Nora Bonner

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.”