“Every man must suffer his own demanding ghost.”
Virgil, The Aeneid
2:30 in the afternoon and I’m drunk. Floating around scorching Siem Reap town, Cambodia, like a near-sighted bumblebee. It’s February – dry season – early in the new century. I’m here to see the great and ancient temples of Angkor. I travelled mostly by boat from Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam to Phnom Penh, spent a couple of nights looking over the Saigon River from my hotel balcony like a foreign journalist watching the Vietnamese invading, then I rode over a bumpy dirt road by bus up here packed between unwashed backpackers and Francophone tourists with polite smiles and paranoid glances. I opened my Lonely Planet on my lap and ignored it as I watched the jungle, the great Tonle Sap Lake, and those who made a living by it, go by. I was aware that I’d never see the faces that passed by me again.
I can’t explain what I was doing in Southeast Asia. I was just divorced, perilously unemployed and fresh out of the hospital. In the midst of what would later be diagnosed a nervous breakdown, I’d quit my job and, when my wife told me I was less than, I took exception. Loudly and vehemently. My hand slapped down hard on the dining room table. And that was that. For my marriage and the life I’d been living until then.
In the Penh (does anyone call it that? I thought I might coin the term), I’d met an Australian couple and invited them to the stay in the spacious suite I’d booked in advance with the aforementioned riverfront balcony. After checking in, I took a walk alone in the breezy night and found my new friends sitting on a bench in the lobby of a motel waiting to see if any of the crappy rooms were available. I offered to share mine and they were both relieved and, after they saw the place, very grateful.
Where you’d find a mini-bar anywhere else in the world, here there were liter bottles of whiskey and gin in a cupboard. We sat out on the balcony, emptying the bottles and considering the river. The upcoming American elections and the sudden death of a well-known Australian actor were the main topics of discussion. We’d gotten comfortable enough with each other that one of them asked what it was like to be clinically depressed.
“Every time I walk into a hotel room I look up for beams that’d hold my weight,” I explained, exaggerating slightly.
There was a silence for about six seconds that felt much longer. If what they were thinking was that I had absolutely no right to be here in a strange land, alone and further isolated by the unfamiliar language, in the state I was in, I would not have disagreed. And yet there I was. It was an attempt at escape, a snarl of rebellion from my failed marriage, career, life.
Cambodia has some really strong beer if you want it. And it’s always, summer or winter, really hot so you just sweat the stuff out anyway. And a bottle often cost less than an equal amount of water. So, you see, it was a situation that almost demanded that one drink. Of course, it’s one thing to drink copiously and another to do so sloppily. I prided myself on being one of those entertaining drunks, like William Powell and Myrna Loy in The Thin Man. Or, at worse, Mickey Rourke and Faye Dunaway in Barfly.
There was one particular corner bistro I liked to frequent. It’s called the Red Piano and I was at first disappointed to learn that the name referred merely to a toy piano suspended from wires above the main dining room. I sat upstairs on the wrap-around balcony alternating between water, buttery French food and very large bottles of beer. Every now and then a lonely, innocent tourist fell into my field. This time it was a hairy French woman with a backpack.
“How ‘bout them Mets?” I began.
“Oh, sorry, bonjour, comme ça va?”
“Tres bien, merçi, et vous?”
“I’m sorry, I don’t speak French,” I admitted then turned and emptied the bottle of beer. This either intrigued or confused her. Either way, I had an audience.
“See those kids down there?” I pointed out. She bit.
“See the little one standing in front of the store?” She answered by craning her neck to see where I was looking.
“He’s the hooker.”
“Ze hooker,” I repeated. “He looks at you forlornly and asks if you’d buy his mom some formula for the sick baby at home, which of course you do. Then that guy over there?” She sees the one-legged man I’m referring to. “That guy takes it out to the country and sells it. Probably has a whole team of kids working for him. A regular Southeast Asian Fagin.”
“A Khmer Fagin,” I say and she nods though I know she doesn’t understand it any better than the first time I said it.
“Well, it’s a free country…” I drift off and order another beer and a bottled water back.
I’d been in town for a couple of days and had already seen the temples. These imposing structures with their intricate historical and mythological carvings can’t be seen just over a couple of days. But I suffer from some kind of phobia where I can only take so much beauty at a time. I get easily overwhelmed and claustrophobic in museums. So I went long enough to appreciate the bas-relief work and contained my disgust at the cigarette butts stuck in cracks between them.
Now this entire time – the visit to the temples, my sojourns at local watering holes, walks down the street – was soundtracked by begging children. Theirs was a high-pitched plea, like a cat’s meowing that went on interminably and echoed in your head even when you were in the bathroom. It never stopped. Poor people lived in a country that never did anything wrong to anyone but suffered for it nonetheless. The population had been decimated by a communist-inspired regime – its ideology a lethal combination of Rousseau and Robespierre – in the mid-1970’s, until the Vietnamese next door said, Alright, enough of this shit, and invaded. Still, it’s one of the poorest countries in the world.
And poor me who had to listen to their whining the entire time I was there. I was here to get out of the world, out of time, to get out of my own head if I could. This constant crying kept bringing me back to here and now, to the problems of the world next to which mine were as nothing compared to this daily misery of theirs. How dare these people remind me of my insignificance!
So I drank and fooled with the tourists. And there I was at the Red Piano, fooling. Suddenly, inspiration hit me. I looked at my social captive and asked her if she knew where I might find a piano. She said she was sorry but had no idea, as if she should have known and was truly disappointed not to be able to tell me. Maybe she thought that if she’d known I’d run off towards it and leave her alone. In fact, I didn’t wait long but drained my beer, excused myself brusquely and went in search of a piano in that God-forsaken town. I thought there must be one in this little tourist strip. No, nothing. It seemed that if you couldn’t buy it and carry it home they didn’t have it. Little wooden string instruments that, I swear, sounded the same as the children’s non-stop cacophony. Tee shirts; shot glasses; little hippy stones. Nothing worth anything really.
I floated out into the big streets, negotiating more sober tourists and little motorbikes zipping by or parked inconveniently on the few existing sidewalks. I went into one of the tourist police stations. Surely they would know. The one bemused officer didn’t. Nor did he offer to help find me one. I don’t know how but I think he suspected I might have been drinking.
I stepped out of the station into the sun and it hit me: The Grand Hotel! Every tourist city has a Grand Hotel and every Grand Hotel has a grand piano. I’d never been surer of anything in my life.
So I hailed a motorbike – or cyclo, locally – in the manner of that region, which is to say I stood on the sidewalk facing the street without attempting to cross it. It took no more than a few seconds for a local workingman to ask if I needed a ride.
Know where the Grand Hotel is? He said yes. I jumped on the back and off we went. About a half mile where he deposited me at the white, faux-marble steps leading up to the lobby. I drunk-tipped him and he went off happy to, perhaps, put a little meat on his family’s table with dinner. Me, I was on a mission.
And there she was. Basic black. Truly grand. All alone in the empty lobby bar. I near drooled. A barmaid in black-and-white who was stereotypically drying a beer glass behind the long bar, gave me a funny look. So, I ordered a whiskey neat, beer chaser, water-back and put all three glasses on the piano. That’ll learn her to look at me like that. Apparently, there was a law against arguing with tourists so I knew I could misbehave more or less with impunity.
But enough with the bullshit of the world. I dove into the piano with a string of arpeggios and dark bass melodies, then settled down to some Cole Porter. I can’t sing and so I make it up with a few grunts and a sigh here and there. I switched to Silvio Rodriguez, one of his more Spanish-inspired ballads. A member of a passing group of ladies, apparently recognizing not so much the song as the beat, yelled out, “We’re from Brazil.” I congratulated them on their nationality and lost myself in the music again. It seemed the more I played the drunker I became. I would’ve thought they’d thrown me out long before. Maybe they thought I worked there?
I worked my way through the little Latin-American material I knew and then just messed around with chord progressions. At this point I’d completely forgotten my surroundings and was sucked into the piano. Now they were going to hear some Velvet Underground, Bob Dylan and – damn them – The Stooges. Suddenly I discovered that I could sing. “I need somebody, baby,” I screeched, “Who needs somebody too.” I took the lazy-blues solo into two or three minutes, which would’ve exasperated anyone. People were beginning to stand around and whisper to each other. So I hit the keys harder and growled.
When they came for me my head was about two inches above the keys. Someone grabbed me gently from behind and I didn’t resist. You win, I thought, but I had you for a few minutes you bastards, you gotta admit that. It was the cop from the tourist station and his double. They didn’t mean badly. They just plopped me on the sofa. I wouldn’t lie down. I wouldn’t lie down because if I did the room would spin. This wasn’t my first time doing this, you know.
So I just sat there, staring at the floor as everybody went back to ignoring me. Where the hell was I? What the hell was I doing? Why was I here? Just a few more drinks and I wouldn’t be asking just myself those questions but anyone who’d entered my orbit. And maybe I’d be fortunate enough to find someone who could explain to me who the hell I was.