Wednesday, 27 August 2008 22:22
We didn't torch the shack after he died. Wanted to. Should have. How else do you get rid of years of tuberculosis? So next best, we bagged everything - mattresses, bedding, mosquito nets and clothing. Everything you could put a match to. Brought it out of the shack, and burned everything outside in the street. Didn't want to hurt Sam, an adolescent python.
We told his two girls that their teddy bears must go too. A huge crying jag followed. Sure, his two daughters were sixteen and twenty, and rumoured to be runners, as they say in the drug business. But a teddy bear is a teddy bear, especially when you grow up too fast, and teddy is the only good memory of a not-much-fun childhood.

Mr Lek ( R.I.P.) died at age forty-six, drunk for the last twenty-four years of his life. His wife, Tuk, was once the prettiest girl on this side of the Chao Phya River. She came to the temple for his cremation.

A day or so after he died, the Health Department appeared. Masks, gloves and disinfectant. But the daughters wouldn't let them spray. They worried that it might hurt Sam, that half grown python who lived peacefully in his part of the shack, where part of the wooden floor had rotted and sagged. Lived between the floor and the stagnant water under the house.

Sam feasted on rats and other such critters. Protected the shack, really. Let me explain. What with Lek's T.B., and all the whiskey he drank, after Tuk moved out the shack was never too clean. But once Sam the python moved in, the house stopped being roach/rodent friendly. Sam was also great for the daughters who came and went as semi-active runners. Who would often hide a stash in the house. With Sam around, casual visitors were rare.

Still, the girls never really liked Sam and didn't like to sleep there. He scared them. With dad coughing his lungs out plus his booze cronies, plus a half-grown python, it was not an ideal home for young girls.

In his younger days, Lek showed great promise. As a student, for two years running his scores were among the highest in the Kingdom. He was also an activist, one of the young teen-age idealist leaders who spearheaded the slum movement that brought water, electricity, government schooling, and proper house registration to Klong Toey, during and after the October Un-Pleasantness some 30 years ago. But none of this counts here in Klong Toey, or anywhere really, when you lose your wife by neglect and your daughters have to survive on the streets.

As a young man, Lek took the civil service application test. He was already drinking, couldn't stop. Scored the highest ever. Some prudish folks at the office shuddered that an outsider could be that smart, so they had him come in second. That barb always stung his pride. He talked about it a lot. That, plus his days as a freedom fighter against communists in Laos for 10 months.

Before the T.B. and the booze came, Tuk gave birth to two healthy daughters, Gif and Puey. Then came the T.B. He didn't take his meds seriously and regularly. Fatal neglect.

He died nine years ago this month. The day after the cremation, Tuk officially remarried and left her children to fend for themselves. Today, she's fifty years old, and her daughters, Ms Gif and Ms Puey, are twenty-nine and twenty-five, respectively. Such things as a quick marriage to a man ten years younger one day after the cremation of your first husband we all understand. On the other hand, abandoning her daughters was harsh. Luckily, both girls had learned long before that they had to make their own way.

Gif, the eldest, inherited her daddy's brains, plus his addiction.

Puey, the youngest, also inherited the brains, plus her mom's beauty, but without the addiction.

And so it began.

First daughter

Ms Gif hardly cracked a book in high school, but she graduated at the top of her class, and was chosen Smartest and Most Popular Girl. But there was no money for school tuition. The game is simple. Students can study and come to school, yes, but if they don't pay the tuition, there is no diploma, no gown, and no graduation ceremony. That broke Gif's heart.

At the time, mom was gone and dad was drunk. Gif went to a drug thug whom she had been doing errands for occasionally. Asked him to help pay school tuition, so she could graduate with honours. He turned her down. Laughed at her, sneered and suggested some intimate favours.

That next week she heard about a shipment, wrote a snitch note with very clear handwriting, and the drug thug bled to death on the street in a hail of 11 mm bullets, specially modified to kill, waiting for an ambulance that would never come. Stuck in traffic! Ms Gif was fifteen years old at the time.

In and out of a slum drug commune, she got pregnant. Her son is now twelve. Although at the top of his class, he is not nearly as smart as his mom. Also doesn't show her enough respect. It will take him some time and some tears and some years to realise that no matter what, she is his mom and she'd die for him, that maybe she can't give up drugs for her son, but at least she'd try.

Three years ago word was going around on the street in Klong Toey about a list of names. The foolish ones felt their tattoos and amulets would protect them, forgetting that those with the 11 mm specially-designed-to-kill bullets have their own tattoos and amulets.

Have to shoot a few people. Nothing personal. Orders come from upstairs: don't bother with other normal criminal activities, just concentrate on drugs.

But although prices skyrocketed and blood flowed on the streets, use and distribution merely changed gears. Quieter and less flamboyant, Ms Gif began hanging out more at the tourist bars. One night she tripped on ice with this tourist guy.

Early morning she came home to Klong Toey, hallucinating. Freaked out and jumped off a footbridge with a five-metre free fall to the street below, bounced off a car and broke her back. They put a steel rod in her back at the Police Hospital.

The arresting officer was a good and gentle man, originally from Klong Toey. When he saw her last name, he realised he had fought along side her dad in Laos. He wrote up in the report that she was drunk.

She came to recover with us for four months, till they removed the steel rod. Now, as I write this in November 2007, she is addicted to methadone, which is reasonably easy to obtain. She lives with her old boy friend, the father of her son. He is now mostly clean, and trying to get her to stop. There is always hope.

Another accident happened more recently while she was on a paid errand for a drug thug. Riding side-saddle on a motorbike, a car side-swiped them. At the hospital, fearing the worst, she told the emergency room staff that she would pay out of her own pocket.

A couple of mornings later, the hospital accountants came to her bedside asking for 50,000 baht. Gif phoned her sister, Ms Puey, to bring her some clothes. At noon, Gif went to the bathroom, dressed in the nice clothes her sister brought, combed her hair like in her sister's ID picture, and walked out. Collected her sister's ID card from the guards.

Hospital staff phoned us. Asked us if we knew her.

"Yes."

Do we know where she is?

"No."

They said they'd have to go to the police to collect the money.

We said, "Good luck."

Second daughter

And Ms Puey, Ms Gif's younger sister: She's now twenty-four and has a beautiful seven-year-old daughter who has all her mom's beauty and brains. Ms Puey is now in her third year in university. She struggles a bit because she fast forwarded from 6th grade to university, with a bit of private tutoring on the side.

Puey met the father of her own daughter when she was fourteen and gave birth at seventeen. They split the sheets long ago while she was still pregnant. Said she would not move drugs while she was pregnant. Didn't seem proper.

Also, the drug thug she had dealt with blinked. Pregnant Puey witnessed the motorcycle the 11 mm bullets specially designed to kill. Saw the blood on the street. She promised the baby in her tummy she would never deal with drugs again. She moved in with her grandma. Pawned her gold and nice clothes. Poor again, she got a job washing dishes at a sidewalk noodle stand for food money. Gave birth to her daughter in the charity ward of a nearby hospital.

We met Puey one day several years ago, and asked her if she was clean. She said she'd been clean for years, which was true.

Then opportunity came. There was a scholarship opening. She was the brightest, and we contacted some special tutors to get her, at warp speed, up for university level academia.

Why do I tell you this story about the two daughters? Their dad was a flawed hero, and Klong Toey is harsh to our fallen idols. He harped at his girls, "Don't be like me." And all he gave them was his shame and a daily dose of failure.

It's a true story. And more than that, it's about all of us.

Ms Gif is trying to quit still one more time. Will she stop? Probably not. They offer her methadone, but to methadone she is addicted!!

But she loves her son, and takes care of him the best she can.

Ms Puey loves her daughter and they are cool together, though they may never ever really get along because they are so much alike.

And their own mom - Mrs Tuk, the widow who re-married the day after the cremation - well, her new husband isn't the best man on the block, but he does love her and he doesn't drink.

Puey is totally determined to graduate. Gif has promised to be there: to be family. To see her little sister wear the graduation gown that she never wore. Their children will be there too, and they will bring a picture of a young Mr Lek in his jungle fatigues when he was a freedom fighter against the communists in Laos. The policeman who took Gif to the hospital when she jumped off the foot bridge promised to come with some old hands who fought alongside their dad. Mom won't be invited, because simply, she abandoned them. But her daughters will be terribly disappointed if she does not show up.

It's never a true state of despair. It could be, but we can't let that happen, can we?

Father Joe Maier, C.Ss.R., is co- founder and chairman of the Human Development Foundation in Klong Toey, Bangkok. For more information: (662) 671-5313; http://www.mercycentre.org.