National Poetry Month has blossomed into National Short Story Month. To celebrate, we will be sharing a story a week throughout the month of May. The following is one from Arthur Bradford’s collection Turtleface and Beyond.
A friend had returned from Thailand and informed me that one could rent a hut on the beach there for $1 per night, meals included. I was struggling to pay the rent on my studio apartment while holding down a shitty job as a hotel desk clerk. I’d work the night shift and when things got slow try to write short stories for publication. A few of my stories had been sold to magazines and though the payment was meager I figured if I moved out to one of those shacks in Thailand I could make things go a lot farther.
The only issue was the airfare. I didn’t have it. To solve this problem I enrolled in a medical study where they deprived us of sleep for twenty-four hours at a time and then made us walk quickly on a treadmill while reading aloud from a book. The book was made up of slogans and stupid phrases repeated over and over and many of us got frustrated. If we stopped reading, the treadmill sped up and we had to start from the beginning. Eventually we all tripped or vomited, except for this one fellow named Frank who had incredible stamina. He made it to the end of the book. When we finished with the treadmills we had to drink some bitter orange liquid and then go into a room and masturbate into a cup. It was very difficult, given the fatigue. Only two of us could produce a sample. I was one of those two, and felt proud about it, but the important part was that odd study paid me $1,200, enough to get me to Thailand.
My friend had written out directions to a particularly remote Thai island and I arrived there after several days of rocky travel. While jet-lagged on the streets of Bangkok I’d been approached by a young boy who handed me a pamphlet promising a “Girl with Baboon” show at a nearby bar.
“No cover charge!” he assured me.
Who was I to turn down such an offer? I went over there and sat through several unenthusiastic “Girl with Girl” acts and a “Boy with Girl” act which should have been billed “Fat Man with Tired Person.”
Well, I thought, at least there’s no cover charge for this.
But then they brought me the check for the two beers I’d consumed and it was $65! Two months’ rent!
“I refuse to pay,” I told them, but they locked the door and no more acts appeared on the stage. I found myself in an uneasy standoff. The beer was gone and I wasn’t even going to get to see the baboon. Or maybe they’d release him to kick my ass. I’d heard baboons were very strong animals capable of ripping humans limb from limb. Or was that chimpanzees? I decided not to chance it. I paid the $65, a serious dent in my finances, and left that bar unsatisfied.
The island was very nice though, once I got there. Ah, yes! It was just as I hoped: beautiful white sand beaches, palm trees, smiling Thai locals, and packs of European hippies wearing little or no clothing all day long. I felt good there. The lodging was not quite as cheap as I’d been led to believe, but I did find a set of huts perched on some rocks away from the beach where I was able to bargain for a reasonable monthly rate. The place was called Resort Tik Tok and I gave them eighty U.S. dollars in advance for a proposed two-month stay.
Most of the beachfront huts were run by cheerful Thai hosts, but Resort Tik Tok was run by a Swiss couple named Rudy and Greta. Rudy was an ornery bear of a man, about forty-five years old, with long, thinning hair and a deep growl of a voice. Despite the idyllic surroundings he seemed always to be in a foul mood. His wife, Greta, was a knockout though, and I began fantasizing about her almost immediately.
Greta was a classic Swiss mountain girl with long brown hair and the body of an Olympic shot-putter. I’m not kidding about this. She could have been on the cover of Swiss Female Bodybuilder magazine, if such a publication existed. She must have been fifteen years younger than Rudy, at least. The thing that really got me about her was her insecure, imperfect smile. She had one little fang tooth on the side which stuck out from the rest and you could tell she was self-conscious about it. It looked great though. She could have been a supermodel, at least that’s what I thought.
Rudy and Greta had a young daughter, a small tank of a child named Trudi who all day long ran across the sharp rock cliffs of Resort Tik Tok with no shoes or clothing. One time I saw her trip and tumble thirty feet down the rock ledge and land in a bush. Then she got up and ran along on her way. No tears or even a whimper! She was amazing, that Trudi, but it was her mother I was most interested in. My plan had been to hole up inside my seaside shack and write for hours and hours each day. I’d build up a portfolio and then take the publishing world by storm. I got little writing done during my first month there, however. Knowing I’d likely be without electricity, I had made what I thought was a very clever purchase back in Bangkok: a solid little manual typewriter with stylish metal keys. It sat unused for weeks though, gathering dust on a table inside my hut. All I could muster on that island was a few weak sentences scribbled in pencil in a wrinkled notebook which I later lost in a café. Whatever motivation I’d had to write or generally work for a living had ebbed away. I was reasonably content to pass my days simply lying in the hot sun watching Greta in her bathing suit chasing Trudi around.
Rudy, I feared, had caught on to my admirations, but they had few paying customers and he tolerated my presence with cautious reserve. Rudy had some Chinese characters tattooed on his forearm and one day I asked him what they meant.
“Peace,” he told me.
“That’s it?” I said. There were four or five different characters there. I thought they must say more than that.
“That’s it,” said Rudy.
I watched him walk away, this angry hulking Swiss man, and tried to picture the young hippie he might have once been, the man who wooed beautiful Greta, and asked to have “Peace” carved into his arm.
I had been there nearly a month and accomplished nothing. Then an attractive Israeli woman checked into the resort with her French boyfriend and they quickly got in a bickering fight. He left the next morning and she proceeded to smoke hashish and drink rum punch all day long out on the veranda. I joined her in the afternoon and by nightfall we were both naked, pressed together on the single cot in my shack. She was a wet kisser and kept calling me “Jacques,” the name of the boyfriend who had just left her. I tried to imagine that she was Greta but it was no use. I awoke the next morning terribly hungover, with the Israeli woman sprawled asleep on the sandy floor below me.
I watched her sleeping there for a little while. She really was quite pretty, and sophisticated too, despite the way we’d spent the previous day. Back home such a woman would have avoided the likes of me, but the rules were different here on this island. Her eyes opened and she looked at me.
“What’s your name?” I asked her. If she’d ever told me I’d forgotten it instantly.
“Malka,” she said. “My name is Malka. Who are you?” “We met yesterday,” I told her. “My name is George.”
She rubbed her eyes and looked around. Her body heaved and she jumped up and made for the doorway, where she puked outside on the rocks. Little Trudi happened to be playing nearby and laughed at this.
Through the thin walls of my hut I heard Greta’s gentle voice. “Shhh, Trudi,” she said. “It’s not nice.”
Malka stuck her head back inside my shack and said, “I’ll see you later.”
I assumed I wouldn’t actually be seeing Malka later but in fact I did. She was eating an omelet at one of the small restaurants down on the beach and asked me to sit with her.
“You feel better?” I asked her. “A little,” she said.
We became friends, me and Malka, bonding over the mutual failures that mired us at Resort Tik Tok. Later I confessed to her my longing for Greta.
“That woman is a lesbian,” she told me.
“No, she’s married to Rudy,” I said. “They have a daughter.” Malka gave me a pitying look.
“Why do you think Rudy is so upset all the time?” she said. “He married a lesbian.”
I thought about this and could see that Malka had a point. There appeared to be little chemistry between Rudy and Greta. On the one hand this realization made me happy, because it meant that Greta didn’t actually love Rudy, but on the other hand it made me sad, because now she wasn’t going to end up loving me either.
Malka and I fell into a routine, sleeping together until late in the afternoon, eating omelets, and then getting drunk throughout the evening. We were both trying to avoid something, me with my writing, and her with whatever was going on with Jacques, that Frenchman who’d left her there. I chose not to ask about it, and in turn she didn’t mention the dusty typewriter on the table.
One afternoon we were lying asleep on my cot and something crashed into the outside of my shack. It was Trudi. She got up, of course, but then Rudy started yelling at her. He shouted vile German curse words which I couldn’t understand, but made Trudi cry. I got up and stuck my head out the door just in time to see Greta come along, scoop Trudi off the ground, and give Rudy an angry look.
“Shame on you,” she said to Rudy. And then she added a few words in German which made him really blow his top. Rudy’s face turned red and he picked up a wooden bench and hurled it down the rocks, where it splintered apart and landed in the ocean. He screamed and spit flew out of his mouth as he rattled off German insults at his wife. Greta appeared unmoved.
That night at the resort restaurant Greta cooked a fish for Malka and me and we ate it with a bottle of cheap white wine.
“I’m running out of money,” I told Malka. “I haven’t planned well. I thought I could stay here and write for months, but I’m nearly broke already.”
“Well, you’re not writing anyway,” said Malka.
“I know,” I said. “I know that, thank you.”
When we were through eating Greta came for our plates and Malka said to her, “That fish was delicious.”
“Thank you,” said Greta.
Malka put her hand on Greta’s and left it there. Greta stared down at her and smiled.
“You’ll join us this evening?” said Malka.
Greta nodded and walked away. “What just happened?” I asked. “She will be joining us,” said Malka. “Us? Where?”
“In bed. At your hut.”
I couldn’t believe it. Malka had never discussed this possibility with me. My heart began to flutter and my throat got tight. Greta! A threesome!
After dinner I hustled back to my shack to get things in order. The little cot would not do. I flipped it over, pushed it against the wall, and spread blankets on the floor. Then I lit some candles and decided to do some push-ups. I was excited. I felt I needed to get my blood flowing properly, perhaps puff up my pectoral muscles so as to appear more attractive. Malka walked in as I was doing this and told me to stop.
“Don’t be an idiot,” she said.
Greta arrived at the shack around midnight. I was surprised to see that she was carrying Trudi in her arms. The little girl was asleep. Greta laid her down in the corner and looked around at my candles and the overturned cot.
“Okay,” she said.
We drank some Thai beer and smoked hashish with tobacco and everyone tried to relax. Finally Malka leaned over and kissed Greta on the lips. Right before it happened Greta gave this little smile, flashing the crooked tooth. She kissed Malka back tentatively and I sat there watching. What was I supposed to do?
Malka removed Greta’s shirt and then took off her own. I felt stupid watching them and considered leaving the hut, a coward’s move, I knew, but I’d be damned if I was just going to sit there and watch them like a monkey. Then Malka grabbed my leg and pulled me closer. Suddenly we were three people all groping one another, a desperate pile of humanity. I couldn’t tell whose hands were doing what. We all got naked and Malka began licking me. I looked over at Greta and she smiled again. I ejaculated on Malka’s face. It was terrible timing. I couldn’t help it.
Malka wiped herself off and turned her attention back to Greta. They looked amazing, the two of them gliding against each other in the candlelight. Greta began to moan and then Trudi woke up.
“What are you doing, Mother?” she asked.
Greta said, “Shhhh . . .” and Trudi lay back down to sleep.
I joined back in with Malka and Greta but it was hard to find my rhythm. I wanted to be with Greta yet I suspected she wanted to be with Malka, and Malka, I knew, would have preferred her man Jacques over either of us.
Eventually we all fell asleep in a confused heap. In the early morning twilight I felt a hand brushing slowly across my stomach. It was sturdy and different from Malka’s. I was scared to open my eyes. I slid my hand over and touched Greta’s firm side. Greta! We rolled together slowly and began to kiss. I couldn’t believe it. She grabbed hold of me and I ran my hands all over her muscled back and wonderful Swiss breasts. Oh yes! We lay together side by side, trying not to wake the sleeping bodies around us.
I remember telling myself, You must savor this moment. It will not last or happen again.
I let out a sound, a groan or a grunt, and woke Trudi up. She stared at us with wide, calm eyes and again I ejaculated at an inopportune moment.
“Your daughter’s awake,” I told Greta, once I had caught my breath.
Greta wrapped herself in a blanket and picked Trudi up off the floor. They left the shack.
Malka lay asleep against the wall. Perhaps she was just pretending to sleep. I wrapped my arms around her and dozed off.
That next day it was cloudy. It had been sunny and hot for thirty straight days and now it was cloudy and cold. Malka and I walked to get our morning omelets and as we ate she told me it was time for her to go.
“I’ve waited here long enough,” she said.
She went back to pack her bag and I hitched a ride to the post office over the hill. When I got there I found a small bundle of mail waiting for me. Two letters from friends, a book which I’d ordered, a bill, somehow forwarded to me all the way out here, and finally, a check. It was from a magazine. Five hundred dollars. I could live another three months on that, at least. I flipped the check over and over in my hands, making sure it was real.
When I got back to Resort Tik Tok, Malka was gone. She’d left a note on my cot. As I began to read it Rudy burst through the door and socked me very hard in the face. I felt a crushing pain in my skull, blacked out for a second, and woke up with him standing above me, his two huge fists ready for more.
I rolled myself up into a ball and said, “Please stop.” “You took Greta,” he said to me.
“I didn’t take her,” I replied. “I didn’t take her anywhere.” “You took Greta,” he said again, and kicked at my ribs. This time I did not reply.
Rudy picked up the rickety cot which had been leaning against the wall and threw it down upon me. I let it stay there as a frail shield. Then he took all my clothing and flung it out the door.
I thought of something clever to say at that point, still hiding under the overturned cot. “Hey, what about ‘peace’?” I said, pointing to his tattooed arm.
Rudy grabbed my manual typewriter from the table and slammed it against the wall. Then he stomped upon it, crushing several of the keys.
“Fuck you,” he said to me, and then he left.
I had this urge to just go to sleep, to just stay there on the floor and sleep for a long while, but my head throbbed and there was blood dripping from my lip. A couple of my teeth felt loose. I got up and examined the typewriter. It looked like a wounded animal, a creature run over by a car. Several of the little letter-stamp hammers were bent out to the sides. Most of the keys still worked though. I could still make words with them. I found a blank piece of paper, rolled it inside the mangled machine, and began to type. I typed out a letter to a friend back home, the person with whom I’d left my belongings for when I returned. In the halted language of that messed-up typewriter, I told my friend I’d be staying in Thailand for a while longer and he didn’t need to hold on to my belongings anymore.
“ZEll my Ztuff,” I wrote to him, “or don8tE it plEEZE. The RRiting’Z RElly coMMin Elong now . . .”
Arthur Bradford is an O. Henry Award–winning writer and Emmy-nominated filmmaker. He is the author of Turtleface and Beyond, Dogwalker, and his writing has appeared in Esquire, McSweeney’s, VICE, and Men’s Journal. He lives in Portland, Oregon, and serves as the co-director of Camp Jabberwocky, the nation’s longest-running residential summer camp for people with disabilities.
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