By Max Biringer
The big brown moth comes humming out of the jungle night and lands gracefully on Lan’s shoulder, furry little antennae bristling as a light wind blows past. He looks down on it with little interest, brushes it aside. It takes to the air, joining the multitudes swooping and diving around the flickering fluorescent light of the rest stop. A gecko darts out from behind a faded portrait of honorable comrade Phomvihan to snatch one up. Lan likes to watch the little lizards hunt. Here it’s always easy pickings.
He leans back against the restaurant’s tin siding and watches the people come in from the side of the road. The jungle forms a wall around the road, rising to meet the night sky and mingle in a uniform blackness. There is only one bathroom, inadequate for the forty some traveling south on this first-class night bus. Most would rather piss into the gulch at the edge of the road than wait to use the toilet. He drops the butt of his cigarette onto the space between his faded black Converse sneakers, and takes out another. The tourists eye him warily as they walk into the restaurant to buy Pringles or maybe brave some of the local food. They don’t really understand his purpose here, and neither does he. Lan is eighteen years old.
Besides himself and the other employees, the people on this bus are not Lao. They are white, most from England but with a healthy number of Australians and the occasional American or Italian. He speaks none of their languages. His mother wanted him to learn English. He doesn’t have the knack for it but he speaks Thai fairly well. In the last ten years, his country has changed from hermit socialist republic to an increasingly capitalist state, wanting nothing more than western dollars pouring in. All the best jobs are in tourism, and this usually requires some knowledge of English.
Lan doesn’t know much about tourism. He didn’t want this job, but his mother insisted. It was time he started making some money for the family. It got tough when his father died. His older brothers went out to get jobs away from home; there were still two little ones to take care of. The boss-man at the local bus station knew his father and got Lan this job. He tells Lan he will work seven days a week. His father worked every day driving an old tuk-tuk taxi down the highway between villages. Most days he would come home exhausted and go right to sleep.
Lan doesn’t have to drive a cab or this bus. All he has to do is come along. Lan is now employed riding on night buses between Luang Prabang in the north and the capital of Vientiane in the south, armed with an AK47. He sits right next to the driver, trying to pretend that he is some kind of tough guy. If anything happens, he is their protector.
He is well skilled with a rifle. He had gone out hunting with his father since he was seven years old. They would catch whatever they could to supplement what his mother bought at market. A hunting rifle and an assault weapon are very different things though. He has no desire to kill anyone. This is just a job. He is illiterate and cannot read the newspapers, but people tell him that this country is far less dangerous than it once was. There have been no real wars for a long time.
The bus-company was looking for local boys who knew how to use a gun. The boss came to their house and offered Lan the job. Lan needed to start working, but the idea made his mother very nervous. The bus man did his best to convince her.
“He will be fine! Route Thirteen is not the lawless highway it once was. Things are much better, but the more tourists come, the more security we need. These people need assurance. They need to feel safe. They are paying good money to come and visit our country. To see your son with that big gun will let them sleep easy. Don’t worry, he won’t have to do anything but sit on the bus.”
He seemed very confident that there would be no problems. The idea still makes Lan nervous. Shooting a deer and shooting a man are not the same. This is the third run he has made so far. All the nights have been quiet. A few water buffalo refused to move off the road the night before, but they moved off after a little shouting and pushing. His mother is proud and he is earning good money, more than he has ever seen. He thinks about buying his own scooter. His mother wants him to use the money to go to the trade school in Savanahkett, learn to be an electrician, a plumber, a career job that will make him someone.
Lan watches the driver and his mechanic friend tinkering in the bowels beneath the bus. The air conditioning has stopped working and the passengers are complaining. The windows are not made to open, and the air inside is stifling. Lan’s eyes stray inside to the restaurant where a tall blonde woman is arguing with the owner about something. Lan cannot understand her and the owner himself seems to be having trouble. It is probably about the price. An old television sits in the back, playing music videos from Thailand. Laotians sit silently, leaning back in their plastic chairs smoking cigarette after cigarette, occasionally picking at the assortments of rice and noodles the owner’s daughter has prepared for them in back. The tourists sit around mindlessly. They cannot understand the television, and most have woken up out of a dead sleep. The blonde woman is still arguing but eventually just hands the owner a few bills. She gives him far too much. They will probably be here for an hour or more, but the tourists have no idea. Some of them have not even gotten off the bus, they expect to be underway in a few minutes. Lan knows better. This stop might require him to purchase another pack of cigarettes. In the dead of night, smoking becomes like breathing.
Two American kids who cannot be much older than Lan look up at him from their bowls of noodle soup. They smile and say hello in Lao…sabai dee…but the pronunciation is all wrong. He nods and hopes it will end at that. His gun fascinates the younger tourists. They think he’s some kind of action hero and want his picture. One of them offers him a cigarette, even though it’s clear he has his own. He gives them a final nod and walks over to the restaurant owner.
“Long night?” the man asks in Lao, sitting back on his stool as Lan leans against the counter. He is rather portly and his face looks crushed and sunken in the harsh light from above. The years have not been kind to him. Half of the business he sees is in the middle of the night, and it shows in his eyes.
“They are all long nights. The driver keeps the music cranked up, always pop from India. The passengers always complain about something and… I have to carry this thing.” He lifts the gun a bit so the owner can see.
“You never can be too careful,” he says quickly, and then is silent. His expression has changed dramatically at the sight of the weapon. He turns to face the television. It is obvious that their conversation is over. Maybe he has seen guns too often, or maybe he is just uncomfortable around them, like everyone else. Lan doesn’t like it either. It weighs heavily on his shoulder and he never forgets about it. He has been running back and forth between the cities for three days now, twelve hours each way. He only gives it back into the hands of a bus company man when it is time to sleep.
Lan sleeps on a mattress on the roof of the travel agency, along the main drag in Vientiane. The honking and the noise of so many people only starts to pick up as he lays down. He will stay here until the day bus leaves at ten. There are several other mattresses here, tucked under a little awning crisscrossed with clotheslines. Shoes, hats, and plastic bags full of clothes lie strewn about. Bus people have been sleeping here for a long time. Only then, as the sun rises from behind the distant mountains and dawn has fallen upon Laos does he sleep. Only in that capital of men that seems so lonely and unnatural does he relinquish the weapon.
He leaves the restaurant, meandering over to the men working under the bus. The mechanic has slid deep under the vessel and the driver stands by, holding a dimming flashlight. They do not notice him. The compartment holding all the travelers’ luggage sits open. It would be so easy to dig for purses and wallets as his older brother suggested, but Lan is not that kind of man. The mechanic curses and bangs his wrench against some unseen mechanism down below. Lan looks out into the blackness and sees nothing.
The air is different here, along the highway and so far from the river. He has spent all of his life along the Mekong. He learned to swim soon after he learned to walk. Here you cannot smell the faraway highlands from which the water has come, you cannot sense the coming storms with your hand in the current. Land without water is so foreign to him. He smells the air and gets nothing but the hot, damp of the jungle and the oppression of lingering exhaust fumes.
The noises are different too. There are no bird-calls or monkey howls, the big slab of road scared them away long ago, only the drone of the insects accompany the night. But now this incessant buzzing begins to lose ground to another sound, an engine chugging away down the road. A truck comes into view, its bright lights illuminating the forest on either side of the road. It comes up the hill toward them and Lan is blinded by the headlights. He looks away and the truck honks a warning as it speeds up to pass them.
A loud popping noise issues from the big vehicle. It’s happening.
Thoughts flash through his head in an instant. He is needed. It’s bandits, or rebels. They’re attacking. They’re going to kill him and take all the tourists hostage. He has to fight back; he must protect them. He turns, instinctively, raising his gun. He pulls the trigger and fires into the light. Most of the bullets careen wildly off into the jungle but a few punch into the tin sides of the truck. There is shouting from the truck. They are frightened, and speed off as fast as they can. Everything seems to stop. The sound of the gun hangs heavily in the air, echoing into the distance.
He is shaken back into the moment by the stern hand of the driver on his shoulder. Lan looks into his furious eyes and realizes what has happened. It was just the truck’s engine backfiring. All the trucks are at least ten years old. It happens all the time. He splutters out an apology but he’s drowned out by screaming passengers still inside the bus who watched the whole thing. The driver quickly leaves him and the mechanic climbs out from under the bus. The air conditioning can wait. The driver gathers all the tourists together and explains in halting, company-taught English that everything is fine, just an accident, a misfire, and that now it is time to go. They all file quickly and silently onto the bus, each of them risking a little glance at Lan standing sheepishly in the dust. Soon they are all aboard and the engine is purring to life. The driver has waited to see them all onboard. He messes with his belt, hiking up his pants and tightening it before he comes over to Lan.
“Why did you do that? It was just an old truck. The passengers are very scared now! Our customers do not pay good money for trouble like this. The bosses will fire you! Give it to me.” Lan hands him the weapon and the driver stows it with the luggage.
“I’m sorry,” Lan says, as the driver climbs aboard. He comes up and takes his seat. The bus is back on the road to Vientiane, five more hours now. The fluorescent light of the rest stop disappears as they plunge back into the dark.
He and his father were deep in the jungle hunting when it happened. The explosion had knocked Lan to the ground and left a deafening emptiness in the air. His father had stepped down on a bomb, one of a thousand live explosives lying across the countryside. It was dropped there by the Americans, in a secret war against communists that ended years before Lan was born and of which he knows nothing about. His parents never wanted to talk about the war days. He had found his father in a small clearing where all the brush was gone. He had only been half there, but Lan had tried to carry him back to the village anyway. It was hopeless. He had been very close, and the burst of the explosion was with him ceaselessly day and night for weeks afterward. Now it has returned, but this time it is quickly fading, not burned into his memory. He slumps down in his seat and thinks about going home, about telling his mother that he has lost the job. He thinks of his father, and what he might have said, but that really doesn’t matter. He puts his face against the fogged glass of the window and watches the night roll past.