek and crossed to the other side of the pond where he joined a group of boys at a white marble table. Soon, the boys were shouting over the kid’s simple chords in a grating, flat-toned chorus.
Lek played until the sun slipped down behind the high-rises, until a row of lanterns lit the pathway lined with banana trees, until mosquitoes swarmed at his ankles and he couldn’t brush them off while maintaining the rhythm of his strum. “Father God,” he prayed while he zipped his guitar in its soft case. “Lord Jesus, I am in serious need of some cash.”
When God didn’t respond, Lek went around the corner to see if Ba Muang had anything for him to eat. The one-toothed woman scraped the last of her papaya slivers from a mortar bowl onto a clump of sticky rice and served it to him in Styrofoam. She said he looked famished and threw in a fish she’d cooked for a customer by mistake, which was now mushy beneath its black rubbery skin.
Lek and Ba Muang came from the same village. She once accompanied him and his mother to the temple on mornings, where the three of them delivered leftover rice to the hungry monks. But Ba Muang could not cook like his mother; her fish tasted faintly of the canal. Lek didn’t complain. He sat on the curb outside a nearby convenience store and peeled the milky flesh from the bones with the end of his spoon.
As he ate, a purple motorbike pulled up and splashed the afternoon rain onto his shins.
It was Geng’s motorcycle. It was Geng.
Not that long ago, the two of them paid rent with tips they pocketed for nightly renditions of songs by the Eagles, Eric Clapton, and the B-52s. They were just a couple of Isan boys then, boys from Srisaket Province who played country songs in their market; just two more Isan boys who came to Bangkok looking for fame.
These days, Geng and Lek rarely spoke—not since Lek became a Christian and his pastor told him that playing in pubs contradicted God’s plan for his life. Lek quit the band in obedience and tried to use his gift while earning his living in more honorable ways. That was why, when Geng showed up on the same day he’d lost a student, he wasn’t sure if their encounter was Satan’s tempting or God’s testing. Maybe it was God’s provision.
“From Ba Muang?” Geng said, shouting over his motor. He shook his head in disapproval and let out a belly laugh. “I thought your Jesus would have made you rich by now.”
Lek smiled weakly. “If I had known you were coming I would have saved you some.”
Geng sat next to him and the convenience store doorbell sounded behind them in two electric chimes. They stretched their arms to collect the air conditioning that swept forth to the street. “I’ve found a drummer,” Geng said, and rambled on about how he’d met the kid through an advertisement on the Web—a boy from Mahidol University, some sort of prodigy. His uncle owned a restaurant near Victory Monument and he needed a band to play a couple sets during dinnertime. “500 baht a night, Lek. Per person.”
“I’m happy for you.” Lek wanted to mean it.
“All we need is the guitar.”
“I sold my electric last month,” said Lek. “Or I’d offer to lend it.”
“We have the instrument. We just need someone to play it.”
Geng wore a t-shirt from a concert they’d once attended at Impact Arena, but Lek could not recall the name of the band. He did remember that when the lead singer appeared on stage, he shouted a greeting to the crowd in Thai but attached the feminine ending to the phrase. Not only that, but he mispronounced a tone and so it sounded like he’d said, Hello, kill! Geng had stolen the shirt from a vendor on the way out. It was black with “Death Metal” across the chest in silver farang letters, which made Lek wonder if the singer had intended his mistake. Now that shirt had a tear near the collar, and the fabric squeezed against Geng’s gut, lifting a little as he removed his helmet. “I didn’t think your Jesus would care if you played in a restaurant,” he said.
Would Jesus mind?
Pastor Stevens had told Lek that if he wanted to worship God with music he couldn’t play it for entertainment. The bar scene might tempt Lek to go back to his old faith in wooden gods and man’s approval. Lek cringed at the thought of sharing a cigarette with Geng in a vomit-smelling alley after a show. “I’ll talk to my pastor about it,” he said.
“I’ll tell you what,” said Geng. “I’ll come to church with you. I’ll come to your church if you come back to the band.”
Lek shifted away from Geng, dismissing his familiar manipulations.
“This is good news, Lek,” Geng said. “How do you know it didn’t come from your Jesus?”
The question sobered him. He’d attended World Outreach Ministries for nearly four months, but he still had no idea how to tell God’s work apart from everything else. He was afraid this meant that he was not a godly man, because godly men had discernment. He wanted to be godly. He wanted to be like those men at Bible classes who understood everything God said through the scriptures because it was through the scriptures, Pastor Stevens said, that they could tell right from wrong. And even though the pastor urged his congregation to read God’s Word until they memorized it, to use the verses in a battle against the world’s confusion, Lek found that those words perplexed him as much as Geng’s question. For instance: why did God call himself bread and then command people to eat bread? Lek didn’t even like bread that much. But if learning to like bread would help him to understand what came from God and what came from Satan, Lek was willing to incorporate more into his diet. “Do you want to know God?” he asked.
Geng laughed and returned his helmet to his head. “If he agrees to make me rich.”
Four months ago, after a night of gambling away a week’s worth of pub wages, Lek spent a Saturday morning with his guitar strapped to his back, walking five kilometers from his home to his regular corner near Siam Square. He’d just wanted to play long enough to collect the amount of baht needed to purchase a bowl of noodles.
When he got there, he’d found a crowd gathered around a farang girl singing in Thai. Her pronunciation of the lyrics sounded just like a native’s. A Thai man in a nice blue suit stood behind her and strummed an acoustic guitar. Although the man seemed to have money, Lek could see that he was just another amateur, strumming simple chords with no volume control. The girl, on the other hand, commanded her voice to sail above the sky train’s squeal as it passed above them, her sound smooth like a stream with no stones to interrupt it. Lek had pushed his way through the cluster of people and saw that she was a teenager, though she didn’t dress like one. She wore a full-length skirt and buttoned-up blouse, her yellow hair woven into a single braid that hung over her shoulder, like a rope reaching into a well.
She sang about her God—Pra Yesu—beckoning her listeners to exchange their burdens for a new life. Lek listened until they finished, at first so he could grab their performance spot once they left, but eventually because their songs clutched at him, tightening their grip with every verse.
Afterwards, the girl passed out small comic books to her audience, with pictures of burning buildings and Thai people sobbing with hands lifted, crying out. He wasn’t sure what this meant, but it captured something of how he’d felt before he’d heard her music—how his money tended to turn to smoke. These drawings depicted his anger at himself, his shame. The next Sunday, he found the church from an address stamped onto the back cover.
The church was not white. It didn’t have white marble pews in front of a large white statue of Christ. No white marble floor. Instead, the people sat on gray folding chairs spread across a pale brown carpet. There were no statues at all—no Mother of Christ standing over them in her rich blue robe. No Christ hanging from a cross. In fact, there was nothing decorative in the room besides a row of fake poinsettia plants lining the pulpit. He marveled most that the people were not white. Yes, some farangs filled the seats—later he’d think of them as the young couple from Canada, the Australian family, the Russian model and her boyfriend. He’d learned that Pastor Stevens and his wife were from Boston. But he did not anticipate the Filipinos, the Japanese man who worked for Honda, the students and families from India and Africa. The majority, he found, were Thai people: Thais who stretched their palms to the ceiling, earnestly nodding with serious expressions, Thais as devoted as those who came from Christian places. Near the altar, the same farang girl sang songs with lyrics projected behind her on a screen—lines of Thai script above the farang phonetic spellings. The same guitar player spoke to him after the service; he introduced himself as Mr. Tong and told Lek that the singer was the pastor’s daughter, and that her name was Miriam.
After running into Geng, Lek imagined him coming to church and meeting Miriam, and then afterwards complaining that she was so serious all the time, asking, Does she have a sense of humor at all? Geng wouldn’t understand that for God, music represented worship; worship was a big responsibility and required reverence. Reverence wasn’t exactly Geng’s strong point, and Lek wasn’t sure how people would react to him at the church. He didn’t know what Miriam would think of Geng’s foul mouth. His crass humor. Worse, he didn’t know what Miriam’s parents would think of him when they learned he once had friends like Geng. Maybe they wouldn’t trust him anymore to lead music on Sundays. Maybe he shouldn’t let Geng come to church at all—not if he wasn’t even seeking God. Did Pastor Stevens want people there who weren’t seeking God?
The day after Geng approached Lek at Ba Muang’s, Lek visited Pastor Stevens’ condo. Lek would speak to the pastor, as he told Geng he would, but not about the band. He would just prepare them for possibly meeting Geng.
Outside the gate, Lek passed a uniformed guard sprawled on a chaise and wearing sunglasses. Lek couldn’t tell if the man was sleeping until he sat up and called to him: “Hold on there, boy.” From the man’s tone, Lek thought he was about to be accused of a recent robbery committed in the complex. The guard said, “You’re one of the ones who came here for that ceremony.”
“No, it was you. Last month.” He explained that he’d been watching when the pastor held a ceremony in the condo’s swimming pool, he’s watched the ceremony several times, but no one explained to him why fifty people, from what seemed like every country in the world, would come to their condo and watch a farang push a Thai man under water.
Lek started to tell him what the pastor had told him about the ceremony’s significance, about how Jesus said to do it because…He couldn’t remember. Something about how when Jesus had a cleansing ceremony, a dove flew down from a cloud and announced he was the Son of God—all of which made less sense now.
“What I want to know is, why do they start clapping after the man goes under the water?” The man laughed. “Why do farangs love to see the Thai man get dunked?”
After the baptism, Miriam had passed him the towel and pointed him to the food table. “How do you make money?” she’d asked while his mouth was full of spicy pork salad. Her Thai was as articulate as when she sang praise songs.
“I play music,” he’d told her. “How can you speak Thai so well?”
She told him that she and her brothers had been born in Bangkok. Then, she ran over to Mr. Tong and asked if Lek could borrow his guitar. “Play something,” she said when she handed him the instrument.
For the rest of the afternoon, they sat slumped on her family’s teakwood sofa, where Lek told her of how he learned to play so well—how his mother had a job cleaning a farang’s summer home, and how he’d helped her with the dusting and came across a shelf of cassette tapes: Crosby, Stills and Nash, Simon and Garfunkel. Lek also told her how he found a Martin guitar in its case. When the farangs left for beach holidays, he’d take the tapes home with him and listen to them over and over, until he’d perfectly emulated their songs on the farang’s guitar. Miriam asked him to repeat the story on other days. She called him a genius. Lek noticed that when he told her about his life, he was able to recognize God’s hand in every detail. He figured she saw him as a godly man. He was not a godly man, but he wanted her to believe so.
He rang the doorbell and Miriam’s brother, Benjamin, answered. “You’re just in time for dinner,” he said in Thai almost as perfect as his sister’s. “We’re going to eat outside and watch the sun go down.”
On the balcony, Miriam slid across the bench she shared with her youngest brother, Daniel. The city sprawled behind her in a tangle of condominium skyscrapers. Over the concrete ledge, Lek peered into an abandoned alleyway dotted with stray dogs lounging in the shadows. They perked as a woman pushed a noodle cart past them. Lek squeezed into the space on the bench across from Benjamin. At that point, the only food on the table was a basket of sliced bread and individually wrapped packets of butter. Lek hoped that part of the meal was optional.
The five waited as Mrs. Stevens filled the small table without their help, first with a bowl of pasta saturated in more butter and caked with Parmesan, followed by a pan of snap peas. Their smells made Lek’s stomach turn. Then she brought out a plate of pink beef soaking in a pool of bloody juice. Lek stumbled as he said, “I don’t eat beef.”
The pastor said something in English and Miriam whispered a translation: “He said Thais don’t eat beef because of the Hinduism in their culture.”
“We’re Buddhist,” Lek whispered. He’d said this by instinct but then corrected quickly, “Most Thais, I mean. I just don’t like beef.” Miriam nodded.
The pastor prayed and Miriam grabbed his hand, which Lek would have enjoyed if he were not losing his appetite by the second. He spooned the pasta onto his plate and could only manage a few bites. If Geng could see him now, he’d never let him live it down.
“I have a friend who wants to visit the church,” Lek said.
“Wonderful,” the pastor said.
Lek glanced at Miriam for a reaction, but she gave none. “He’s from my hometown,” he said, and then explained that Geng was a musician.
“What does he play?” asked Miriam.
“Bass. We used to play together.”
In broken Thai that Miriam and her brothers filled in for Lek, the pastor preached about how God was using Lek to connect to the music community in Bangkok, how Lek had done a good thing by redirecting his talent from entertainment to the Lord. “Now the other musicians will see the real meaning behind their gifts,” he said.
He pictured a stadium full of Thai people lifting their hands and crying, like in the comic book, surrendering their lives to God while he and Geng played from the stage, leading their nation in praise songs. Maybe, he thought, it was God, not Geng who had brought him to Bangkok. Maybe this is what God had intended for him all along.
The sky darkened and windows lit up across the city. He asked Miriam if she ever thought about how many people lived there, and wondered how God could remember all of their names.
“Not really,” she said.
After the service on Sunday, Geng and Lek shared a large bowl of chicken tom yum from a nearby food stand. The April humidity heaped on their skin like a layer of wool; an occasional cloud pushed through the sky.
The day was not going at all as Lek had hoped. For one thing, he thought Geng would have dressed more respectfully, and wondered if he was wearing that same “Death Metal” shirt just to spite him, or, at least, to show he didn’t care. It was hard to tell why Geng made these choices. Sometimes he seemed oblivious to what other people expected of him; at other times, he just seemed cruel. Lek wanted to believe that Geng chose that shirt because he hadn’t gotten around to his laundry. Darker clothes appeared cleaner for longer.
He also thought that Geng would be bubbling over with questions from the experience—that he’d want an explanation of the sermon, which they’d listened to in translation through headphones. But Geng didn’t ask about the sermon. Instead, he said: “You didn’t tell me you played music with a farang.” He dipped his spoon into the broth and let it drip slowly over his pile of rice. “How old is she?”
Lek didn’t know her exact age, just that she hadn’t started college. “Farangs don’t like you to ask.”
“Farangs like to make money,” Geng said as he chewed. “She could get us work in a hotel lobby. How about Khao San Road?”
“Forget it,” Lek said.
“Think about the tips we’d make from all those farangs on vacation.”
“She’s the pastor’s daughter.”
Geng slapped his palm to his forehead, and said, with equal drama: “This is what happens when a Thai man becomes a farang.”
Lek swirled his spoon through the broth. “You come to Bangkok and become a complete mess.”
“You go to church and become a complete ass. You’re so busy looking for your Jesus on the moon—you don’t even notice the stacks of cash piled in front of your face.”
“You can forget about the band,” Lek said, pulling his wallet from his back pocket. “I’m not interested.” He placed a twenty-baht bill next to the half-empty bowl and left Geng without another word.
He passed roasting chickens on the way home. Steam rose from vats of noodle soup, and fresh fish lay across piles of ice on countertops; silvery sea bass waited to be fried. Why didn’t he at least stay to finish the soup? It was the last good meal guaranteed to him for God knows how long. His stomach grumbling—this was God. Lek should have asked Geng what he’d thought of the sermon. That might have been his only chance to be saved; Geng might end up in Hell and it would be Lek’s fault.
When he reached his apartment, he found his landlord on the steps with her small son on her lap, feeding the child bits of pineapple from a plastic bowl. She returned Lek’s greeting but ignored his smile. “It’s the second week of the month,” she said to him.
He nodded. “I can give you half. Two hundred more on Tuesday.”
“We have someone looking to rent. If I don’t see it all today, I’m going to show her your place tomorrow.”
He nodded again and ran up to his room. He turned on his fan; its stream of hot air lifted the dirty curtain over his open window and pushed loose sheets of worship chords and lyrics across his floor. As he kneeled to pick them up, he prayed hard in repentance. He repeated apologies and waited for some intuition of a response. He felt none. “You’re supposed to be providing for me,” he pleaded. Still, he felt nothing. Dull pain spread through his abdomen as he reached for a worn envelope from beneath his sleeping mat and counted the cash he’d saved. Three hundred baht—two hundred short of what he thought he’d had. He squeezed the envelope in his hand until it crushed into a tube. “You’re hungry,” he said aloud. He went find to Ba Muang.
But when he got to her stand, another vendor stood in her place: an older man selling neckties. He told Lek that he did not know where Ba Muang went—that he’d leased this section of the sidewalk that morning to set up his shop.
Lek returned to the pastor’s condo. He stood across the street and spotted the family on the balcony having another meal. If he went up, Miriam’s father would ask why he was there. She would think Lek must not have faith after all because if Lek had enough faith, God wouldn’t be punishing him like this.
“Shouldn’t you be in church?” Geng asked when he opened the door to his apartment. He laughed and asked Lek if he’d eaten dinner.
“I’ve lost another student,” Lek said. “Now I’m going to lose my place.”
Geng invited him inside and tossed him a bag of dried squid. He sat on the edge of his bed and watched Lek finish the entire snack, until he was wiping the salt from his lips.
“Thirsty?” Geng asked on the way to his refrigerator. He was out of water, but offered to run down to the store and grab some. He slipped on his sandals and took some coins from a dresser drawer.
Lek followed him downstairs and stood outside the glass door while he watched his friend stand over the cookie aisle. When Geng came out, he opened the bag for Lek to see what he’d purchased.
“Bread,” said Geng, pointing at a piece of pound cake wrapped in cellophane. “Since you’re a farang now, I bought you a piece of bread.” He laughed, and after a moment, Lek laughed with him.
By the end of the week, Lek had transferred his sleeping mat to Geng’s floor and pooled the money he’d saved for rent to help with meals. He’d gone each day to the university garden and advertised, but no new students asked him for lessons. He broke down and put out his guitar case for the students to toss in coins. They rarely did.
On Tuesday, Geng returned to the apartment accompanied by the drummer. He was a skinny kid named Maao, quite tall, but shy. Geng enjoyed ordering the boy around, and sent him out for a six-pack of Heineken, which Lek refused to join them in drinking.
On Wednesday afternoon, the three of them went down to Victory Monument and auditioned for Maao’s uncle, who hired them to play that very evening. Lek used the restaurant phone to call Miriam to reschedule the worship practice for an hour before the service. He did not mention why.
By Saturday, Lek had pocketed 1500 baht of wages and tips. He told Geng that he would use the money to ask his landlord to take him back, that he would play in the band for one more week before he would return to trying to find students. He just needed these two weeks to get back on his feet.
“Give it three weeks,” Geng said.
When Miriam was fifteen minutes late for worship practice on Sunday, Lek wondered if she’d forgotten about their rescheduling. The bass player, Sam, arrived first. He was a chubby Australian boy, a student at the international university and a mediocre musician, but he was good enough to get them through the worship service. His Thai was worse than his musicianship, and so the two didn’t have much to say to each other. Still, when Lek’s knee shook as he tuned his guitar, he wondered if Sam would be able to tell he was hiding something. This is why, when Miriam finally did arrive, Lek was extra sensitive to her sour mood. She interrupted his introduction to “Our Great God” and said, “Come on, Lek. We’ve played that song two out of the last three weeks.”
He passed her the stack of music. “You choose.”
Without looking at it, Miriam ran her thumb across the edges as if it were a flipbook. “I don’t really care,” she said.
She returned the music to Lek, and he hunted through the titles looking for something that would speak to Miriam. But as he flipped through, Lek also had trouble connecting to any of them. In the end, he chose three for their variety in tempos. Miriam sang through these with her eyes glued to the words, as though she were trying to translate them. Her voice had a dullness to it, and Lek said, “I’m sorry I made you wake up early.”
“It’s fine,” she said without a smile.
At the end of worship practice, Geng and Maao entered unannounced. Geng was wearing a clean shirt this time—a green one bearing the silhouette of a bearded farang wearing a beret. As he introduced them to Miriam, he told her again that he’d grown up with Geng, and that they were once in a band.
“Maao’s a drummer,” Geng said. “We play rock.”
“Where do you play?” she asked, but before Geng could answer, Lek pulled her aside to check the microphones.
Geng sat in the front row during the service—a row the rest of the church usually avoided, save for the worship team. He nodded with enthusiasm while Lek took notes, Miriam sketched Lek’s guitar onto the back of her bulletin, and Maao hunched low in his folding chair as though he were in an interrogation room. He let his translation headphones slip to his shoulders and stared into his lap.
“And we know that Jesus didn’t take this subject lightly,” the pastor said. “‘Anyone who causes another to stumble—’ do we know this verse?” Lek did not. He wrote it down: Anyone who causes another to stumble deserves to have a stone tied around his neck and be thrown into the sea. His hand shook at the possibility of the pastor knowing about the band.
Meanwhile, Geng grinned through the end of the sermon, through the breaking of bread and the taking of the grape juice, and he grinned as he threw a handful of change into the offering bin. And when the pastor beckoned sinners to the pulpit during the altar call, Geng grabbed Maao’s arm and yanked him to the stage. After the service, Pastor Stevens shook Geng’s hand, then Maao’s, and welcomed them to the Kingdom of God. Geng said that he’d always wanted to be a Christian, and after what he’d heard, he knew for sure that he was one.
Lek reminded him that Geng was the childhood friend he’d told him about and the pastor said, “We’re glad to have you.” He smiled at Lek with light eyes dancing and said, “These fellows look like they could use some som tam.” He gave his daughter a wad of bills from his back pocket and told her to send them all home in a taxi after the meal.
During lunch, Geng must have complimented Miriam over a hundred times about her singing. The first couple of times were all right, but by the end of the meal, Lek was ready to toss his old friend into oncoming traffic. “What a voice,” Geng said. “You are a masterpiece.”
“I know,” she said, and laughed a little too loud. She returned the flattery by showering him with praise for being a “real musician,” as though the music she played with Lek wasn’t real. Lek had never heard her speak at such volume.
But the way Geng was acting, Lek recognized. This was the Geng who, the summer before they left for Bangkok, convinced him to take a couple of weeks in the monastery to make up for some of the merit for their mothers they’d lose when they left for the city; the Geng who then spent most evenings making monetary promises to the young temple boys in exchange for their leaving the grounds and returning with six packs of beer. When a monk caught them in the sala, where they were supposed to be practicing silence but instead shouting the words to their mothers’ favorite country songs, Geng managed to convince the others of his repentance and to let him stay. The only things Lek knew to expect from Geng were surprises.
This is why he wasn’t surprised when Geng and Maao showed up unannounced to Wednesday’s worship rehearsal with their instruments, though Geng knew full well that they already had a bassist and didn’t need two. When Sam heard how well Geng could play he said he had some studying to do at home. Without that kid, they were able to run through the hymns in fifteen minutes, after which Geng handed Miriam a stack of songs to learn: “Wild World,” “Mrs. Robinson,” “Losing My Religion.”
“No,” Lek said. “No way. We are not playing those here.”
“Chill out,” said Geng. After he’d directed them through a set list, he announced that they all had an audition at the Sabai Bar on Khao San Road.
“When?” asked Lek.
“In one hour,” said Miriam.
To everyone else in the room, it seemed perfectly natural that she would answer this question, but Lek was beside himself. “I’m not going,” he said. “Not until we get her father’s permission.”
“He said it’s fine,” said Miriam, standing up from her seat in the front. She didn’t convince Lek and he told her so. “Lighten up.” She followed Geng to his motorcycle and the two of them rode away.
While he waited for Maao to finish packing up his snare drum, Lek slumped in a chair and buried his head in his hands. He tried to pray but his mind was too cluttered. “Please,” he whispered. “Please.” But he didn’t know what he was asking for.
“Come on,” Maao said. “I’ve got the taxi fare.”
Farang tourists packed the Khao San sidewalks—boys with dreadlocks and ratted t-shirts, girls in flowing cotton skirts and bikini tops. A tuk tuk driver stopped Lek and offered a ride. Lek spotted Miriam talking to a beach clothes vendor who was so enamored with her Thai that he didn’t notice Geng stuffing sundresses into her backpack. By the time Lek reached her, Geng had scurried into the bar behind the booths.
“Please,” Lek said, placing his hand above her elbow, making her jump a bit. “It’s not good for us to be here.”
“I’ve got three of you looking out for me.” She leaned into him, attempting to guide him inside.
Lek resisted. “Please let me take you back to your condo.”
She freed herself and rushed past a row of tables that stretched out to the sidewalk from the bar. The uncomfortable double meaning of his words lingered behind her.
The stage was tucked in the back of the open-air pub, where Thais and tourists shared beers over candlelight. The bar manager, Tee, was a loud man with a kind demeanor. He showed them where to plug in their instruments and then checked their amp levels on the soundboard near the entrance. Miriam emerged from the restroom in one of the sundresses Geng had stolen—a pale blue strappy thing that dipped lower on her chest than Lek was ready to see. On top of that, she’d unbraided her hair, letting it fall over her shoulders in a crinkled mass.
Geng stood at the microphone and introduced Miriam to the audience as “Miss Thailand,” before he welcomed her to the stage. “Miss Thailand Country Band,” he said in more English than Lek had ever heard him attempt to speak. “This is Miriam. Give it up!” Sparse claps rippled through the audience.
“Hello,” she said, first in Thai, then in English, and tapped the microphone. “Can you hear me okay?”
If what followed was an audition, the bar’s customers hadn’t a clue. They applauded and whistled after every song, and Miriam returned their accolades with a thank you, first in Thai, then in English. They didn’t seem to mind that she was reading the lyrics from a music stand, or that she made up tunes for some of the more complicated songs. During “Wild World,” Lek jumped in and sang the melody while she harmonized. The crowd seemed to love this, too, especially a farang boy in a backwards baseball cap who sat near the front. He liked them so much that he bought everyone in a band a Singha and placed the bottles around the stage. Miriam raised hers, announcing: “This is the first beer I’ve ever had” before she took a long sip. The crowd laughed.
At the end of their set, Miriam searched her way through “What’s Up?” and the crowd encored her for just one more song. “I’m sorry,” she said, laughing. “We’ve sung all we know.”
“Bullshit!” someone called. She turned to Lek and told him to choose one for her to sing along with. He played a jazzed riff to “Take it Easy.” The band fell upon this song almost immediately, and soon the entire bar was singing with them.
Lek had played this song so many times that the words muddled together and lost their meaning. By the time he hit the solo before the final verse, he was not aware that he’d allowed his fingertips to run down the neck of his guitar until Geng nudged him to cut it out.
“Stop showing off,” Geng said, though he didn’t seem angry. At last, Lek returned to the lyrics of the last verse. Not because he was counting measures, but because he felt it was time. When the song was over, he and his band exhaled together in that short moment of silence before the applause. It was no longer than a couple seconds, but long enough for him to catch Geng’s eye and exchange a short volt of gratitude.
But still, Lek felt sick as they cleared the stage and the bartender put Sting through the speakers. The crowd returned to their murmurs and Maao, Geng, and Miriam filled the last three stools available around the bar. Leaning on the counter next to Miriam, Lek asked the bartender to pour the pastor’s daughter a glass of cola. “This is not a good place for you,” he whispered. “Your father will never trust me now.”
“My father doesn’t trust anyone,” she said. “I told him we were passing out tracts to backpackers.” At this, set her drink down so hard that it toppled, dripping onto the countertop.
“He thinks we’re sharing the Gospel?” Lek asked while he grabbed a napkin from the dispenser. He didn’t know whether to be appalled or impressed.
“I lied,” she said.
“Maybe he won’t find out.” He dabbed the counter.
“Not that,” she said. “I lied when I said he didn’t trust anyone. He trusts you. Geng told him you would protect me and my father said it was okay.”
Geng was explaining to Maao how he might get a job on a cruise ship—his back-up plan in case no one signed Lek and him onto a major label. Geng went on about trips to Australia, to the Philippines, and for a moment, Lek imagined Miriam on one of these boats, in the same dress, but standing on the deck with an orange lily in her hair to match the sunset. Then he imagined her father smelling alcohol on her breath and slapping her. “Nobody should trust me,” he said. He went outside before he could hear her response.
Past the plastic tables and chairs, the waitresses swishing through rows of hungry farangs, Khao San Road bustled before him. Its images appeared on the television he watched with his family, and his mother warned him and his sisters of this place where Thais wore hill tribe costumes, dancing around for the farangs, lying about the values of their plastic amulets. He recognized these vendors, yes, but the street was also like one big travel agency; hawkers hawked bus trips to Cambodia and Malaysia, to Phuket and Samui. They didn’t offer trips to Srisaket, which may have been why his parents never wanted to sell their farm and move somewhere with more rain.
Across the street, a string of banners announced Songkran—the “Thai New Year.” Now that he had the money, Lek figured he should probably buy a bus ticket to Srisaket, where he could celebrate with his family. Which would his mother hate more—his new faith or his new job? He returned to the bar.
“We’re in,” Geng said as Lek sipped his water. “We start next weekend—he’ll pay us extra for the Songkran celebration. You won’t believe this: 700 baht.”
“Per person,” Maao said. He raised his beer.
The manager, Tee, had also agreed to pay them 500 baht that very night if they played for another half hour.
When Lek heard this, he brushed past Geng and Miriam to the stage.
“What are you doing?” Geng said when Lek tapped the microphone. The bartender turned off the music, which had switched from Sting to the Doors, and the kid running sound turned on the amp until it buzzed. The speakers squeaked as Lek played a dissonant chord on the guitar. A farang from the crowd shouted something, a recommendation. Lek couldn’t understand him. He played a song none of them had heard, a song his mother had sang for karaoke at his uncle’s wedding.
With his fingers running along the frets, he saw his mother sweeping a yard chicken into her arms; he saw his father smoking a cigarette in front of a tiny television.
Geng ran to the stage. “You’re pissing the guy off,” he yelled. “Stop now.” But Lek played over “Brown Eyed Girl” on the speakers, over the crowd; he played after the amplifier smacked off. With his eyes still closed, he saw the monastery in Srisaket, where a monk played the guitar in the sala, surrounded by younger monks. The monk was Jesus, his Jesus, but in a saffron robe and playing Isan music. He saw his father next to a white-robed Jesus on the couch, passing a cigarette between them. He saw Jesus handing a frantic chicken to his mother.
Lek was aware of Tee and Geng shouting at him to stop, but he was in Srisaket now; not the parched land he’d left, but Srisaket in a thunderstorm. Violent gray flooded the fields, rows of rice sang back in electric green, and Lek played on. His ears could hear nothing but the storm of that song.
Nora Bonner writes and teaches in Atlanta, Georgia, where she is a PhD student in fiction at Georgia State. Her stories have appeared in various journals and anthologies including Shenandoah, North American Review, Bellingham Review, Indiana Review, and Best American Non-Required Reading. She is originally from Detroit.