Craig Fishbane Interview with Jonathan Cardew
Thank you, Craig, for joining us for the November Issue at Connotation Press!
“Slightly Better” delves into the seamy side of expat culture in Thailand, but turns it on its head with the platonic friendship between Kaufman and his unexpected call-girl visitor, Mekhala. Have you visited or lived in Thailand (and/or experienced life as an expat)?
I visited Thailand about ten years ago. I was only there for a few weeks but the experience haunted me. In a place like Bangkok, you quickly discover that there aren’t many walls separating the different aspects of life. You can stumble past a military parade, a monk collecting alms and a madam waving to you from a whorehouse in the course of a five-minute walk. In order to make any sense of the place—at least if you’re a Westerner—you’re forced to suspend your normal sense of order. The balance between temptation and revulsion gets unhinged. Out of that psychic chaos came the character of Kaufman and his struggles to make his way through expat life. I’ve never done the kind of overseas consulting that he does but I have met some people who have lived that life. His character was formed through a blend of my experiences and their stories.
This story reminded me a little of the ‘Arabian Nights,’ in which Scheherazade must read a story every night to stay her execution. Stories have power and words have power, and in Mekhala’s case, words could be her route out of prostitution. Where do you see Mekhala after this story ends?
That’s an interesting way of looking at it. I would say, though, that it’s Kaufman who needs to read a story every night to stay an execution—the death of his soul. He’s very much adrift in life and Mekhala has provided him with an unlikely beacon. Although Mekhala is obviously lost in her own way, she has a better sense of her bearings. She at least knows who she is and what she wants to do. I suspect that there may be more reading lessons for her in the future. I have no doubt that she has the will to make good use of her education.
You write both flash and longer stories. What are your differing experiences with the two forms? Which form do you prefer?
I can’t say that I prefer writing flash to longer stories or vice versa. Each type of writing has its own appeal. I do like that in longer fiction—such as this piece—you have time to explore the characters and let them gradually make their own decisions. In a story like “Slightly Better,” we have an unlikely seduction, where a prostitute is trying to entice a customer to give her a reading lesson. Part of the pleasure of the story is watching that seduction unfold. You wouldn’t be able to choreograph that slow dance of temptation and resistance in a flash piece. But flash does give you enormous creative freedom. There’s almost no limit what you can do with those five hundred words. You can set a plot inside a TV commercial or in a space colony on the moon. But in the end, you don’t really control the length of the story. The story tells you how long it needs to be.
Where are you going to consume your fiction? Who are your favorite writers and/or pieces at the moment? (please share any links)
Lately, I’ve been going old-school, digging into the fiction of V.S. Naipaul. His first book, Miguel Street, is remarkable from the point of view of a flash fiction writer. Each chapter is essentially a flash story looking at the same characters and the same neighborhood through a different lens. One thing I’ve been interested in as a writer is trying to form a collection of very short pieces that form a coherent—and resonant—whole. Naipaul pulled this off in his first book.
Please finish this sentence: If you ever go to Bangkok, don’t forget to…
…enjoy the ride!
What’s next? Any projects in the pipeline? Any projects you’d like to steer towards the pipeline?
I actually feel kind of wiped out, to tell you the truth. The last twelve months have been very intense for me, both personally and creatively. I’ve produced a flurry of fairly dark stories that more or less came in response to the dark times we are living through and now my muse has gone on vacation. While I wait for my inspiration to return (presumably with a sun tan!), I have been sorting through my stories from the last few years and seeing if they add up to a cohesive whole. In particular, I’ve written and published a number of pieces about the plight of immigrant children under our current president. I make my living as an ESL teacher and in that capacity I’ve had a front-row seat for one of the more disturbing episodes in modern American history—the wave of xenophobia that’s swept across our country. I’d like to see what else can do with my writing to fight back in my own small way against this plague of fear and cruelty and, at the very least, help some readers be more deeply aware of what’s been going on.
Thanks so much, Craig, for your time and excellent fiction!
Thank you for the great questions!
Kaufman was reading a newspaper when the call girl arrived at his hotel room. He was sprawled on the unmade bed in sweat pants and a wrinkled t-shirt, going over the headlines in the Bangkok Post when he heard the gentle tapping on his door. After five weeks of organizational conferences at the company where he was a consultant, Kaufman had become accustomed to the local hospitality—or at least the treatment of guests in the executive suites at the riverside hotels. He was prepared to politely assure a crisply dressed member of the housekeeping staff that he was quite satisfied with both the quality of the bed linen and the quantity of the bath towels when he cracked open the door and a young woman greeted him with wave and a well-practiced smile.
“Hello. Very pleased to meet you,” she said in a lilting voice that wavered between enthusiasm and irony. “I am Mekhala. May I come in?”
Kaufman took a step back as Mekhala covered her mouth with painted fingers and began to giggle. A foot shorter than Kaufman and appearing to be about twenty years old, she had long black hair and light brown skin. She wore a starched white blouse and a ruffled red skirt that extended to the tops of her knees. She tittered awkwardly in fishnet stockings and red open toe pumps as she waited to be invited across the threshold.
“I think you may be in the wrong place,” Kaufman said.
The sight of her brought to mind the gauntlet of cheerful hookers who would call out to Kaufman from open windows when he walked down the winding alleys near the elevated train line. At least when he was heading away from the station, he could turn up the volume on his iPod and hurry to the next boulevard. At the hotel, he had nowhere else to go. He stood at the doorway in his ratty night clothes, a stubble-faced, pale-skinned specimen of middle-aged paunch with a passport, shifting from one bare foot to the other as Mekhala once again placed painted fingers over glossy lips to accompany a fit of soft laughter.
“You are Mr. Kaufman?” she asked. “Everything all taken care of. Mr. Benson sent me.”
“Benson?” Kaufman said. “That figures.”
Benson was Kaufman’s manager. He was the kind of man who was perfectly suited for a career in exile, a life built around expensive women and cheap exchange rates. He swaggered through the office in florid silk suits knitted by the local tailors, smirking beneath an overgrown mane riddled with cowlicks, rattling off instructions to subordinates in both English and Thai. His ability to master an obscure language made him invaluable to the company and he knew it.
Benson thought nothing of charging long leisurely lunches to his expense account and frequently roped Kaufman into joining him for late night binges at the strip clubs in Patpong, all on the company dime. There were always two or three hostesses to join them as Benson urged Kaufman to take advantage of what he called the cultural opportunities of international consulting. Kaufman would indulge him for a round or two, working through mugs of beer until Benson was escorted off to one of the rooms in the back and Kaufman could finally return to the hotel to catch up on his reading.
“Please,” Mekhala repeated. “Mr. Benson says you earn special bonus. Everything taken care of.”
Kaufman ran his hand across the stubble on his cheek. He didn’t want to let her into the room but he also didn’t want the other hotel guests to see them talking in the hallway. Especially anyone else from his company. There were three consultants from Australia working on this project and he didn’t need them asking about Mekhala tomorrow morning. His best bet was to bring her inside, give her a few bucks and get rid of her.
“Well, if everything is taken care of,” Kaufman said.
He leaned forward and gestured for Mekhala to enter. She smiled at the invitation, pressing both hands together in front of her face and offering a slight bow. Then she bent down to unhinge the straps of her red pumps. Kaufman’s eyes widened as Mekhala placed one open-toed shoe after the next onto the hallway carpeting just next to the door.
“You don’t need to leave those out here, do you?”
Kaufman was well aware of the custom of visitors leaving footwear outside of people’s homes but it would defeat the entire purpose of this transaction to have those fabulous bright heels on display next to his room. Fortunately, Mekhala understood immediately. She winked as she picked up her pumps and then stepped across the threshold.
“Very busy in this hotel,” she said. “Not a good place to leave shoes.”
After he closed the door and bolted the lock, Kaufman gestured for Mekhala to leave her heels on the tiled floor of the bathroom. Then he went to retrieve his wallet. It was in the top drawer of the desk next to the window. As he stuffed the wallet into the pocket of his sweatpants, Kaufman glanced at the riverfront through the soot-stained glass.
A procession of rice barges was sailing along the muddy current, black boats completing the slow circuit from the paddy fields to the harbor. Kaufman watched the squat vessels snaking along the curving banks as Mekhala emerged from the bathroom, padding along the carpeted floor in stockinged feet.
“You ready for good time?” she said.
Kaufman turned and watched her step towards the flat screen TV. Before he could say a word, Mekhala began describing all the ways she was prepared to entertain him for the evening. She spoke with the enthusiasm of a physical education student describing a gymnastics routine, listing each one of her specialties. Occasionally, she acted out the motions of a given activity before bursting into a fit of giggles.
“You like these?” Mekhala finally asked.
Kaufman had to suppress his own laughter. This was starting to sound like a scene from a very bad movie.
“I do,” he said. “But I’m too tired.”
That was the line Kaufman liked to use when tuk-tuk drivers flashed pictures of beautiful girls for hire. He found it amusing to imply that he would have loved to meet the hookers pictured on these business cards if only he had not needed to get up so damn early this morning.
“I had a long day.”
Mekhala’s lips curled into a pout.
“You don’t like me?” she said. “Mr. Benson be very disappointed.”
Kaufman could picture Benson smirking at him tomorrow, asking how he enjoyed his bonus. And then asking for the precise details of his enjoyment. It was just like Benson to want to know how his co-workers screwed. He probably kept notes on a legal pad.
“Don’t worry about Mr. Benson,” Kaufman said. “He’s an asshole.”
Mekhala narrowed her eyes.
Kaufman pointed at his own backside.
“Oh!” Mekhala said with a chuckle. “An asshole!”
“You got it.”
Kaufman looked through his wallet. He didn’t have much cash on hand. Maybe enough for Mekhala’s cab fare. He pulled out the red and green bills, folded them in half and offered them to Mekhala. She stared at the money as though she was trying to apprehend the meaning of this gesture, the implications of tucking the bills into her purse.
“You sure you no want me to stay?” she said as she reached for the cash. “Even for little while?”
Kaufman went through the motions of an elaborate yawn, stretching his arms and rolling back his head. He nodded towards the ruffled sheets on the bed. The pages of the Bangkok Post were folded on top of an exposed pillow.
“I’m just going to read until I fall asleep.”
Mekhala seemed delighted by the idea. She clapped her hands and gestured towards the newspaper.
“You can read to me!” she said.
“Are you serious?”
“You can read to me and help me practice my English.”
Before Kaufman could say another word, Mekhala had hopped onto the bed. Her stockinged legs were stretched along the quilt as she propped her head against the plush down pillows and gathered the newspaper against the folds of her skirt.
“Come, you read to me,” Mekhala said. “We find good story.”
Kaufman stood at the corner of the bed, running his finger under his chin. He had been reading several newspapers a day since he had been a journalism student back in college but he had never seen one used as a means for seduction. The texture of the creased pages seemed to preclude any attempts at intimacy.
“Pick story you like,” Mekhala said, crossing her ankles. “Pick a good one.”
“What if I don’t like any of them?” Kaufman said.
“You help me read new words,” Mekhala said. “That’s how I get good job.”
Kaufman watched Mekhala leafing through the Post like a wingless pixie relaxing on her coffee break. He was tempted to joke that the way things were going in the States, her best bet would be to hook up with someone who was fluent in Mandarin instead of English.
“What kind of job do you want?” he finally said.
“I want to be in business,” Mekhala replied.
“What kind of business?”
Mekhala put the newspaper down on the folds of the quilt and leaned forward. She smiled like she was about to confess a secret to a friend after drinking too much wine.
“Maybe run tour service,” she said.
“You mean like a guide?”
Mekhala bounded to her knees, springing towards Kaufman as though she had been waiting to share her plan for years and had finally found a sympathetic listener, someone who would let her indulge in her fantasy without shooting it down.
“Yes!” she said. “Go in business for myself. Take visitors all over the country. The ruins at Ayutthaya, the floating market at Damnoen Saduak.”
Kaufman had to admit he was impressed. He always managed to steal away time for sightseeing when he had a consulting gig. There was a long list of temples and museums he planned to visit. If Benson didn’t keep dragging him out for long lunches, he might get to see them all before this assignment was finished.
“I haven’t gotten to the floating market yet,” he said.
“Very nice!” Mekhala told him. “Many women on small boats with tropical fruit and souvenirs.”
“You’ve sold me” Kaufman said. “You'd make an excellent guide.”
Mekhala slid back and then fell into the pillows, kicking up her feet as she reached for the newspaper.
“Come read with me!” she said, opening to the second page of the Post. “Need good English so I can find customers on internet.”
As Kaufman stepped towards the teak frame of the leather-embroidered headboard, he could smell the scent of lavender mixed with traces on ginger. Mekhala’s perfume had permeated the sheets, embedding itself in the fibers of Egyptian cotton. There would be traces in the mattress long after she had gone.
Mekhala held up a page of the newspaper when Kaufman had finally come close to the pillows. He stood next to the bed, his arms folded across his t-shirt as Mekhala pointed to a photograph of the recently deceased king. Dressed in a starched military uniform, the king stared through wire-frame glasses like a benevolent uncle who had just caught you with a hand in the cookie jar. The accompanying article described how the government—under the new leadership of the crown-prince—had begun cracking down on citizens who had insulted the royal family.
“King was great man,” Mekhala said.
“So I’ve heard.”
“You love the king the way you love your father,” Mekhala explained. “Makes you feel safe.”
“Is your father the one who sent you here,” Kaufman asked. “To Bangkok?”
“My father dead. Died in accident.”
“Accident on farm.”
Benson had warned Kaufman that every hooker in Thailand had a father in the grave or a mother in the hospital. It was a standard story for reluctant clients, a well-calibrated guilt-trip for stingy tippers. But Kaufman sensed that Mekhala was not trying to con him. She looked the way Kaufman thought he would look if he got the news that one of his parents had passed away, her face a glossy mask of silent reflection.
“I’m very sorry,” Kaufman finally said.
Mekhala stared glumly at the sheets for a moment and then brightened up.
“Your family,” she said. “Here with you?”
“No,” Kaufman said. “I don’t have anyone to take care of.”
“So sad,” Mekhala said. “We both lost.”
Mekhala blew a kiss at Kaufman. She ran painted fingernails along an empty pillow and then tapped on the wrinkled bedsheets.
“Come here,” Mekhala said. “We feel better. Both of us. Me and you.”
As her legs glided across the linen, Kaufman asked himself what would be so wrong with letting Mekhala earn her money. After all, no one would judge him, not in this country. He could indulge himself without consequence or condemnation. Congratulations would be the more likely reaction, starting with his benefactor. No one would be more pleased than Benson.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “But that’s not going to make me feel better. Not tonight.”
“What’s wrong, baby? Too tired?”
It would have been easy enough to just repeat the line and be done with it. He could have offered another dramatic yawn and walked to the door and opened it and waited as long as necessary for her to finally slip her shoes back on and make her departure. But he needed to tell her, he needed to tell someone, why after five weeks in Bangkok he wanted to do nothing more than sit alone in his room and read the newspaper.
“Because I’m not an asshole,” he said.
Even as the words came out of his mouth, Kaufman had to admit that he had set a rather low bar for moral rectitude. Not being an asshole was considerably less ambitious that, say, finding a cure for cancer or feeding starving children. Or, for that matter, creating new economic opportunities for women forced into lives of prostitution. But in the rarified ecosystem of international consulting, where lonely men had a surplus of both disposable income and available hours, avoiding the temptation to act out your meanest instincts felt like a noteworthy accomplishment.
“You very sweet,” Mekhala said. “Sweet and strong and cute.”
Kaufman wished he had someone who would say those words to him without first negotiating a fee. But, then again, one of the things that drew him to his line of work was that it took the sting out of being alone. He could tell himself that he was too busy seeing the world to get involved in any kind of serious relationship and let the rush of traveling from one time zone to the next distract him from the lingering question of why he had never been able to form any deep connections in the first place.
“I really should get some rest,” Kaufman said. “Maybe you could come back another time.”
“No, come read to me,” Mekhala said. “Help you fall asleep.”
Kaufman walked back to the desk to put away his wallet. He looked out the window as he closed the drawer. The barges continued to drift along the river, passing under a cantilever bridge with a blinking red light. Soon they would arrive at the harbor, where crewmen would load crates of rice on ships bound for distant ports. Kaufman could picture the workers with their thick gloves and tight back braces, each man working all night for a fraction of what Mekhala might earn, hooking up at dawn with the unfortunate bar girls who still hadn’t met their quotas for the evening.
“How much will it really help if I read with you tonight?” Kaufman said, tapping his fingers against the glass. “What will you learn? Five new words? Ten?”
“Ten new words!” Mekhala said. “That’s very good.”
“It’s not enough.”
“Then you see me again,” Mekhala said. “Maybe Mr. Benson give you other bonus.”
Kaufman laughed. He could picture the look on Benson’s face if he discovered that he was paying good money for Mekhala to get reading lessons.
“How many bonuses do you think I get?” Kaufman asked.
“You work hard,” Mekhala said. “You get bonus all the time.”
“It’s not that easy.”
Actually, it was simple work for Kaufman. The kind of analysis he performed was rudimentary by his own standards. He was getting paid twice as much in Bangkok to do work that maybe occupied a quarter of his time.
“You do good,” Mekhala assured him. “I know you do good.”
“I’m glad you think so,” Kaufman said. “I have my doubts.”
“I don’t think I’m a very good person,” Kaufman said.
Mekhala pursed her glossy lips and blew him a kiss.
“No worry,” she said. “You no asshole.”
Kaufman smiled at her official confirmation of his life’s humble aspiration.
“I guess I’m not,” he said.
“Then you read with me.”
Kaufman stepped back towards the bed as Mekhala brandished the creased pages of the newspaper. It struck him that even if all her wishes were fulfilled, if she actually learned to read English well enough to start her own sightseeing company, there would probably never be an article in the Bangkok Post describing how she had made her unlikely climb from prostitute to proprietress. Then again, there would surely never be an editorial celebrating how Kaufman had transcended his own ambition of being a slightly better person than Benson. All of his affairs with Mekhala would be strictly off the record, conducted in the privacy of a deluxe hotel room.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” Kaufman said as he lowered himself onto the mattress.
“Please, before you get too tired.”
Kaufman leaned back onto the pile of pillows against the headboard and propped his feet on the goose feather quilt. Mekhala handed him the newspaper and Kaufman licked his finger and leafed through the grey-white pages. He was looking for a story to read, one that both of them might like.