"Lightning on the Sun"

An excerpt from Robert Bingham's final work.

By Robert Bingham
Published April 11, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

Asher took Mao Tse-tung this time. It was a large, poorly lit industrial boulevard that crossed Monivong Boulevard a few blocks east of the road block. Waiting for one of the few traffic lights in the city, idling there at the intersection of Monivong and Mao Tse-tung, Asher considered the political geometry of the city. Vietnam was the key, the pull. Vietnam to the east. The Cambodian People's Party or CPP were patrons of the Vietnamese. Hun Sen's compound, known as "The Tiger's Lair" wasn't far from the border. The CPP ministers lived on the east side of town, not far from the ministry buildings in which they dominated. Strange that another country could affect the layout of a city, but there it was. The farther west one went, the less obvious the CPP presence. The French embassy, the human rights office, FUNCINPEC headquarters, they were all in the west.

Fearing large boulevards, Asher took side streets eastward. He traveled the dusty grid that is residential Phnom Penh. Corrugated steel doors fell in nearly unanimous verticals to the street, which was empty but for potholes. The light was bad. Finally he saw the circle at the end of Monivong. The circle that led to the bridge, the circle that led to the bridge that led to the road with the slaughterhouse that led to the turn to Mao's house. He stopped his Dream on the dark street and considered his situation strategically, militarily. He could scrap the deal, get a job, and earn the money back. If he didn't get a job, he could freelance some computer work. He didn't have to do this. But then there was Mao to consider. He'd given Mao his word. He'd given Mao his word about the night on which he'd arrive, the time, and amount. He couldn't be sure, but in all likelihood, Mao hadn't paid for what Asher was to buy off him. He'd stolen it from the Ministry of Interior where he worked as a middling bureaucrat. In a way, Asher did owe Mao for taking a gamble with his position at the ministry. Perhaps there had been a hefty bribe to get into the storeroom at night. But hold on. Perhaps Mao hadn't even bribed a colleague? Maybe Mao had a key, or a friend with a key with whom he had promised to split the profits. Asher enjoyed and was fascinated with Mao's company almost as much as he disliked and was bored with himself.

"You are a Merchant Prince," said Asher. "Push on."

He restarted the Dream and was not stopped by the police guarding the bridge.

A breeze came off the invisible river below. On the other side of the bridge, there was yet another circle where sleeping taxi drivers lounged in their reclining seats, dreaming of money, dreaming of gold. Someone hissed at him. He hated that about Asia, the hissing. He didn't hiss at people; why did they hiss at him? Perhaps it was this part of town. Barangs were not expected to be found out here at night.

The spoke road off the circle began to muddy and deteriorate. It was a hectic street. He passed a sawmill and then came the oncoming lights of the slaughterhouse, the biggest pig-killing factory in the country. Shortly, Asher was in squealing range. On the near side of the building, a pig farmer in knee-high rubber boots was heaving his animal by the ass, trying to push this pig through a side door. Suddenly, the squealing pitched upward in tone, filling the night. Was this awful sound simply a function of his growing proximity to the slaughterhouse, or was it a singular pig somewhere in the depths of that deathly operation meeting its final moment? It was difficult to tell. Asher could feel the commotion inside. The generator outside rumbled. The slaughterhouse doors fronting the street were closed but for tiny ventilation slits. They must be up to their knees in it, thought Asher, up to their knees. Now the sound of the slaughterhouse began to ebb. This part was tricky, this final turn to Mao's. There were plenty of little rutted paths that dipped down into obscurity. Was it two or three turns after the Angkor beer sign? Asher could never remember. Each time he came out here, the light was different. He took the third turn and was glad of it. He recognized the path. He was carrying Mr. Hawk's money wrapped in a plastic bag inside his shirt. The bumpy road shook the money, and Asher secured his girth with one hand.

"A lump sum," he said.

The path broadened as it descended from the main road, giving out on to a wide, open field. Asher was amazed to see that it wasn't quite dark here. The last line of sundown, already extinguished in the city, was just hanging on in the fields. The horizon was a pencil-thin line of diluted red, barely illuminating the green of the distant rice paddies. Weak blood, thought Asher, a late innings sundown. For a moment, the thin red line was before him and then it was gone.

"Last light," said Asher. "Right on time."

Mao had built a makeshift corral around his property. The chickens clucked and pecked at Asher's arrival. A water buffalo eyed him as he kicked up his bike stand. Madame Mao was downstairs. She stood on a straw mat eyeing him suspiciously.

"Bat srai," said Asher. "Good evening. Is your husband home?"

Mao spoke very little English, but Mrs. Mao spoke none at all. She took out a broom and began sweeping. Overhead Asher could hear the floor boards creak. Mao was rising. Now he was on the top of the stairs, looking down on him, smiling.

"Smoke," said Mao. It was his favorite word.

"Certainly," replied Asher. "Toujour. Smoke. The principal, the Alpha of life."

Mao waved for him to come upstairs. Asher took off his sneakers and climbed the narrow ladder. It was a sturdy ladder but not designed for a man his size. He took each rung slowly, methodically, thinking, Here we go; this is where it unfolds. When he got to the top floor, he bowed his head and entered. Mao stood in the middle of the room. He wore no shirt or shoes, only a pair of olive green army pants and a belt that passed through a cheap bronze buckle upon which was printed an eagle. He had thin black hair, black eyes, and a slightly concave caramel-colored chest, a shade lighter than his face. A smoker's chest, thought Asher.

Confiscated drugs were Mao's specialty. The Golden Triangle, being landlocked, required an outlet. Cambodia was like gravity drawing the drug down the Mekong to Phnom Penh. The country was a smugglers' paradise, but face and the American DEA required that there be the occasional bust. Most of the drugs confiscated were taken from men with unreliable connections to the CPP. The confiscated stash ended up at the Ministry of Interior for eventual redistribution minus a few kilos for the press to watch burn. The journos liked these drug photo ops. They like to watch the drugs burn especially if it was marijuana because that provided a more spectacular pyre, a better visual. Only a small percentage of the confiscated drugs was actually destroyed. The rest was dealt with by the CPP. Mao was very CPP.

"Smoke," said Mao.

Slowly, Asher lay down on the mattress. A trail of black fumes snaked upward from a small oil lamp burning by the bed. Mao was ready for him. On the floor not far from the pillow were his smoking utensils. There was a thin nail-file, pipe cleaners, a Swiss Army knife, tweezers, three steel utensils slightly thinner than a knitting needle, and tinfoil. Mao's gun lay next to the pillow on the floor. Asher had a thing for Mao's gun. It was called a T.T., a Chinese-manufactured eight millimeter with a serrated black plastic handle grip. The T.T. was modeled after an American Colt .45. It sat there on the worn teak floor, looking dangerously idle and very American.

Mao got down into his crouch and began cooking. He took his utensils out of the beaker and applied a small ball of opium partially wrapped in a olive leaf to the oil lamp, twisting and turning it for a short time until it reached Mao-ideal-malleability. Then he put it in the hole in the center of the round wooden bowl. He handed Asher the end of the wooden opium pipe. Asher took several breaths. Then he took a large one and slowly breathed out until his lungs were as empty as he could get them. Mao lit the opium with a Bic lighter.

"Smoke," he said.

In the movies, smoking opium was supposed to be a languid, relaxing experience. Asher didn't see it that way. In Mao's house, one had to keep the ball of opium bubbling for what could be an excruciatingly long period of suction time. Mao was a miser about his opium, and if one ran out of breath before the ball was burned up, then what was left was wasted. Mao didn't like that. He would shake his head.

"Smoke," said Mao.

This meant pull harder. Asher increased his intake.

"Good," said Mao. "Smoke."

It was bubbling along, bubbling along, for a good while he had the thing going quite well. Briefly, he exhaled out his nose. He could feel Mao beside him pleased with his smoking ability, but what Asher knew and Mao didn't was that he was running out of breath a little early in the game. He began to feel the need to exhale again. It was like running out of breath while swimming underwater. Now, in the middle of the ball, Mao was twisting with one of his delicate stainless steel utensils; now, when he needed his strongest pull, he didn't have it. He was going to go for what he called the reverse saxophone routine, breathing out from the corner of his mouth so that he could suck back in again. This was always dangerous as it momentarily dissipated the power of the flame. He did it. He quickly breathed out.

"No," said Mao. "No, you smoke."

He sucked in again, but it was too late. Mao had taken the flame away and was shaking his head. He'd blown the bowl. Asher exhaled.

"Fuck," he said. "I'm sorry, Mao. I smoke too much."

You needed strong lungs to smoke at Mao's house. Now Mao was scraping the bowl clean of the half-burned, useless opium. From downstairs, a radio came on. It was the CPP evening news in Khmer. Mao barked something at his wife, and shortly the channel changed.

"Make a small one, Mao, tic tic," said Asher.

He put his thumb and the index finger nearly together, signaling a small amount. Mao nodded his head. He understood. This was his fifth or sixth session at Mao's house. Usually, he did three bowls, but tonight, since there was business to conduct, he decided that this ball would be his last. Asher went into his breathing routine as Mao fixed the opium. He imagined himself standing at the edge of Uncle Bob's pool outside of Chicago, hyperventilating so that he could make the distance underwater in one breath. Even though he paid Mao for his opium, he felt ashamed when he didn't get down to the end of a ball and wasted the drug. Asher continued to gently hyperventilate. A soft Asian droning drifted upstairs, gently filling the room with its strangeness. Mrs. Mao could just be heard humming along. Now the new ball was ready and in place. It looked a good size, and Asher summoned all the spirits of his lungs to take it.

"Smoke," said Mao.

Asher came out of the gate a little too gently. He wasn't getting it bubbling.

"Smoke," said Mao with emphasis.

He pulled a bit harder. It began to bubble.

"Good," said Mao. "Good smoke."

He kept it going at a consistent, sustainable pace, watching out of the corner of his reclining eye as the opium ball transfigured itself. About halfway through, he realized it would take a greater effort to keep a consistent pull on the flame, and so he reached for what it would take. He had it this time. He sucked and sucked, Mao adjusting the distance of his flame according to his own hidden knowledge. There would be no need to come up for breath this time. He was going to do it. The ball began to diminish. It was like seeing the other end of the pool come into sight and knowing it would be reached in one breath. Mao pulled the flame away.

"Good smoke," he said.

Asher rolled onto his back and looked up at the ceiling slats. He held onto the lungful as long as he possibly could. Tiny white stars crackled before his inner eyes. He blew out. No, he did not blow out. He bellowed out a heavenly cloud of opium smoke into the Cambodian night.

"A perfect pipe," he said eventually. "Professionally executed by all parties."

Mao handed him the Tootsie Roll-shaped pillow as was his custom. Asher propped it up under his neck and considered how high he might shortly become. The radio was on a fine number. It was neither one of those ghastly Asian covers of "MacArthur Park" nor a shrill indigenous menace. It was, thought Asher, a lullaby. The wonderful relaxation amid mild nausea arrived. The nausea was a good sign. It would pass. Mao remained in his crouch, his tailbone nearly touching the floor. Bad opium ingested orally was the problem. That, considered Asher, was a drag. It could make one sick for days. Asher rolled over on his side.

"So," he said to Mao. "Shall we? I'll show you mine if you show me yours."

From the foot of the bed, he kicked Mr. Hawk's plastic bag toward the pillow. The plastic bag was from the Lucky Market, a high-end import-driven store filled with various extravagances from the West. Asher bought Pringles and vodka there. Inside the bag were bundles of fifty- and twenty-dollar bills. Mao took the dirty rubber bands off all the bundles and spread the bills over the floor as with a huge hand of cars.

"Three thousand dollars," said Asher. "As promised."

Mao stood up and barked something to his wife. Shortly, her head poked over the floorboards. She had a frown on her face and glared at Asher. Then she thrust a bamboo pole into her husband's hand and disappeared. Now that was unusual, thought Asher. Only a very paranoid Cambodian man would trust his wife with the goods. The Chinese were different. Their women were in on the action. They sat on the couch that hid the life savings. A hen on the golden egg was a Chinese woman. Mao handed the pole over to Asher. Both ends were stopped up with a piece of plastic secured with electrical tape. Asher pointed to the tape. Mao without getting out of his crouch moved laterally. Asher heard the click of a switchblade. Smiling to himself, Mao ran the blade across the flame of the oil lamp. Then he cut open one end of the bamboo shaft and slowly inserted the blade into its contents. Withdrawn, the blade was barely visible. Mao placed the knife on the floor for Asher to examine. It was a brilliant amniocentesis Mao had performed, and even through the opium, Asher could not hide his excitement and fear. With his pinky nail, Asher worked a bit of powder off the tip of the blade and hit it. No burn. Its lack of strong sensation in his nose was a good sign. Then he went for a bit near the handle and though a different nostril. Mao clicked his tongue and shook his head.

"Don't worry, Mao," said Asher. "My hope is that you will shortly be fetching me a bowl."

Asher considered the consistency. It was a shade lighter than putty, not a brilliant white but a dull, caked one. He was dealing with pure or virtual pure. You could step on this three times over in New York, and it might still be considered weight. It would still not be ready for retail. He should have asked for more than seventy-five grand from Julie's boss. Asher put his head back on the pillow. A wonderful wave, a gently pressure drop, an increased nausea, a departure. He was departing from care.

"Mao," said Asher. "Get me a bowl."

With his hands, Asher pantomimed a bowl and then feigned puking in it. Mao barked something downstairs at his wife. She arrived in the nick of time. When he was through puking, Mao tossed the contents of the bowl out of the back window for the chickens. Asher reclined. He looked at Mao standing in the doorway looking down on him smiling.

"Everything," said Asher, "is going to be fine tonight."

Robert Bingham

The late Robert Bingham was the author of "Pure Slaughter Value"

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