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.”

“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.”

“Not sure.”

“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