Kampol Changsamran, a boy of five, was hanging around in front of Mrs. Tongjan’s tenement houses. His father had told him to wait: “You stay here. I’m taking your brother to Grandma’s. I’ll be back to get you in a bit.” Hearing these last three words, Kampol didn’t dare to wander far, worried his father wouldn’t spot him upon his return, so he paced back and forth, keeping a watch on the entrance to the community.
Something had gone down at his house a few days ago. His parents got into a nasty fight, and everyone knew it from all the yelling. His mother hurled the fan, breaking its neck. His father flung the kettle over her head, launching it outside the house. When night fell, his mother rolled up in a pickup truck, had it parked in front of the house, and loaded it with belongings until the house was bare. She left on a motorbike, riding ahead as the pickup truck crawled behind her. His father watched, arms akimbo, head slightly nodding. Kampol’s brother, two months shy of a year old, was screaming inside the house
Kampol waited for his father in front of their unit, which they had already surrendered to the landlady. He stood there sulking, two bags of his clothing lying next to him on the ground. At midday the grown-ups next door called him over, scooped him some rice, and fed him with questions nonstop.
The row houses of the tenement formed a little square, with a shady spot to sit under a poinciana tree, and the vantage point was prime for observing all kinds of things. Importantly, a general store was situated diagonally behind, and its customers routinely stopped by to exchange a few words with the people gathered under the poinciana.
Kampol was grilled with questions about his parents. He recounted the incident over and over again. Some people walked over to him; some waved him over. That afternoon someone gave him money to buy a treat at the store, and he was called over to the poinciana by six or seven adults as he walked by.
“Where’d your papa go, Boy?” Kampol didn’t have a nickname. Everyone called him “Boy,” as his father did.
“He took my brother to Grandma’s,” he answered as before.
“What about you? Why didn’t he take you?”
“He’s coming to get me soon, to go stay with him at the factory,” he replied, as he had when others had asked him the same question.
And where’d your mama go? What did they fight about, d’you know? Did your mama say who she was going to stay with? How often did they fight? Is your brother breastfed? Why didn’t you go with your mama? You poor thing, with parents like these. His father had nothing to do with this. His mother had an affair. That’s karma—his father had abandoned two or three wives.
Kampol held his snack woodenly, eyes glazed over as he stood listening to this person here and that person there. He was fed up, he hung his head. He missed his father, and he was dreaming of their new home, all the while exhausted and sleepy. In truth, Kampol didn’t know much—he just told them what he saw. The more he answered questions, the more he came to know about his parents in the process. He was growing irritated and indignant when some of the adults said his father might have abandoned him here and taken his brother to go live somewhere else. Some of them said he ought to go live with his mother. “With two kids, you have to split the burden. Since his father took the younger one, he probably meant to leave the older one for the mother.” Kampol was hurt, but he didn’t believe them. He started to resent the grown-ups. He stopped paying attention to them and instead craned his neck to look at the head of the path, refusing to break from his vigilance.
The group under the poinciana began to disperse after they had had more than their fill of the discussion. But one woman reignited it. She had gone to buy fish sauce and then stopped by.
“I feel bad, seeing him like this, so at lunchtime I called him to come over and eat.” She shot the kid a look of compassion, her remark prickling everybody. The woman was called Aoi. She was the wife of a motorbike cabbie.
“Yeah . . . I saw him sitting there staring at his bags, so I gave him some money to get a snack. Look there, he hasn’t eaten it all yet.” The speaker was On, the wife of a department-store security guard.
Then everyone fell silent. Nobody had ever thought of doing this sort of thing before. The wave of pity had created a certain wind that stirred a number of people.
Dum the tire-patcher spoke up in turn: “Yeah, I feel really sorry for him.” Then he called out, “Boy, you can stay at my place tonight if your papa still isn’t back.” And then he turned to the person next to him and said, “He’s just a little kid—there’s plenty of room to sleep.”
The boy declined without a word, his eyes still stuck on Dum. He wasn’t going to spend the night at anybody’s because soon his father was going to come for him. One woman got up and went to grab the child’s hand. “C’mon, Boy, come eat dinner first. Your papa isn’t going to show up so soon.” In a daze, Kampol was tugged along by the woman. He wasn’t hungry and didn’t want to go anywhere with anyone. He worried that his father wouldn’t see him when he arrived. As the others watched them go, the word among the crowd was that Tongbai’s behavior was in poor taste. “She’s showing off,” was what they said.
Yet by five o’clock in the evening, Tongbai was still in the kitchen. The rice in the pot still wasn’t cooked. Kampol, who was sitting there in a funk by his pile of bags, was led into the house of another kindly neighbor, who stuck in front of his face a plate of rice topped with a fragrant omelet. When the neighbor wasn’t paying attention, Boy took his plate outside, back to the spot where he had left his bags. He kept an eye on the path where he would be able see his father return. Tears were welling up and his lips began to pout. A moment later, Tongbai poked her head out to call him. When she saw the plate in the child’s hand, she came to inspect up close.
“Where’d you get the food?”
Tongbai went back into her house and slammed the door.
After work let out, the road into the community started to fill with people and vehicles. Children were coming back from school, and workers were making their way home. Half an hour later, Kampol had managed to take only two bites of food. His eyes moist, he sniffled and whimpered. As people passed by, he would reply that his father hadn’t come for him yet. The more he repeated this, the harder he cried. All sorts of people came over to console him. “Your Grandma’s is far away. He’ll probably be back really late.” “If he doesn’t have a ride back, he’ll probably have to stay the night.” “Don’t cry. If your dad’s not back, tonight you can stay at my place.” “Hey, I already told you that you can stay with me this evening.”
The sky was growing darker. Kampol was brought to the store, and treats were put before him so he would stop crying. His bags were placed next to him. He continued to sob. Sympathetic folks stood around forming a crowd in the front of the store, as if this was a problem they had to help resolve. Most of them sounded off on the cause of what had put the child in this predicament. His mother shouldn’t have had an affair. The father shouldn’t have laid hands on her. The mother shouldn’t have run off just to save her own skin. What reason did his father have to take the baby brother alone? The child was bleary-eyed. His sniffling turned into hiccups and he fell asleep like that, still hiccuping, in somebody’s arms. Dum carried the kid’s two bags to his place. When he returned, the child was gone. A woman of a certain age named Rampeuy, the one who had comforted the boy until he fell asleep, had carried him to her place. With more than ten pairs of eyes looking on, she proudly offered to look after the child’s sleeping arrangements.
Late that night, Kampol began screeching, jolting all kinds of people awake. The boy started up from his mattress and felt his way in the dark. When people in the house got up to switch the lights on, the child made a dash for the door, flung it wide open, and ran out. He cried out for his father, his voice echoing down the street. The neighbors turned their lights on and opened their windows. Some cracked their doors open and stuck their faces out to see what was going on. The boy was running down the street, heading for the entrance to the community. Two adults went after him, grabbed him by the arms, and sat him down. They consoled him for a long while and then headed on home. In the calm of the night, the neighbors could make out a whimpering cry.
Early in the morning, Kampol left the house where he had spent the night. He staggered over to the store and looked around for his bags. He stood there quietly until the shop owner turned and saw him.
“Is my papa here yet, Hia Chong?” Kampol asked.
“I haven’t seen him,” Chong, with his arms akimbo, looked at the boy.
“My bags are gone. Yesterday they were right here,” the child pointed to the spot.
“Someone’s probably holding on to them for you. They’ll probably bring them back in a bit. Just sit there and wait.”
An instant later, Dum carried the two bags over to the store, put them down next to the boy, bought a pack of cigarettes, and went home. A succession of other people came to do their shopping, and as usual, they asked Kampol, “Your papa’s not back?” The child gave no answer, but the grown-ups didn’t pester him to say any more. They had started to get used to the Kampol situation, and it was losing its novelty. But that was not the case among the kids, some of whom were his classmates. As it was Saturday and there was no class, his friends brought him gossip from school. Kampol had a dance partner he had rehearsed with for weeks. When the day of the school fair arrived, the day before, Kampol hadn’t gone to school.
“She was all the way at the front. But when she found out you weren’t coming, she wouldn’t dance. She wanted to get off the stage. Her parents were clinging to the front of the stage and they were telling her, ‘Dance, sweetie, dance. You can just dance alone. I want to see you dance.’ So then she danced. When it got to the part where you had to lock arms and twirl, she just stood there looking around all confused and then she started bawling. And she was wearing a red skirt, too, and high heels. Her mama had to go and carry her, and on top of that she dropped her shoes. So then she full-on shrieked. It was hilarious. Tons of people were looking. Everyone was like, ‘You poor thing!’”
And there were games for the little kids, with prizes of toys and treats, and there was free ice cream. The bigger kids did comedy skits on stage, and the teachers put on a play. Our own Mr. Sunya played a kindergartener with pigtails, his friend laughed himself into stitches as he recounted the story. Without realizing, Kampol had forgotten about his father. Picturing the scene made him laugh along with his classmate. This friend of his was called Prasit. Kampol called him by his nickname, Oan.
Prasit ran on home when he heard his mother calling him from a distance. But he was back in a flash, with a plate of food in hand. With a single spoon, they took turns taking bites. They thought it was fun and tasty that way. When the food ran out, they went back for seconds. The two had a heart-to-heart about Kampol’s father as they sat watching TV in the general store.
At eleven o’clock the crew under the poinciana tree yelled to Kampol: His father was back. The child leaped out onto the street, screamed his father’s name, whimpering, and ran toward him as if they were in a big movie scene. All eyes were on them, but the picture was not perfect because of an extra—Prasit was chasing behind.
His father reeked. The son reeked, too. They wore the same clothes as when they had parted. Father and son rushed headlong toward each other.
“Have you eaten anything?” His father asked.
“He ate,” Prasit answered for him. “We ate together this morning.”
“What about yesterday? Did you get to eat?”
“Who fed you, huh?”
“For lunch, Aunt Aoi called me in to eat. For dinner, Aunt Tongbai was going to have me eat at hers but the rice wasn’t done so Aunt Keow handed me food.”
“Good. Where’d you sleep last night?”
Kampol made a thinking face. “At Aunt Peuy’s.”
“Good, that’s good. That’s what I figured. Now come here, over here.”
The father and son evaded people’s glances as they disappeared around the curve of the wall of the adjoining property. Oan stubbornly followed them, but the pair didn’t pay him any mind.
“Listen: I still can’t find a place. At night I have to sleep in the front of the car. You’ve got to wait here another day or two. Then I’ll come take you to our new home.”
Kampol, face sour, shook his head. “I’m coming with you. I’ll sleep in the front of the car.”
“You can’t come. You’re better off here—there are people who take pity on you. You have a place to eat and sleep. It’s just two more days. Do you understand me?”
Kampol didn’t understand. He could only cry and cling tightly to his father. But his friend understood. His eyes lit up as he imagined the fun they could get up to.
“Sleep over at my place,” Prasit told him. “Have him stay with me, uncle.”
Kampol’s father saw Prasit only now. “What’s your name? Whose kid are you?”
“I’m Oan, Mawn’s son.”
“Mawn, the seamstress? Good, Oan, let your friend stay over for a couple of nights, all right? When it’s time to eat, get your friend, too. And let the other neighbors know that I’m leaving Boy here for a couple of days, and ask them to help look after him, you understand?”
Excited and proud, Oan enthusiastically accepted his charge.
“Boy, your papa’s going through a rough time. You’ve got to help me out. If you’re going to be a crybaby, then we’re in a real mess. I’m going to drive the day and the night shifts and ask the boss if I can stay in a boarding room at the factory. It’s just two days. Monday evening, I’ll come get you. Stay here with your friend, all right? Have fun. I’m going. Don’t cry. Aren’t you embarrassed in front of your friend? OK, I’m off.”
Kampol’s father came—and left—as if it were a dream. The neighbors hadn’t yet had a good look at him. When they saw the child walking back alone, the group under the poinciana all waved him over. They crowded around and pummeled questions at him. Kampol barely answered, but Prasit elaborated in full.
So it was clear and understood by all: Kampol was no longer Kampol; he had become everybody’s burden.
“It’s no big deal. It’s only two days. Dum, you have plenty of room, don’t you?”
Dum was caught off guard, briefly dumbstruck, but eventually managed to say, “Two days’s no problem. But what if his father bails? What if he takes advantage of the situation and ditches him? Then what are we going to do? I can’t take that on. Find someone else who’s willing. Who was it yesterday who let him spend the night?”
“It’s been no time, and you’re already saying this,” Rampeuy said. “His father asked everyone to pitch in, not for one person to take on all the responsibility alone. I helped out last night. Who’s going to volunteer for tonight?”
“But Dum has a point. What if his father bails?”
“Let it come to that first.”
“What’s wrong with thinking ahead?”
“Yeah, you all keep thinking. I’ve got work to do. I’m going.”
“See? Everyone’s already hightailing it. Look at all your sorry little faces. Who’s going to have a big enough heart to give him a place to eat and sleep?”
Prasit observed the scene, completely baffled. He tried to get a word in as well.
“Fine, lunch today at mine. Dinner’s fine, too, if no one’s going to feed him,” Tongbai said.
“Huh!—‘if no one’s going to feed him,’” someone fumed, “It’s just a plate of food, there’s no need to throw a cheap shot at other people.”
“Yeah, if you’re going to say that, why don’t you take on the burden yourself?”
“It’s none of my damn business. If it were my relatives, that’d be another thing. Whoever wants to show off can go ahead.”
“What did you say? Who’s showing off?”
“You all are.”
“Whoa there . . .”
It was approaching noon as they fought. Kampol and Prasit stood on the sideline, riveted. The performers outnumbered the audience, and there was an explosion of yelling and insults but one couldn’t make out the words. A jumble of blows ensued with no one making an attempt to untangle the fight, which went on unrelentingly for a good while, because everyone took one side or the other. Chong, the store proprietor, couldn’t bear watching any longer. He ran over to whisper something to Kampol and Prasit and then ran back to the store.
“The police are here!” the kids screamed. “Police! Police!”
It worked pretty well. Several people backed off and dove in to pull their crew away. Worn out as they were, they still had the energy to stand there cursing at each other awhile before they scattered, everyone back to their own home.
Kampol and Prasit reported to Chong why those people were fighting. Chong tried to listen with his full attention but still had a hard time piecing the plot together. All he understood was, they argued over the matter of Kampol, something along the lines of their fighting over who would get to look after the boy.
“But Boy already said he’s sleeping over at mine. His dad, too, told him to stay with me. I told them but they wouldn’t listen. They just kept arguing. Someone said, ‘You want to show off?’ Someone else said, ‘Who are you calling a show-off?’ And then, boom, the fists.”
The two boys carried Kampol’s bags over to Prasit’s house. When they poked in, they saw Prasit’s mother asleep, folded over the sewing machine. Across the room, a wardrobe stood blocking the view of his parents’ bed. A dark blue curtain separated the bed and the cushion on which their son slept, which was laid on the ground. Their food cupboard had its back along one side of the cushion. The kids put the bags down next to Prasit’s bedding and went into the kitchen to look for something to eat. They found two plates of rice and some leftovers from breakfast. Once full, they jumped on the cushion and went over who was dueling with whom and with what move. Then they played Monopoly until they fell asleep.
Mawn woke up in a panic at three in the afternoon. She was sitting down to resume working but ended up stumbling into the kitchen. She didn’t notice the two kids on the cushion. The kitchen had nothing left—the rice pot was empty and the food cupboard was cleaned out. She stood there dazed for a moment and then lit the gas stove, poured some water in the kettle, and placed it over the flame. Only when she stepped away from the kitchen did she catch sight of her son and another child spread out asleep. She glanced at them for a mere second and then turned away; she was in a bind over something and didn’t have time to pay anything else any mind. She headed over to the general store to buy a pack of instant noodles and hurried back to deal with lunch—all in the span of fifteen minutes. Then she took up her seat at the sewing machine again, her foot pumping, hands pressing, lips pursed, brows furrowed, and eyes focused as the machine whirred along.
Before five o’clock that afternoon, Mawn arranged the clothes into separate bags and hustled out of the house. Her husband had another sewing machine that was set up in front of the bank in the market. They patched and fixed all kinds of garments. Mawn took a portion of the jobs that people dropped off with her husband, worked on them at home, and brought them back at the agreed pickup time. She was so frantic that her hands were shaking, and yet it was too late. Two customers had shown up early for their clothes. Prasit’s father had asked them to wait a few moments, but the customers couldn’t stay. They made new appointments for the following day. Two others hadn’t turned up yet.
Mawn sighed and sat down, deflated. “And we’re out of money,” she said.
“Yeah, yeah, I know. Two more people are supposed to pick up today. They’ll probably be here in a bit.”
The couple slowly packed up. They carried the sewing machine to leave it with the stir-fry-and-curry joint next to the bank and returned to wait for the customers.
“It’s almost six,” Mawn said.
“Yeah, yeah. Let’s wait a little more.”
“Give me fifty now. I’ll go get food.”
“Where am I supposed to get that? Go home and get the rice ready. I’ll pick up the other food and follow along in a bit.”
When Mawn got home, she saw that they were out of rice, too. She went outside and sat in front of the house, sighing.
Prasit dashed over. “Mama, can I have money for sweets?” He had told Kampol he would treat him to some.
“Go shower right now,” she scolded. “And make sure you get the grime off the sides of your ears. Go!”
Prasit and Kampol showered together. They played to their hearts’ content before they emerged from the bathroom. They smeared their faces white with baby powder and then went into the kitchen and looked in the rice pot. Seeing no rice, they turned to open the food cupboard—nothing. The used bowls and plates were still soaking in the tub out back. Oan ran to the front of the house.
“Mama, we have to make rice.”
“Come here,” his mother called him. “Go to Hia Chong’s shop. Tell him your mama wants to buy a bag of rice.”
Prasit nodded, but then it occurred to his mother that they had nothing to eat the rice with either.
“Wait, Oan, come back here first. Ask Hia Chong for two packs of Mama noodles, too. Let’s eat instant noodles for this evening.”
“Can we get a pack for my friend?”
As soon as his mother nodded, the two ran full speed to Chong’s shop.
At the store, Dum was negotiating with Chong, but unsuccessfully. Chong only shook his head no, leaving Dum to grumble, as he went to attend to other customers. One person asked to get fish sauce and eggs on credit. When he saw that Chong allowed it, Dum threw even more of a tantrum. He made a lot of noise, all the while slurring his words and getting tongue-tied, and he stumbled and swayed as he tried to walk.
“C’mon, one last bottle,” Dum begged and followed Chong, who was going to grab something for a customer.
“Enough, Dum. I can’t give you another one,” Chong said.
“One more, c’mon.”
“Today’s already two bottles. I said enough is enough. You still owe two hundred from before, plus over a hundred today . . . . Wait, what are you doing? You can’t grab it yourself. Give it back. If you’re going to be like this, I’m going to quit playing nice.”
“C’mon, just this one. Other people can still put things on their tabs.”
“Hi kids, what would you two like?”
“My mama sent me for a bag of rice and three packs of Mama, on her tab.”
Chong smiled drably, shaking his head. He was fed up, but he obliged and turned to fetch the stuff for them. Rice he had, but Mama noodles were out.
“Tell your mother this is the last time. She’s got to settle the old tab before I’ll let her add more.”
“Look at that . . . Even kids you let buy on credit. I just want one more bottle.”
Chong perused the list of accounts in his register and let out several sighs. This morning he was still in a good mood. Given the unpaid balances, he had made a resolution that he wouldn’t give out any liquor, beer, or cigarettes on credit for the day—he would allow only the necessities. He got his wish all right: it seemed every wallet in the whole housing community was thin. It was true he moved a fair amount of inventory, but the sum of money that came into the store was meager. Still, he kept up his resolution: he let every customer buy everything on credit, except liquor, beer, and cigarettes. Alas, he eventually succumbed to Dum’s stubbornness.
Dum had stationed himself in front of the store for upward of an hour. He was fuming and distressed over how during the confusion of the brawl when you couldn’t tell who was who, someone tugged on the hair on his head and tore out a handful. In the middle of the crown of his head, which used to have a smattering of hair still attached, there was now only reddish scalp. He pleaded his case to get some liquor on credit by displaying his sore head to Chong, to show him how he probably wouldn’t be able to sleep that night if he didn’t have any alcohol to soothe his spirit. Chong gave in, handed him a bottle, and told him to go home. Less than an hour later, Dum was back again. He ranted for a while before Chong caved and let him have another bottle.
With his resolution broken twice over, Chong was in no mood to smile or kid around with anyone. When he spotted Dum’s face for the third time, he started to count in his head, waiting for the right moment to throw him out of the store. But when his eyes fell on Dum’s raw head, he contained himself. All around, everyone had it pretty rough today.
As for Tongbai, she went home still steaming and refused to cook or clean, on account of the scuffle with the others. When her husband got home, they had another round of quarrels. The husband announced that he wouldn’t give her any money, while the wife declared that she wouldn’t feed him. In the end, the husband ran over to buy a pack of Mama, and a minute later the wife followed to get some Mama on credit as well. Tongbai and her husband weren’t the only ones. The same drama set off at least two other familial spats, which could be heard all the way to the store.
“He’s out of Mama,” Prasit told his mother.
Mawn sighed once more. “Go back again. Get ten baht’s worth of eggs.”
“Hia Chong said before you can get anything more on credit, the old tab’s got to be paid off.”
Mawn slipped into the house without listening to the end. After she made rice, she came back out and sat, chin on palm, as before. The sky was losing its light. All her hope depended on her husband. After some time, another solution dawned on her. She went inside to rummage through the bag of clothes on the table. There was a pair of pants from a customer who lived in the vicinity. She could change the zipper in a heartbeat. Oan went into the kitchen, came out and told his mother that there was nothing to eat, only rice.
“Yeah, hold on. Don’t go anywhere. In a bit, go deliver these pants for me.”
It really was only in a bit—fifteen minutes and she was done. Visibly relieved, she put the pants in a bag.
“Take this to Aunt Tongbai. Tell her twenty baht. On the way back, get ten baht of eggs.”
The kids ran out and came back a short while later. “Aunt Tongbai and her husband are fighting. She told him, ‘Give me twenty for the zipper. That other time you got your pants patched, I paid for it.’ Her husband said, ‘Here’s my shin—you want it?’ So Aunt Tongbai said, ‘You two go back for now. I’ll go pay your mama in a bit.’”
Mawn didn’t say anything. She could only switch propping up her chin between hands, left to right.
Prasit began to worry that they wouldn’t have anything for his friend to eat. The two sat down, limp, next to Mawn.
“Hey, there’s only rice,” Oan told his friend. “My mama wanted to put eggs on her tab but Hia Chong said the old debt’s got to be paid off first.”
“If my papa were here, we could buy on credit no problem because my papa’s already paid off everything he owes,” Kampol said.
“I don’t owe anything, but I’m scared to go,” Oan said.
“I don’t owe anything either. Should we try?” Kampol rallied his friend. “We can tell Hia Chong that my papa’s going to pay on Monday.”
“Let’s give it a go. But you talk.”
The two got up and sheepishly made their way to the store. Mawn watched them go and her gaze hung inertly in their direction. Her husband, it was clear, was no longer any hope. By now he had probably put his stomach in the care of one friend or another.
It was only seven-thirty but Chong was getting ready to close up shop. After Dum walked by, booze in hand, he felt worn out and lost his will to keep the store open. He wanted this battered day to end swiftly so a new one could start over.
The last customers popped up before he locked the gate. Two pairs of gleaming eyes were on him.
Drooping, Chong went to grab four eggs and slipped the bag through the grille.
The children sprinted off, giggling, and the sound of them slowly faded.
From Changsamran, or Sunny Boy. © Duanwad Pimwana. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2016 by Mui Poopoksakul. All rights reserved.