Well, when old Mr. Me chose this southeastern Asian country to retire, I had in mind a place by the beach, always warm. As it turned out, there I was up in the mountains and it was winter. Oh, not winter like in Brittany, France, or Chicago, USA, but winter enough. May Linh couldn’t be nude all day – anyway our contract was null and void – and neither could I live in my shorts like I got used to during the past three years or so when I was indeed by the beach in a warm place.
So we were living in May Linh’s small house and, by now, I knew the neighbors, and they had gotten used to me, and I knew the market, and the merchants had gotten used to me. I couldn’t swim anymore, so I was walking up and down. Although some freakish pain remained in my chest, I kind of liked this new life once I was able to go down to the market and get groceries, get a beer or two in the bar there and people were now used to seeing me and weren’t asking question anymore. I was just the sole representative of my ethnic I guess but, since there were so many different ethnics in this town, it was ok for me to be there and no one bugged me.
Neighbors were curious at first but not intrusive. They could use my car once in a while when they needed it and, since I wasn’t going anywhere, I was glad to let them have it and they liked that. So they’d give me money sometimes for using the car but more often, they’d give me some goods, a chicken here, pig meat there, a big bag of flower or rice, noddle, you name it. I was happy that May Linh was there with me so no one offered me their daughter. They knew I was French and, one day, they brought a very old papy who could still speak some French. So the two of us spoke in French and I could tell his children and grand-children and great-grand-children were surprised and somewhat proud to hear old papy speaking in French with this foreigner.
All this to say that, by the time May Linh would come back from her school, I had plenty of groceries, from the market and from the neighbors happy to use my car. And I would also always think of flowers, including white ones for her altar.
Now I knew of May Linh’s school. Living here with her, I had learned what she was doing before when she would take all of her days off at once, one week every month. With the good money I had been paying her, she had started a school, an English school for poor kids from her neighborhood, and while she was with me living nude, it allowed her to pay for the rent and the teachers and the books so the kids could learn English. And, for Christ’s sake, these kids were learning. She had been giving English lessons for a long time I knew, but she was doing it at home. Now she had a little school. I was kind of pleased to have contributed to it.
I asked her once why she didn’t open a music school, a piano school as well.
“In English, I have patience and I can wait to see the kids’ progress. But, I can’t stand the piano being badly played and it infuriates me and I lose patience. I’d rather play for myself, and for you, than listening to kids murdering Chopin or Mozart or Satie or whomever,” she explained. That made sense I thought.
On day, some punk – maybe 18 year old but it’s hard for me to tell, I didn’t even know May Linh’s age – came to see me, on the porch, knowing very well May Linh was gone to school. He was a boy from one of the families living farther up in the jungle. Good family, good kid, a bit goofy. So he sat with me and, to my surprise, he started to roll a joint. He made it look like a cigarette but I knew what he was rolling in there. Christ, what now? I hadn’t smoked any pot since Carter’s homebrew down south.
Well that’s what the kid wanted, me to see that he was rolling a joint. He lit it, passed to me. It was homegrown alright. I had a bit of coughing. What the fuck! So I asked the kid:
“How did you learn English?”
“I’ve been learning with May Linh since I was a kid,” he said.
Christ, his English was good. And it reminded me of Lily.
“So what do you want to do when you’ll be a man instead of a boy?” I asked.
“I want to be a florist,” he said.
The kid was true. “Look,” he said, “I know how to read, and I know how to read in English, so I know some European countries have made pot legal, and I know it is now legal in several states in the USA, and that’s the way it will be as more and more countries will do the same. I can see how the rest of the world is coming here. Shit, even here, where we use bomb shells for flowers pots, you can have a burger and happy meals and sneakers, Michael Jordan…”
Jesus, listening to the kid talking in this way reminded me again of Lily, hiding alone in the toilets, so she could read. These kids were perfectly aware of the world outside of their mountains and I was again flabbergasted how May Linh’s love of English had created a whole bunch of English literate kids in this most bumfuck place of the planet.
“A florist?” I asked the kid again because I wasn’t quite sure where he was getting at.
“Yes,” the kid continued. “When the time comes, I’ll be ready. It may take 20, 30 years but that time will come where I’ll be able to legally grow and sell pot here, or at least export it. And believe me Mr. You, it is not as if, here in those mountains, we only now discovered the virtues of narcotics,” he said. I was stunned, as much by his English as by what he was saying.
Then I remembered. The Golden triangle. Of course! And I knew.
“You’re a Meo?” I asked.
He was disconcerted for a second, he didn’t expect that from me, and he was somewhat shy all of a sudden.
“A Meo, something else, whatever,” he said. So I knew, he was a Meo, the ethnic controlling the poppy fields.
“So next time I hear of you, you you’ll be in jail?” I asked, hardly joking. It’s not as if justice or police in this country were lenient in any way with little punky dealers.
No,” he said. “Look, I’m just giving you a test of my stuff and telling you what I think; I’m no Scarface but that’s really what I want to do, to be a legal florist, because this is what I know how to do.”
The kid was smiling and cool so we laughed. And I couldn’t blame him for being a Meo. He was born into it and had plenty of reasons to be proud of it. Mountains’ people have their own secrets and so they should.
“So what do you want?” I asked.
“I don’t want anything but I’ve been thinking. People here in the neighborhood can use your car sometimes when they need to and you hardly charge them. I know because they talk and they don’t know yet if you’re an angel or a demon. They know May Linh is an angel so they accept the eccentricity of your situation. But I’ve been looking at you since you arrived and I don’t want anything but I’d be happy to be your chauffeur, I love driving.”
“You can drive?” I asked, a bit surprised but, then again, I thought of Lily, she too knew how to drive.
“Sure I can drive, and pretty well too,” he said. “I could drive you and May Linh anywhere you want. I can even get you into China if you want, or anywhere in Southeast Asia, I know the ways through the mountains and I have people and family all over the place around those mountains. So what I’d really like is that when you and May Linh have to go here or there, you’d let me drive you. I’ll do the driving, I’d take care of the car and keep it clean and you guys wouldn’t have to worry about me or the car.”
“But we never go anywhere with May Linh. How far is it you’d like to drive us?” I asked.
“I can show you this region like no tourist would ever see it. And if you need to go to the capital sometimes, I could use the occasion to show my flowers,” he said smiling.
“Kid, they’ll kill you, you have no idea,” I said.
“They won’t kill me because they need people to grow it for them, these motherfuckers are no farmers,” and again the kid smiled and he was sincere and it was fair. Meos are not born from the last rain I guess.
“Do you have a license?” I asked.
“I can get one very quickly,” he said.
I decided not to ask how.
“Ok then”, I said, “you’re now officially my chauffeur and I’ll pay you but make sure people in the neighborhood still have access to the car.”
“Yeah” the kid said, “I’ll drive everybody around, on your account of course.”
“Fine with me then,” I said, “but you’ll have to tell May Linh, she has to know.”
“Sure, of course, I’ll talk to May Linh,” he said.
“And don’t lie to her,” I said.
He looked at me, quite stunned: “but, nobody lies to May Linh,” he said.
Right. Of course May Linh knew, before me, that the kid was a Meo and I wondered if she had sent him to me, just so I wouldn’t be bored. But I never asked the kid and never asked May Linh about that of course.
“Ok then, I have a job for you,” I said.
So the next day, early morning, right after May Linh had left for school, he came to pick me up and he had his best suit on and white gloves and he was ready to drive. He sat behind the wheel, I sat in the back, thus making both of us feel important.
“Where to?” he asked.
“We need to find a piano,” I said.
“A piano? Yes sir!” he said. And off we went. His driving was very prudent and I liked that. I saw him talk with a bunch of different people and making calls and he did find a place, in a bigger town down in the valley, where there was a piano for sale.
Oh, it was not a grand piano, we couldn’t find any, but it was a nice one I thought, a Yamaha, and they had a girl in the shop who could play it and I could tell my young chauffeur was startled to hear a girl, just about his age, play so well. Then the kid negotiated the price of the piano for me and he got me a much lower price than what the dealer had first expected to get from a white guy. And the salesman was kind of pissed, especially that the kid obtained that the piano be delivered immediately, now. I could see the man wrenching his hands, saying this or that, I couldn’t understand the words but I saw the kid getting excited and showing me with his finger and the piano salesman finally relented and the piano was to be delivered right away.
So they loaded it on a little truck and the kid and I followed the truck, the kid driving, feeling important, me in the back, feeling happy. By the time we got back to the house, it was almost dark and May Linh was already there. When she saw the truck, she understood and she looked at me and I saw in her eyes that she appreciated, the gesture at least. I don’t know what she expected or if she expected anything, maybe she hated Yamaha pianos, but she knew I was doing this for her and I really think she was happy. So the kid and I went to have a beer and smoke a French joint on the terrace while May Linh handled the delivery boys and got her piano set in place.
Then we heard the truck leave. Then we heard May Linh trying out the piano, the accords. So I fixed a drink of white wine, with ice cubes in it, and left it on the piano for her and May Linh looked at me and I looked at her and I knew she knew what was in my mind and she smiled and God, did I like to see her smile at me.
Then I grabbed two beers for the kid and me. Suddenly, jubilant music busted out of May Linh’s fingers and now she was playing a piano again and I could hear her joy and there I was again, overwhelmed by it all; only now, instead of the ocean, the mountains were my witnesses.
Iconography: Abstract by Ellar Wise