My Stilled Life: Chapter 17
She settled on the White Mansion Boutique Hotel, a smart three-story establishment with a pristine coat of white paint that shimmered in the mid-day heat. At the entrance to the Hotel’s walled compound we passed by an armed guard who looked to be in his late teens and physically not that much bigger than his AK-47, which was leaning against the wall.
The inner courtyard was like being transported to a world without hurry. One of the hotel’s staff came gliding out to greet us. Looking remarkably unfazed by Phnom Penh’s midday humidity, she welcomed us to the Mansion with practiced grace. At the registrations desk, her expression was unchanging as we sat across from her, bedraggled and digging into our inner pockets for our passports and AmX card. After the registration process was finished she escorted us up to our third-floor suite with a balcony that was blessed with a cooling breeze.
After showering, we napped for an hour then woke ravenous. Helen rolled over on the bed, grabbed the phone and ordered room service. Twenty minutes later, our full American breakfast arrived, cooked to perfection, with just the right amount of grease. Just like a Denny’s Grand Slam.
It’s amazing and disturbing how where you’re from colors your worldview so completely.
As we ate, Helen thumbed through a glossily printed pamphlet of things to do in Phnom Penh.
“Hey look at this,” she pointed at a picture. “I’d like to go here for a late afternoon drink on the river. What do you say?”
“What is that place?” I asked.
“It’s the Foreign Correspondent’s Club.”
“Something to do with the Vietnam War?
“No, it says here that that’s what everyone assumes, but it was founded in the early nineties to appeal to United Nations peacekeepers. Some of the reader comments say it’s just a tourist trap these days, but I’d like to see the place anyway,” Helen said while batting her eyes at me.
“I’m really tired, but fine if we must, but only for an hour or so. ”
“Thanks, Ford, I’m going to get ready.”
“Give me another thirty minutes then I’ll get ready,” I said with a sigh. “You know running me around like this is going to be the death of me, woman.”
I heard Helen give a short laugh then say, “Isn’t that the other way around, Mr. Price? Oh, I mean Mr. Changling.
Helen was a little disappointed when we arrived at the Foreign Correspondent’s Club. It didn’t have a piano player or Humphrey Bogart lurking in the shadows. The place wasn’t overly crowded, but they still made us wait thirty minutes at the bar, then coerced a hefty bribe out of me before we were escorted up to the balcony and seated at a very nice table that overlooked the confluence of the Tonle Sap and Mekong rivers. We were leaned back in our wicker chairs savoring our overpriced drinks in the subdued light of early evening when an elderly occidental in a smudged white suit approached our table.
“Excuse me for intruding upon your evening but I was startled by your resemblance to someone I used to work with back in the day. He was one of Ed Lansdale’s boys here in Indochina back in the sixties. Any chance your father was here during that period?”
I could feel my stomach turning over as I said, “Sorry, but I never knew my father. He was dead before I was born.”
He looked a little downcast but smiled, “You two just visiting the city here?”
“Well Phnom Penh is a fine city, if a little dangerous. It’s not as dangerous as it was when I first arrived here. Well again… sorry for the intrusion. Enjoy the rest of your evening.”
“Why didn’t you tell him the truth?” Helen whispered.
“It’s my truth,” I said in a tone that would cut off further discussion.
We got back to the hotel around 9:30. Helen, a little tipsy, walked into our room and discarded her clothes. She stopped next to the bed, pulled down the bedspread and plopped down with a giant sigh.
“You’ve got about 45 minutes lady, then we need to get ready and out to the night market.”
“Oh, daddy, I’m tired. I need a little more of your personal attention. Come over here, we’ll catch a later bus.
“Sorry, that old dude freaked me out tonight. It was like a slap in the face, bringing me back to reality.”
“I’m just going to put on the lotion, then we need to get going.”
Luckily, for us, the bus was late in leaving. Helen’s seductive way had gotten the better of my good intentions and I cursed myself for being so weak as we rushed through the stalls of the night market towards the bus depot. With some relief, we found the bus still there.
We climbed on board to be greeted by a harried young hostess who examined our tickets, then handed us bottled water and pointed towards the back of the bus. The interior was arranged in a series of chrome bunk beds, most already filled. Our fellow travelers were a hospitable bunch, all smiles and good wishes as we found our upper bunk. It was like a dormitory slumber party where everyone spoke English as a second language.
After the first hours, everyone began to nod off and things turned monotonous as the bus moved through the Cambodian night while the darkened landscape blurred by. An hour before the border the interior lights came on while the hostess moved up the aisle handing out cellophane-wrapped pastries and advising us to get our things together for border inspection.
Once at the border, traffic backed up and everyone became a little tenser. When our bus got to the staging area, the driver told us to grab our belongings and debark, while Vietnamese agents waited at the bottom, to board the bus for a cursory inspection, before allowing it to move to the other side of the border to await our return.
An elderly Cambodian lady in a little too big uniform pointed us towards the Customs House, motioning for us to get in line. We obeyed and after what seemed like forever Helen and I stepped up to one of the passport control windows, pushed our passports through the security slot to an unblinking official. He looked at our faces then back at our passports. He looked back and forth several more times before grabbing his official stamp, anointed the passports and passed them back to us without ever saying a word. He motioned us to move along.
We walked into the next room and got in line, again. Like us, most of our fellow passengers were traveling light, carrying plastic shopping bags filled with their personal property or well-used backpacks. When we were motioned up to the inspection table, the officer gave us a dubious look. He opened up our packs, spread out our belongs and scrutinizing everything with a smirk. After asking what several items were, he allowed us to repack, then used his blue chalk to mark an X on the side of our packs and we were again motioned on.
On the Vietnam side of the border the air seemed different, maybe a little more festive or maybe just a little less world-weary than Cambodia. We spotted our bus parked with several other large commercial vehicles in a haphazard formation half a block away. Between us and the bus was a throng of forlorn-looking street vendors, vying to sell us exotic travel staples. After our experience with Customs, we felt too vulnerable to stop and start digging in our pockets for cash. So we ran the gauntlet, arriving sweat soaked and out of breath only to find the bus locked tight. The hostess told us that the bus driver had gone back to passport control with a Vietnamese official to help a couple of our fellow passengers who were having visa trouble. So sorry, he always locks the bus when he’s gone.
“Hey mate,” a lanky Australian said. He’d been a couple of bunks in front us on the ride from Phnom Penh.
“I've been through this crossing several times before. My past experiences tell me we could be stuck here another couple of hours. If we shared a cab, we could be in downtown Ho Chi Minh City by then,” he said, smiling like a carnival huckster.
I looked at Helen and she shrugged. “I’m sorry, what’s your name?” I asked.
“Noah Brown and you two are?”
“Good morning Noah, I’m Jack and this is my wife Helen. Have you done this before and what’s it going to cost?”
“Yeah, I’ve been living in Southeast Asia for the past couple of years on the cheap. The taxi thing is no big deal and it should be about ten US dollars, each. We just leave a note for the hostess and we can be off.”
“Excuse us for a minute,” I said as I started to pull Helen aside.
“Don’t take too long. If I’m not mistaken I saw a picture of someone who looks a lot like you posted on the wall of the customs lane you passed through,” Noah said smiling at me.
“What are you talking about?”
“I was in the other lane from the one you guys went through. And when I looked over I saw a photo of someone I thought looked a lot like you taped on the wall. I know it wasn’t you… but all in all, I wouldn’t hang around here too long.”
I turned to Helen, “Shall we use our usual method?”
She smiled, reached into her pocket, pulled out a coin, tossed it up into the air, saying “Call it.”
“Heads,” I said aloud.
The quarter landed in the dirt at my feet, heads up. I looked over at Noah, who was standing a few yards away. “Well mate, looks like we’re off to Saigon.”
After a little looking around, we located a taxi that would take us all the way to Ho Chi Minh City. Noah began haggling with the driver to set a price. Once the price was agreed upon we climbed into a relatively new but battered Toyota sedan. Noah claimed the passenger seat while Helen and I arranged ourselves in the back. The vehicle’s air conditioning was nonexistent, so we rolled down the windows and breathed in the pungent perfume that is Vietnam.
Two hours later as we neared the metropolis, traffic became snarled just like rush hour at home. Helen and I were half asleep when as we were passing Tan Son Nhat International Noah asked the driver to pull over. He opened his door, stepped out, swung his pack up onto his back while he pulled a ten dollar bill out of his pocket. He leaned back in through the window, handed the bill to the driver, then shook hands with Helen and looked at me.
“Watch your step, mate. The war has been over for a long time, but the violence here can be just below the surface. You never know when some old passions are going to reignite,” he said as he fist-bumped me.
“Oh, I wasn’t kidding about the picture on the wall. Don’t know if it was you, but watch your step.” Then he turned and vanished into the ever-present crowd of milling humanity.
Something felt a bit weird about our Aussie friend and his parting words, but we just shrugged it off
In the early afternoon, our taxi pulled up to the faded facade of the Rex Hotel. An assistant manager came out to greet and guide us to the massive black marble registration desk. After going through the formalities, a bellman arrived to escort us up to our suite. Helen and I were wiped and were looking forward to room service and a night of recuperation. We’d gotten zero rest on the bus.
The elevator arrived and we stepped in. Just as the doors were closing the assistant manager came running up.
“Sir, I almost forgot that this arrived for you yesterday,” he said passing me a large manila envelope, “and please enjoy your stay with us.”
The suite was large and airy with modern replicas of French Colonial furniture. The walls were covered in a textured cream-colored silk that played very well against the lamps in the room with their Chinese Red colored shades.
Helen was tired and a bit giddy, saying, “I don’t believe it. Clean crisp sheets two nights in a row. Let’s order room service now. As soon as the food arrives I’m going to get naked and stay that way.”
“Slow down girl, this is getting to be a habit with you. Go take a shower. I’m sure that there’s a luxurious terrycloth robe in there that will suffice until the server has come and gone. What do you want?”
“Beef Poi, a small salad, dressing on the side and a Coke. Oh and find out if they have cake. I want a giant piece of chocolate and some vanilla ice cream,” Helen said as she closed the bathroom door.
The envelope was staring me in the face, but I didn’t open it. I just wanted a night without complications.
After placing our order with room service, I put the receiver back in its cradle, leaned back in my chair and closed my eyes. I must have fallen asleep because the next thing I know, I heard someone whooping war cries. I opened my eyes to see Helen come charging out of the steaming bathroom au naturel.
“Jesus, you scared the shit out of me. I thought you English were more reserved than this. You’re turning into an uncouth American?” I was saying when I was interrupted by a knock on the door and the call of “Room Service.”
I looked at Helen, “Get out of sight, I’ll get the door.”
The server wheeled in the cart, laid out the service and handed me the check to sign. I added a tip, signed it and closed the door behind him.
Helen came skipping out of the bathroom in the oversize robe, slamming into me with a giant hug and laughing.
“How old are you, woman?” I asked.
“Shut up ole man, let's eat,” Helen said.
I didn’t want to be gluttons but everything just tasted so beyond good. We were just finishing the cake and ice cream when Helen asked, “Why can’t we just make this moment last? I want this kind of life for us, Ford.”
“You know why. I’d love to be able to just go back to living a normal life, but the fates seem to be working against that possibility. Whoever those fuckers in the shadows are, they want to see me dead for some reason.” I swallowed my last bite of cake, got up from the table and smiled at Helen, “Melodramatic, I know. I’d like nothing better than to settle into a humdrum domestic existence, but…” walking towards the bathroom, “I’m going to shower.”
In the bathroom, I heard Helen singing as I stripped off my clothes and looked at myself in the full-length mirror. It was appalling how much wear and tear my poor body had endured. But I tore myself away from the mirror turning to the practical task of cleaning myself. First off, I popped out my glass eye. Swabbing out my eye socket is a slow process. It’s amazing just how hard it is to use your right eye to try to see into the other socket. If anyone had told me that missing an eye was going to be this fucked up I’m not sure what I would have done.
I stepped into the revitalizing warmth of falling water and for a few moments, I tried to forget the cares of the day. When the water turned tepid, I climbed out feeling semi-human. I put on the other cotton robe and walked in to find Helen dancing to some local rock radio station.
“It’s about time, come dance with me,” Helen chided.
I walked over and we started gyrating to some local band’s rendition of early eighties English rock. Ten minutes later, we both collapsed on the floor, giggling and trying to catch our breath.
Helen had developed a slight heat rash and it was my job to apply a lotion to every inch of her body. “If you keep giggling I can’t get this stuff on evenly.”
“Just keep rubbing, Jack. I’m too tired for an athletic romp, what about exchanging massages with mutual happy endings?”
“Fine, but then we need to sleep. I’m a little apprehensive about tomorrow.”
“Poor baby, let mommy help,” Helen said as she flipped over and reached for me.
I woke the next morning with an urgent need to void urine. I got up in the dark and stumbled to the bathroom. After I’d finished, I looked at my watch and groaned when I realized it was time for us to be up. I walked back into the bedroom, pulled open the blackout curtains, then nearly had a heart attack when I heard,
”Good morning, Jack. I would have thought that your father’s old comrades would have taught you better. Sloppy, sloppy, sloppy. By all rights, the two of you should be dead.
I turned to stare into the corner where someone sat half in the shadow. The only thing that was distinct about him was his hand holding a silenced black automatic.
“What the fuck, dude. What the shit do you want?” I said as Helen sat up on the bed with a muffled scream.
“Sit down on the bed next to the lady,” he directed.
As soon as my ass hit the bed, fire and smoke erupted from his gun plowing two bullet holes in the bed’s teak headboard, right behind us.
“This is your wake-up call. If I’ve scared the shit out of you I’ve done my job. This is your second mistake. The first was naively getting into the cab with me. I could have killed you anywhere along the drive. The second is thinking you’re safe in this room. Stop getting sidetracked. All these honeymoon athletics should have stopped when you crossed the border. Vigilance is your new word of the day. Say it, know it, practice it, and stay alive.
Noah Brown stood up and walked out of the shadows. All the while, the gun was still trained on us. He opened the door, stepped into the hallway then leaned back into the room. “Nice to see you two again. But if I wasn’t being paid to look after you, you’d both be lying dead in the jungle somewhere between Phnom Penh and here. You two should get dressed, have breakfast in the hotel, then go out, act like a tourist, then check into the other place. You'll be contacted there.”
The door closed and I looked at Helen. She shakily asked, “Did that really just happen?”
I dumbly nodded.