“Oh my god, honey!” Peung’s voice rose up at the last word, like an exaggerated example of her Thai rising tone. It was her own tone, however, the tragic note struck when she sees something that touches her sadly like an injured puppy or a small child crying alone in the mall. I know it well and I hear it as “Honey! Do something!” It exacerbates a sense of helplessness as it often comes when there really is nothing realistic that can be done.
This time we were on the Bangkok sky train. I looked around. It was something near, and despite the urgency of her plea, she lowered her voice and tried to be discreet. “In the corner.”
A tall boy in his burgundy school shirt and black shorts stood with his back into the corner of the train car, his eyes lowered to the floor. No one seemed to notice him but his height alone was auspicious among the rest of the Thais. “He’s alone. No one talks with him.” I felt the frown form on my face and looked away. My face is a blunt device, broadcasting whatever it is I’m thinking, be it of the immediate moment or completely irrelevant thoughts in my head. It can be awkward explaining to someone I’m actually not angry, just thinking, and in this case it is a regrettable honest reaction that I wouldn’t want someone to see. I believe firmly in white lies.
The train was crowded but indeed no one seemed to notice him, or they all had already done so and were avoiding doing it again. He was deformed in some fashion. His bony brow jutted forward far too much like the museum piece of a creature not quite human, the sort of borderland of the Neanderthal. His eyes would have sunk deep into the shadows of the orbits if not for the way the center of his face also sloped away from the brow and then curved abruptly back and out to form an upper lip that came out as far as the tip of his squashed nose. His jaw was sharp, angular, and almost matching the brow in its prominence. His face held no expression, really, but the eyes had a dim light to them, a weary awareness, not the distant stare of a daydream nor an engaging gleam.
“He has no friends,” said Peung. We couldn’t know this, of course, but the truth of it lay in the pit of the stomach.
We reached the final stop and waited as the crowd pushed out onto the platform and, like a herd, descended the stairs. Then we followed. But he lingered even longer, the last one off. He went the opposite direction, to the staircase a bit more distant. When I reached the bottom I stopped to watch for him. Last one down, several steps behind the rest. Peung watched me watching him, and without discussing it we followed to keep up with him. Down in the street he turned away from the bus stop, passed the taxi stand, and paused at the motorbike taxis just to check traffic before crossing the street.
I did the same and Peung asked unnecessarily, “Do you want to walk home?” We do that sometimes, about a fifteen-minute walk, just two bus stops away or a $1.20 cab ride. “Do you mind?” Something compelled me to follow him, even after we passed the last bus stop. Peung had her heels on from work and I apologized as we made our way along the Funhouse Walk. Nothing fun about it: An unlit stretch of paving bricks, rows of which tilted or opened into patches of sand or puddles, with a intermittent trail of undulating asphalt laid sloppily over it recalling a distorted mirror’s twisted surface. Even in street shoes I cursed and stumbled through it every time. The boy ambled along with no urgency, his backpack with the little school emblem on it drawing me on, his ears jutting out from his military-style haircut marking him in the half-light.
I have passed a thousand beggars I’m sure — pitiable creatures at times, suspicious ones at others — only occasionally stopping to drop a few coins and very rarely to hear a word. But something about this boy nearly moved me to tears. Even beggars had their place in this world, and a community of other beggars to commiserate with, plus the sparse moments of spare change when someone takes notice of and pity on them.
Peung knew not to ask if we were going to follow him. I had told her once of the story my mom loved to tell about the day I came home so late from school. I was in 3rd grade, a sort of quiet kid who opened up when the chance availed. I lived only seven blocks from school, and my mother was watching for me when I arrived. “And down the sidewalk you come with your eyes closed, tapping a stick.” A blind man had spoken to our class that day. I wanted to walk those seven blocks in his shoes.
“Maybe he doesn’t have money for the bus.” I said.
“What about the free bus?” said Peung. The People’s Bus, I called them, specially marked city buses funded by the municipality of Bangkok. Many of them passed there every 10 or 15 minutes at the most at this hour.
“No. He wouldn’t take the bus.” I shook my head with certainty. “Too many people. All the light and all those people pushed up against him.” He couldn’t melt into the background there. People would have to look him in the face.
But then no one had yet, I thought. Just as it occurred to me, another kid walking toward us took a look back over his shoulder at the boy. The kid turned his head only after he was sure the boy wasn’t looking. Maybe a bit of kreng jai, the Thai cultural inclination of not wanting to be the one to cause embarrassment or to bring a bad feeling to someone. We crossed another side street — a soi, part of the tangled maze of Bangkok’s poorly planned street grid — and saw a pack of scrappy, stray soi dogs and a few widely spaced streetlights.
A couple of older girls coming toward us passed the boy. The usual pretty Thai girls, these with a bouncing step, giddy chatter, and a certain vain air about them. Both looked back at him and turned back toward us with an expression of mild distaste on their faces. One looked like the child who got the brown pony for her birthday when she wanted the white one. With not so much as a glance or a thought she threw her empty drink onto the pavement.
Peung scowled. “Even though her face is nice, inside she’s ugly.” We were being extremely presumptuous tonight, piecing together character sketches with hints and allegations.
In nature the deformed or the weak are sometimes left by the herd, or sometimes cared for only out of instinct, a face only a mother could love, we say.
I caught sight of him in the light from a 7-Eleven halfway down the block. “There.” I pointed. He never hurried, never slowed, just kept on walking until the darkness of the soi swallowed him up.