Over twenty golf courses are located within an hour drive from Pattaya, Thailand's infamous beach resort. Whacking a little ball around the world-class fairways give many long-distance travelers something to do, while waiting for the night to fall on the Last Babylon. Jamie Parker preferred sleep, however his girlfriend Ort had been poking his stomach for the last week, saying, "Uan."
"Fat?" Jamie looked in the mirror. His traditionally flat stomach was thickened by beer flab, but uan was an overstatement. "I've never been fat in my life."
"Now not never. Now you uan." Ort was wearing an imitation Gucci shirt and fake Levis. She weighed less than when they had met at the Paris a Go-Go. She wasn't the prettiest girl in town, but she was sexier than most of the girls on the circuit. It was no act and Jamie was happy with her about 50% of the time.
"Really?" This was the first time the New Yorker had been called fat. His nickname on the Lower East Side was 'el Flacco Blanco'.
"No problem you fat. No girl look at you."
"I thought Thai girls liked fat men." Jamie's belly hung over his belt and his lower ribs were buried under the new spread of flesh.
"And you think they love you long time too?" Ort brushed her long brown hair so it fell down her back like the mane of a mare.
"I'll show you 'love you long time'." Jamie threw her on the bed, but halfway through theier love-making he realized he was out of breath. Ort was right. The 51 year-old ex-con was fat and out of shape. As a retired criminal both could be a death sentence and he fell asleep vowing to change his life of indolence. It was time to get back in shape.
That afternoon he rode his bike down to the Asia Hotel Driving Range. He picked out a driver and ordered two buckets of balls. Neither of the pros commented on his wearing flip-flops.
"You play golf before?" Ort ate fiery sum tam salad in the shade.
"Only mini-golf." Jamie had played several games on summer holiday. He had lost each time to his younger brother. Nothing in the intervening years had diminished his ignorance and he observed a 70 year-old man two stalls down swing at a ball. It traveled 200 meters in a straight line.
"Chok dii." Ort redevoted her attention to the spicy mango salad.
"I've always had beginner's luck."
Jamie balanced a ball on the tee and grasped the driver like a Louisville Slugger. The heft of the shaft was too small for his hands, but he instinctively understood that his thumbs were in the way. Jamie clutched the club like he was hitchhiking with two hands and spread his legs like the old man, who had whack his next ball to the 250 m mark.
Head down Jamie swung down at the ball and missed it by two inches.
"What mean beginner?" Ort's face displayed her displeasure at his effort. Thais hate losing face.
"Someone who is learning to do something." Jamie adjusted his grip and stance.
"Meuu-ma." Ort rollercoasted her inflection through the word.
Jamie wielded the golf driver like he was hacking a watermelon with a samurai sword.
Jamie had played baseball for Xaverian Brothers in Brooklyn. Nothing felt better than the bat meeting the ball with the sweet part of the bat. It was more satisfying than a speedball and the euphoria he experienced from smacking the next golf ball 270 meters was an unexpected epiphany . The old man turned around to smile with appreciation of his tee-shot and Ort lifted her head from the plate.
"Sometimes beginner's luck takes more than one try."
Jamie started every day with a visit to the Asia Hotel Driving Range. Ort liked one of the golf pros. He was Thai. Jamie didn't care, since he got free lessons out of her flirting. He switched the flip-flops for Nike Air Max golf shoes and bought a used Ping driver from the pro shop. A few lessons from Ort's admirer pushed his drives into the 300 range. Several golfers asked him to join them for foursomes at the various golf courses around Pattaya. Jamie thanked them for offers, but refused to venture further than Sukhumvit.
"Something about that road makes me think I might die on it." He had seen numerous collisions at the intersection of Sukhumvit and Pattaya Tai. Cars and trucks had a weight advantage over bikes.
Ort was proud of his prowess at the driving range and home. His flab was gone.
"You are now a handsome man again." She whispered promise of naughtiness.
"I was always handsome. I was just hiding under a little fat." He had cut down on his beer consumption. The carbs were near-fatal at his age.
"You not fat now. You man #1." Her tongue slipped into his ear like a sea snake seeking his skull. Jamie showed his stuff. They went home and didn't see daylight for three days.
Life was good. The weather was temperate. Jamie was treated by the staff at the Asia Driving Range almost as if he was the owner. He was a big tipper. The Thais called him 'Jame'. None of them could say 'Jamie'. One day he stroked the balls almost 325. He thought nothing else in the world could be more perfect, until he saw Ort's face.
She was scared to the marrow.
"Bpen Arai?" He turned to see a group of stiff-faced Thais standing in front of a top-end Benz. Their eyes glared at him.
"Are those people the problem?" None of the paunchy men appeared ready to fight, but they had money and money bought trouble cheap in Thailand.
"They want use tee." Her cautious nod was a timid wai to five Thai middle-aged men before the Mercedes.
They glowered at Jamie, as if no farangs should live in Thailand. The headman wore a diamond-encrusted Rolex. His hair resembled a toupee, but he wasn't bald. He might have been good-looking 20 years ago. At 50 too many bad karma had passed his eyes.
"I'll go when I finish this bucket." He had 15 balls to go.
"No, we go now." She stood up and signaled the waitress for the chek-bin.
"No, we don't." He put all his muscle into the next drive. The ball sailed out of sight into the distant protective net. 350 plus.
"Okay, go now." Ort grabbed his hand.
"Why?" Jamie had a good idea why.
"This men khon yai." She whispered the words like she was a slave in rebellion.
"Khon Yai." 95% of the Thai population had been slaves until 1905. The King had freed them with a signature. The khon yai or big people still regarded the masses as their chattel. Their greasy smiles threatened Ort with the tradition of domination.
"I know who they are." People whose families overcharged the price of gas, sold cars for twice the cost in the USA, and stole land. Their type take turns taking advantage of the lower classes. Same as the rich in America. Al Gore one year. GW Bush the next. "I also know their not the king or anyone in the royal family."
Jamie respected the king with the reverence of a god. He was the one true Thai and his family was deserving of the same respect. Putting another gold ball on the tee was not an act of lese-majeste. Only thumbing his nose at the rich and Jamie had been doing that all his life.
"The only khon yai in your life is me, unkless the King is driving down the road. Now sit down." Jamie had been to prison. He was well-versed in talking tough and even more skilled at the art of staring down tough Thais. The boss looked over his shoulder to the drivers. The pros and staff of the driving range were visibly shaken by this silent confrontation. Ort looked ready to cry. Jamie gauged the distance to the fat man as less than 3 meters. With a gold club in his hand the man was less than 6 feet away.
"Jamie." Ort said his name.
She had been with a lot of men before him.
The word 'love' came out of her mouth too easily at the wrong time, but her eyes revealed she didn't want to see him dead and he picked up the bucket of balls. The Thia men snickered with the glory of their triumph. Jamie said nothing on his way to the cashier. Neither did he flinch hearing the word 'farang'. Most Thais called all westerners 'farang'. This was their country and he told Ort to get on the motorbike, while he paid the bill.
The golf pro wai-ed him.
His smile said sorry.
"Mai-bphen-rai." Jamie tipped him a 500 baht. "I know when to have 'jai yen'."
He wai-ed the golf pro and the five men laughed at his use of the Thai gesture.
Jamie had been in Thailand long enough to know how to smile in Thai.
Each smile had its own meaning.
His smile clearly was 'yet mung'.
A lot of teeth and narrowed eyes.
He got on his bike and Ort wrapped her arms around his waist.
"Thank you." She was happy that non one had died at the driving range.
Jamie was happy too, because it's one thing to have bad manners, it's another to know when to not use them.
The answer is never.
Especially in a foreign land.