Family When you graduated, no one hired draft bait. You lived at home. Waited for the hungry nation’s letter. Collected in October. Bus full of strangers. One, his pockets full of candy. Another, cigarettes. No one shared. Guy behind you was reading Psychology Today. Now, after four months of training, you’re trying to use every minute of this twelve-hour pass slipping through your fingers. Last freedom before new orders. Fog cold. Can’t pull your collar close enough. Head-down walking. The light without edges. Can’t see the city through suffocating gray. No idea how far from the Greyhound depot. Looking for a place that won’t shun a soldier. To be among civilians a few hours. But you’ve wandered into a warehouse district. The Draft, a law for world war—now part of the country’s character—has sent you to learn automatic weapons and explosives; to build strength to march with heavy packs; equipment, and ammunition; to carry an injured comrade out of harm’s way; to dress wounds; to dig for shelter in the dirt. It’s taken you for your country’s hardest work. At the bus depot you bought a San Francisco Chronicle. First newspaper in four months, now limp in the fog. Training’s over for your platoon. No longer strangers uncertain about each other or the Army. Comrades waiting for orders: Vietnam on everyone’s mind. Among steel and concrete buildings, a single light caved in mist above a store front’s faded letters, EAT. Looks like a place out of Jack London. A place for bearded men in pea jackets, wool caps, heavy boots. And cheap enough for a $100-a-month Army private. Brass door handle’s wet, cold. Thumb the latch. Push. Almost empty. Air heavy with grease. Cook, with stained apron and tattooed arms, has spread the classifieds on a table. Doesn’t look up. Radiator clicks by the door; coffee urn grumbles. Murmured slap of cards from the far end of the counter. Her uniform is faded pink; hair in a bun, pencil stuck in it. You’re too late for breakfast, she declares. We got pie and coffee. Take the seat by the register. The cup is heavy china; kind that holds blistering heat. Slip your fingers around it; one through the handle. She returns to the game. Takes her cards from her apron pocket. Other players are pink-faced—gray hair slicked back on one, fluffy gray ring above the other’s ears. Black industrial shoes with gym socks. Their backs toward me. Students are protesting. San Francisco wants to build the world’s tallest building. Nixon has a plan. Crossword, horoscope, Goren on Bridge, Ask Abby, sports, want ads. Pages of another world. Pay for the coffee. Leave the paper. Fog’s unchanged. Pull your neck into your collar. Back to the bus depot. Back to your platoon. Back to wait for orders. Unspoken: You’ll be split up. Singing in the Dark Few things weight your heart like men’s voices lifting in the relief of camp songs, songs that echo back from a grove of trees taller than their sound. Nothing is more terrible than men’s voices lifting to branches leaning down, keeping to themselves what lies ahead. Pride On the plaza, the Marine Band struck up the national anthem, and in the awareness of a ten-year old, you noticed the changed posture of the man standing next to you; how he pulled his feet together, how he squared his shoulders, and took the cigarette from his mouth; how both sleeves ended in stainless steel hooks. Bus to the Weekend Market Hot. Sun off the concrete so intense, I have to squint. Digs through the bottom of my shoes. No taxis on Sunday—so a bus. Alone at the stop on Sukhumvit Road, I’m moving with the shade splatter under this flaming jacaranda. Tomorrow, the young woman with white blouse and blue sarong, will set her baskets down in the shade, lean her bamboo pole against the fence, and roast banana slices on a brazier for customers waiting for the bus. She’ll wrap their breakfast in fresh banana leaf before it arrives. _______________ Still my first month in Bangkok. Today, I’m going to the old part of the city. Have heard of Sanam Luang, the Weekend Market on the royal public grounds. I want to see where the food comes in from the countryside. I’ve heard you can buy almost anything there: brass woks, boars’ heads, horseshoe crabs, and temple offerings—like small birds in cages, or Siamese fighting fish in plastic bags of canal water—small animals for making merit by setting them free. _______________ A bus at last! As we pull away, I hand my coin to the attendant in his khaki uniform. Can’t be more than ten years old. With a practiced gesture, he flips back the hinged lid of the aluminum tube, drops my fare into its compartment, and tears my ticket from the tiny roll. He stays close to me and, looking up with a shy smile, touches the top of his crew cut with the flat of his hand, compares to its level on my shirt—something I did at that age. I smile back. Ah, luck! A seat on the shady side and an open window with breeze from our movement. The young mother in the seat ahead holds her baby up to look over her shoulder at the farang. A surprise of black hair spouts up through a pink bow. I look down a moment, then up; wiggling my eyebrows. A giggling reward. Like all babies, she can’t stop staring. I’m guessing she’s going to visit grandparents. They get off at Soi Nana Nua— just before Ploenchit Road where we begin heading west. Near Erawan Shrine, I hear whispers behind me in a dialect I don’t understand. I pick out the word American. A gray-haired woman leans forward and raises her voice to get my attention. Her hair is cut short, sarong folded in the old style. I can’t make out what she’s saying until she offers me a kaffir leaf and a scoop from her jar of betel nut paste. Her daughter, in western dress and sunglasses, tugs at her arm, an effort she pulls away from— eyes bright above her betel-red mouth. In a country that esteems its elderly, she’s being generous with her attention. Respectfully, I decline with a modest lowering of my head, then a wink and smile. Her laugh lines are for me. We ignore daughter. _______________ As we pass Emerald Buddha Temple, people start gathering their belongings. The attendant stands next to the driver to look out the front. We pull over, and everyone gets off. So I do, too. The street stews with weaving vehicles. Taxis, bicycles, samlors, small trucks, motor bikes and scooters weave, beep, honk and puff exhaust. Everyone seems to be unloading baskets or crates or dropping someone off. Sanam Luang itself is an uproar of tarps in all shapes, colors and patterns— all with their backs to me—obscuring thirty grass-sparse acres of the royal public grounds. I retreat to shade beneath the tamarind trees planted by King Rama V. How do I get into the Market? There seems to be no entrance, and everyone’s too busy to ask. As I watch, a woman with a basket of duck eggs resting on her hip gets off the back of a motorbike, and dodging through the traffic, disappears behind a canopy. Staying under the trees, I follow and find the opening where she entered. ______________ A path on the battered grass wanders vendor-to-vendor. I turn left, dodging tent poles and tie-downs, duck under tarps sagging with the weight of sun, and stop at crowd around a table where someone sells small birds from a tall wire cage. A boy and his father have made a selection and are watching the vendor trying to catch it without losing the others. The birds make small clicking sounds as they flick perch to perch. Each grab inspires laughter and encouragement from surrounding children and adults. Home has become far away, New Car Pattaya Beach, Thailand Hot Season I parked my new car last night in a grove of royal jacaranda for shade over our beach weekend. Tomorrow we’ll walk to the water through coconut palms rustling in the sea breeze. At noon, we’ll move into the shade for steamed rice in banana leaf cups, and chicken satay roasted with a local curry sauce, drink Amarit or Singha from a chipped-ice cooler. This morning I find I’d parked in a photographer’s dream— a theater setting of clustered orange trumpets, regal fanfare deafening polished metallic blue. But trees only talk with trees. They whisper to each other what pride cannot hear, I’ve brought a painted toy into paradise.