You clean yourself to meet/ a man who isn’t me/ you’re putting on a shirt/ a shirt I’ll never see/ ’cause you’re too smart to remember/ you’re too smart/ lucky you
Dateline Singapore: November 3rd, 13:06
The phone rings, jarring the thin man out of sleep. “Where the/ what the/ who the…” Images in shards–his grandmother’s house and he is six, sun streaming through a late afternoon window. He rolls over. No by god, a bed, an adult body within. He picks up the phone. “Uh huh?”
“It’s Alejandro. Your passport will be ready tomorrow morning and you’re on an Emirates flight to Rome via Dubai tomorrow at 9 PM. In the meantime Alice is having a birthday party and you’re invited.”
“Miller’s secretary. You might have heard the rumors, but she’s a cool cat and it’ll be fun. 17:00 at Chijmes. Be there.”
“Seriously? I don’t know Alice and, I’d rather just rest up you know.”
“Not an option. You’re not invited, more required. From Miller directly. Buck up man and see you at 5.”
Holy Jesus, another evening. The thin man rises, splashes cold water on his face and when this doesn’t do the trick, fills the sink with cold water and plunges his face into the water, eyes wide open. He exhales; water goes everywhere. He dabs at it with a hand towel. Breakfast is long over–lunch is a maybe. 20 minutes later he has showered and shaved and limps downstairs.
“Lunch is still open?”
The man’s smile masks a scowl. Rolling into a buffet that closes at 14:00 at 13:46 is no way to endear yourself to staff. He takes a seat by the window, wanders the buffet. Two bowls of mushroom soup, two watermelon juices, a roll with butter, salmon sashimi and an Americano. Vague feelings of humanity follow.
On his phone the thin man peruses “The Essentials of Casino Game Design” as he eats. This is more out of habit than interest–he has no desire to re-enter the gambling demi-monde. Reflex is a bitch though. The waiter circles, pressing his point from 5 feet away. “I got you babe,” thinks the thin man. He makes marginal eye contact, figures he has another 20 minutes give or take. He resolves to relax into the spacetime as fully as possible before the waiter pulls rank. He has no desire to make trouble but at the same time, a customer is a customer and soup is soup. A game for two players. Eventually, he makes his move before the waiter is forced to make his.
“On my room please, 727,” he says, with studied nonchalance. Everything takes all afternoon.
The thin man has a number of flaws but he does clean up well. That’s a skill, a blessing, a bonus. Re-showered, shaved, and an app-assisted breathing exercise later, he shows at Chijmes on time and on point. Miller himself greets him with a slap on the back.
“Mr. Bishop, your work is appreciated. Much appreciated. I heard that you will be staying with the firm. Rome is beautiful this time of year. You are a lucky man.”
“It is my pleasure to be of service.” The thin man is not serious, yet not unserious. The work is the work and he has no other. “Anyway, happy birthday to Alice hey?”
“Hehe, haha. Alice, yes,” salivates Miller.
Another day, another passport thinks the thin man. Several people he doesn’t know are there. The crew moves to an outdoor restaurant; the usual wrangling over orders ensues and Long Island Ice Teas appear. There is no drink more perfectly positioned to cause trouble than a Long Island Ice Tea. The thin man downs two before the Nachos arrive. A waitress circles. “White or red,” she asks. “Both please” replies the thin man. It’s early and he has no intention of sticking with this group after dinner. Why not make the most of the moment.
The food is a B at best, but the drinks are loaded. The sun shines in the late evening. The usual Singapore rain squall has not appeared today. 6 PM, the magical hour, and the thin man begins to fade into the perfect liminality that only occurs between drinks three and four.
Titters from Alice. Winks from Alejandro. Miller sits straight up, what a spine. The thin man is bored. Time passes; the sun sets.
“One more?” asks Miller.
“How about the hotel bar?”asks the thin man. The sooner near home the better. Miller covers the bill and tracks are made.
The thin man and crew enter the bar and the mood is boisterous. The thin man feels as thin as paper. He needs an ally. As his party makes its way to a table, he approaches the barmaid. Her tag identifies her as “May.” Always approach service workers with kindness and respect–they get so little of it so it goes a long way.
“Good evening May. My friends and I are looking to enjoy the bar tonight. Only, I have been on the road for weeks and I’m a little tired.” He slips her a $50 bill. “I know bars don’t love to serve water, but if you could keep an eye on me and refill my water glass I’d be in your debt.”
May looks him up and down.
“No problem. Rely on me.”
The thin man makes it to the booth where Company X holds court. Miller and Alice’s hands dance a protracted duet. Alejandro sits a foot away, just keeping an eye on things.
A round of drinks, another. May keeps her end of things and the thin man hydrates, for a while. A woman called Marta had introduced herself at dinner and slides into the booth next to the thin man.
“How do you know Alice?” she asks.
“Oh. I have a bet with Jeffrey over there. He thinks you are on his team.”
“On his team?”
“You know,” she drops into a stage whisper, “Jeffrey likes men.”
“I see. I don’t have a team,” replies the thin man. “I’m a free agent.”
“Not so fast,” interjects Alejandro, who seems to register everything that is said at the table. “You are on our team. You have a contract.”
“A contract? I haven’t seen anything like that. And besides I don’t see how that would be possible. Text is dead, or that’s what I’ve heard.”
“Don’t mind him,” says Alejandro, “he likes being heavily humorous.”
Marta doesn’t seem to mind. Somehow her arms and legs are entangled with the Thin Man’s. How does that even happen? he thinks. He’s lost the touch he never had, but matters seems to be progressing anyway. Amazing. He hears Jeffrey calling for champagne. Now, even from deep in a haze the thin man knows that ordering a bottle of champagne in a hotel bar is not exactly value for money. A commotion is taking place across the bar. Men from the Green Group are hassling the bar staff, something has gone wrong with an order they allege. The Thin Man swivels his head around to take a look and his mind recedes into fantasy:
Shut your traps and stop hassling the waiter! We’re trying to enjoy a birthday! And if I have to tell you again, we’re gonna take it outside and I’m gonna show you what it’s like! You understand me? Now, shut your mouths or I’ll shut’em for ya, and if you think I’m kidding, just try me. Try me. Because I would love it!
He glances at the bar, catches May’s eye. She shakes her head imperceptibly, reading his mind. Absurd ideas of accosting the group and defending her honor recede. He breathes a sigh of relief.
A second bottle of champagne arrives, a third. We are at the stage of the evening where petty arguments break out all of the sudden, and are as quickly forgotten. The thin man, Marta and the sofa seem to have merged into a single entity. This is pleasant.
He snaps back into consciousness. The party seems to have thinned out. Miller and Alice are gone. Alejandro gets up to leave and Jeffrey waives off his efforts to pay. It’s true Alejandro drank only club soda. A steady hand, this guy. He leans over to the thin man, lets him know his passport will arrive in the morning.
“We’ll be in touch.”
“Oh good.” It’s all he can think of to say. He sees 120 Singapore dollars on the table, begins to calculate. The bill will be a lot higher than that. What’s happened here is he has fallen prey to the cruel economics of party leaving whereby early leavers underestimate their impact on the total bill. Marta is warm but the future is cold. It’ll be him and Jeffrey splitting the bill.
“Maybe we should call it an evening,” he says. He draws himself to his feet, a mighty effort, and approaches May. “What do we owe?”
“It’s all taken care of,” she says.
“Miller paid on his way out?”
She shakes her head, whispers in his ear, “your bill was charged to the Green Group. They probably won’t know the difference and if they do, they check out the day after tomorrow so…” May places her index finger on thin man’s lips and presses gently. He goggles, is in love.
“You are an angel,” he says.
“Shhh, silly. You’ll get me in trouble.”
He circles back to the table. “The bill is paid,” he tells Marta and Jeffrey. “Leave the cash as a tip.” They don’t bat an eye–too far gone to care. “I told you he isn’t on your team,” says Marta. “I win the bet.”
“It’s too early to tell,” says Jeffrey.
The thin man gives Marta a kiss goodnight. “I’ve got to fly tomorrow.”
“I know.” Theirs was an encounter based in a specific locale, a specific moment. Some encounters are like that.
Dateline Singapore: November 4th, 10:00
Ah the Sabbath. The thin man had managed to set his alarm for 10:30 but it’s not needed. The phone rings at 10 AM, and the receptionist tells him he’s been cleared for a late check out of 17:00. How did that happen? She doesn’t know. “It says right here sir.” 11 hours before the flight. What would a human do with 11 hours, he thinks? He takes a swim, showers, eats mushroom soup and indulges in a few slices of roast beef this time. He remembers a much loved song:
I’m so sorry but the motorcade will have to go around me this time/ ’cause God is on my side
That’s attitude. He tries to summon 1/10th of that mood, says a little prayer to his angels. On the way back to room 727 a maid smiles at him. “You must be the British gentleman,” she says.
“Oh, why is that?”
“Because your room, it’s so neat and clean.”
British rooms are neat and clean? That’s news to the thin man. Am I British, he wonders? The reason his room is clean is because there’s next to nothing in it.
“Thank you. Have a wonderful day.”
“You too sir.” There is nothing that he has ever done in his life to deserve such respect, he feels. Life is good.
Under his door there is a manila envelope. Inside is a passport in the name of Jack Bishop and $3000. There is also an index card with a phone number. At the bottom of the card he reads “May.” Life is good? Hell, god is good man. The thin man smiles and packs his valise. 8 hours later he is airborne en route to Rome.
to be continued…
Dedication: For Mint.