Author Note: The crux of this short story came up in a conversation with a fellow Foreign Service Officer in Bangkok during the ‘70s. It is hoped that its theme captures the Christmas spirit.
Bangkok, Thailand | December 1978
After three months of detailed work on an Abu Dhabi bridge design in the United Arab Emirates, Michael Keith’s California based archotectural firm failed to procure the contract. He not only lost the bridge, but his girlfriend back in L.A. might as well have been on it. His boss, concerned about Mike’s depressed state, had ordered the burnt-out engineer to Bangkok for R&R over the holidays…
<feature photo courtesy pinterest.com
The flight from Abu Dhabi to Bangkok had stretched over three thousand miles, but Mike’s eyes had only spanned the few lines of the typed letter from his unanticipated ex-girlfriend. When the plane touched down at Don Mueang Airport the seductive rising sun played peek-a-boo through palm fronds that lined the runway, perhaps an attempt to take his mind off Elizabeth.
During Mike’s half-hearted attempt to convince himself that Bangkok represented a fresh start the Thai taxi driver warbled off-pitch along with a loud Thai songstress on cassette, causing his head to throb. When the driver dropped him off at the hotel the engineer planned to drown his sorrows in high octane Thai Singha beer when the hotel room became available. Meanwhile, he dropped his luggage off and hoofed it down the main avenue.
Sukhumvit Road reminded Mike of L.A.’s Ventura Boulevard that he knew well. But their inhabitants lived in worlds apart. Bald-headed orange-robed Buddhist priests trudged along the side of the road as they garnered alms from Sukhumvit’s shop owners and workers. The less fortunate had to beg for their sustenance. Outstretched hands sought Mike out, or so it seemed. A one-legged man, lying supine on the pavement, held his hand in the air. Soon afterward, on a pedestrian overpass, a woman cradled an infant with one arm while the other hand reached out. Mike had no coins or small bills. Following the cue of other pedestrians, he looked the other way and hurried up the steps. At the top, an image of Scrooge peeking over his shoulder caused him to rub a sore spot high up on his back.
The Chavalit Hotel | Oscar Coffee Shop
The Chavalit Hotel on Sukhumvit Road was known for its Hollywood image. Its coffee shop sported a ten-foot high Oscar. Mike had heard that Thai movie stars frequented the hotel’s nightclub. Bangkok and Los Angeles had much in common. Both, known as the “City of Angels,” with reputations for being more naughty than nice, were fixated by anything Hollywood had to offer.
With splintered images of Hollywood, naughty and nice, and Ebenezer Scrooge swimming in his head, Mike stared back at a tropical fish that because of the thick fish-bowl glass appeared too large for the tank. The strategically placed aquariums provided scant privacy for the various tables.
The cute waitress sat his coffee down and smiled. Having no plan for Christmas Mike contemplated the loneliness of his newfound week of freedom. An older and very thin foreigner sat at a corner table brooding over a cup of coffee. The Caucasian man had leaned over and given him furtive glances that Mike interpreted as bah compared to the humbug expression of the big tropical fish. When the guy rose and walked in his direction Mike’s gaze settled on the aquarium’s castle.
“What are you doing?” the wiry man said.
Mike looked up and said, “Excuse me?”
The man carrying a cane exuded purpose. He scratched his head. “You want to talk about it?”
“Talk about what?”
“You look kind of down.”
His boss had handed him the letter before he left Abu Dhabi. Mike and Elizabeth had been together for three years before his assignment to the U.A.E. After his six-month absence she not only broke up with him, but she eloped to Las Vegas with a Pan Am pilot.
“You need something to do,” the stranger said, more of an instruction than a comment.
This guy was too much. “Who are you?”
He removed a card from his canvas vest and said, “Name’s John Coventry. I head up a missionary group here in Bangkok. I came here for a visit from Philadelphia about five years ago and never returned.”
Mike took the card. Was Coventry a charlatan? Another annoying Jehovah Witness?
The so-called cleric shook his head at Mike’s demeanor. “I’m in a fix,” he said. “I was supposed to meet this prima donna that was going to help me out over the holiday. She left a note at the front desk that she has been invited to spend the holidays up north in Chiang Mai.” He removed a wad of Thai money from another vest pocket. “She left guilt money at the front desk.”
Mike wasn’t sure how to respond to the man’s pleading eyes accompanied by an expression that had metamorphosed from Ebenezer Scrooge into Bob Cratchit.
“What, did you lose a loved one?”
“My girl left me,” Mike blurted out without thinking.
“Boy, have I got a cure for you,” Coventry said, his expression full of promise.
Okay, Santa Claus. “What do you mean?” Mike said.
“You’ll see… tomorrow.”
Mike lifted his coffee cup, waiting for Coventry to declare whether he had been naughty or nice.
“Are you willing to help?” Coventry said in an exasperated tone of voice.
“Do what, rob a bank?” Mike snapped back.
“A wise one, huh?” Coventry replied, with a slight hint of a smile. “I need fifty pairs of shoes and an able body tomorrow at my mission at Khlong Toei, along the Chao Phaya River.”
Fifty pairs of shoes? What? Am I Santa Claus?
“They’re rubber shoes,” Coventry said. “You know, Zoris. Fifty pairs shouldn’t put you back more than twenty bucks. Better for your soul that blowing that amount on booze and some unfortunate bar girl on Patpong Road.”
Mike twirled the card with his fingers. This guy was persistent. “I don’t –”
“The address in Thai is on the back of the card. Hand it to any taxi driver. Don’t let him rip you off.” He grunted. “You look like a tourist.”
When Mike began a retort Coventry interjected with, “No excuses. We commence about nine a.m. Wear jeans… And, if you let the kids down… well, you’ll have to make amends with the Lord, not me.”
John Coventry ambled off with a slight limp, led by the cane. He resembled a convalescing elf more than Santa Claus. Mike’s boss had warned him about Bangkok scams before he departed Abu Dhabi. But it made no sense that the resolute Coventry was a con artist. Mike’s cohorts back in Abu Dhabi told him that a visit to the Chao Phaya River was a must. Most of the exotic Thai temples were located there. Coventry must be doing pretty well to head up a Christian church right on the river.
Mike had managed to stuff fifty pairs of Zoris into two Chavalit Hotel laundry bags. The hotel staff offered odd looks as he tossed the bags in the back seat of the taxi. He felt a bit foolish. Coventry, with a card shark’s intuition, and wily wit, certainly hadn’t acted like a man of the cloth.
After the taxi meandered through a series of bleak alleys near the port of Khlong Toei, Mike became uneasy. What if the driver was taking him for a ride and he was about to get robbed? The taxi came to an abrupt stop in an area that wouldn’t pass muster for a shantytown. Mike got out and grew nervous when the taxi zoomed away. Standing in a puddle of murky water amidst abject poverty he wondered if he been a victim of a hoax? And where was Coventry’s shining mission on the famed Chao Phaya River?
“Hey there,” a deep voice bellowed.
Mike turned around. Coventry stood on a dilapidated second-floor landing of a rusted tin roof dwelling. A canal ran beneath the long row of similar squalid shelters. The open fronts exposed sparse interiors. An old woman next to Coventry sat on her haunches and fanned the coals beneath a large wok. Two scrawny children behind her stole glimpses of Mike.
“I’m coming down,” Coventry yelled out as if he was bringing the Ark of the Covenant with him.
What have I gotten myself into? Mike wondered.
Coventry approached him with the cane, wearing a pious expression that gave credence to his presence here. The minister shook his hand and patted him on the back. “You made it. God bless you.”
“I had no plans for Christmas anyway,” he said, in his defense. “I’ll make up for it on New Year’s.”
“That’s the spirit…”
“Call me Mike.”
“Okay, Mike. The plan is to unfold the tables over there and get everything ready for dinner. We’ve got loads of mouths to feed. You like Thai food?”
“Sure, where is your mission?”
Coventry, taken aback by Mike’s question, lifted his arms (cane held high as if to part the Red Sea) and said, “This is my mission.”
“Oh.” Mike saw no evidence of electricity, water, and sewers—the stuff a community normally requires to survive. “I thought you said your mission was on the Chao Phaya River?”
“The river is a few blocks away,” Coventry said, in a more colloquial tone. “Cheer up, the poverty bothers you much more than it does them.” He slapped his side at the taxi pulling up in front of them. “Ah, she made it.”
A girl in her mid-twenties stepped out of the taxi toting two bags. Mike smiled at her shocked expression. The blue-eyed brunet wore jeans and an “I LOVE THAILAND” T-shirt.
“Help her out, Mike,” Coventry said under his breath.
The mystery girl appeared like a rare flower amidst the barrenness. “Here, let me help you with the bags, Miss.”
“My name’s Nancy. Thank you.”
“I’m Mike,” he said.
“You found us,” Coventry said, giving her a big hug. “Thank you, and God bless you, Nancy.”
Her jaw dropped at the surrounding squalor. She attempted to replace uneasiness with a befuddled gaze that centered on what appeared to be a raven that flapped its wings on a bamboo pole above them.
Coventry’s huge smile usurped hers and Mike’s anguish. “This is going to be a great Christmas.” He began to head back upstairs but turned and captured Mike and Nancy’s attention. In a lowered voice he said, “You two make a fine pair.”
Nancy’s cheeks reddened. Mike was speechless.
After some small talk, they got to work. Mike would be lying if he said he hadn’t been drawn toward her. While he assembled rusted folding tables Nancy covered them with Christmas tablecloths from her bag. She had also brought paper plates and boxes of plastic spoons.
He watched her empty the other bag containing two-dozen pairs of rubber shoes. Coventry was expecting over seventy local kids. “How did you find this place?” Mike said.
“Pastor Coventry approached me in the Intercontinental Hotel coffee shop. He left a card to give to the taxi.”
“You, too?” she said, awed by Coventry’s odd ecclesiastic modus operandi.
“Yeah, he trolled the hotel coffee shop and caught this fish by accident,” Mike said.
She laughed, more with her eyes than facial expression. Her presence uplifted his whole being. Nancy said she had been held up in Bangkok for a few days. When he asked why her cheer faded away. Mike suspected that she, too, navigated a shaky bridge, but it wasn’t his business. Not yet, anyway.
Up above, Coventry had turned on a boom box. Johnny Mathis sang, “Silver Bells.” The pastor of the poor laughed and yelled out, “A little Christmas spirit is needed.” Dozens of neighbors in similar tin-roof dwellings gazed at Coventry with a mixture of curiosity and delight. Meanwhile, Nancy and Mike played eye-tag as they prepared for the Thai food fest. He figured Nancy was the “cure” that Coventry had alluded to yesterday at the Chavalit hotel.
A Thai man and woman drove up on a motorcycle. They, too, brought bags. Coventry waved and yelled, “Merry Christmas.” Khun Nui (the guy) and Khun Siripon (the girl) pulled various containers of food out of their bags. They spread them on the long tables that Nancy and Mike had lined up. Two more motorcycles arrived driven by two older Caucasian men bearing more food.
John Coventry led an entourage of the cook and two older boys toting large trays of barbecued duck. Coventry introduced the visitors to each other. He shepherded Nancy and Mike to the serving table. Coventry picked up an old bell and began ringing it.
Mike exchanged a smile with Coventry. He felt kindred energy flow through Nancy and he as the throes of children ran toward them from all directions. Nat King Cole’s melodic voice rang out of the speakers from “The Christmas Song.”
“They know that Santa’s on his way
He’s loaded lots of toys and goodies on his sleigh
And ev’ry mother’s child is gonna spy
To see if reindeer really know how to fly.”
The little urchins that wore ragged shorts and T-shirts slowed when they came close. The minister had appointed an older boy to hand out a pair of rubber shoes to each child. Coventry spoke to the children in Thai. His hand movements instructed them to stay in line. He clanged the bell once again and the local residents began to appear.
Coventry assessed the food-laden tables. He gazed up into the heavens and declared, “Ask and ye shall receive,” before he led a prayer.
Nancy’s contagious smile overcame Mike’s foreboding at feeding over two hundred people. Coventry had paired them together for a reason. When the bell rang once again they picked up their ladles and large serving spoons. The kids pointed to the food they wanted. He had no idea what the various dishes were, but the odors overwhelmed him.
After they had finished serving, Nancy fixed each of them a plate while Mike grabbed two Cokes from the cooler. They grimaced at how hot and spicy the food was. Nancy told him that she was an interior decorator with a hotel group that serviced Southeast Asia. Mike wanted to design a hotel in Bangkok. They laughed while admitting that the duck was their favorite dish, hands down.
As the sun rolled over to the west Mike and Nancy had progressed from strangers to acquaintances to something beyond friends. It happened not so much with words but through a smile here, a gesture there, and an intangible feeling that Mike had never experienced and couldn’t articulate. But it all came to an abrupt halt when Nancy looked at her watch like it had struck midnight and not three o’clock in the afternoon. With a nervous gesture Nancy, acting like a stood-up prom queen, said, “Gosh, I have to get going. I have a flight this evening.”
Nancy’s declaration and Mike’s disappointment collapsed their fragile and temporary bridge. He didn’t know what to say. While he stood there shrouded in indecision Nancy waved over the older boy who spoke some English. “Khun Nui, could you find a taxi for me?”
After the boy ran off Nancy continued to clean up the tables. Mike caught up with her and said, “I was hoping you would stick around longer.”
She tried hard, but her contorted face revealed an emptiness that even John Coventry’s congregation couldn’t fulfill. Not a single word escaped her mouth.
What Mike had deemed as his destiny suddenly eluded him. What had happened to Nancy in the past? Now was his last chance to convince her to stay.
The taxi roared to a stop in front of them. “Mike,” she said, feebly. “Please tell John how much I enjoyed helping—”
The taxi honked his horn. A tear ran down Nancy’s cheek. “I’ve got to go. It was great to meet you. I wish—”
The driver yelled out unintelligible words in Thai. The young boy escorted Nancy into the rear seat. The boy shut the door.
Mike should have followed her… His last chance had evaporated into the smoke emitted by the taxi as it whisked Nancy away. He stood there, lost. Minutes passed.
“Where is Nancy?” Coventry said when he returned, a bewildered look plastered on his face.
“She said… She had a plane to catch tonight.”
“Why did you let her go? You fool.”
Coventry had said out loud what Mike had been thinking. He had no clever reply or self-effacing comment.
“Well, go find her,” he said. “She’s staying at the Intercontinental Hotel.”
Coventry had awakened him, like splashing cold water in the face. “Please help me,” Mike said. “I need a taxi, now.”
While he waited for the taxi, Coventry related Nancy’s story. She had been engaged to a Foreign Service Officer assigned here at the American Embassy. They were to get married after New Year’s. The diplomat had gotten cold feet, told her that he wasn’t ready for marriage. He abruptly left on a business trip to the Philippines.
Dear Nancy… Her story (and John Coventry) convinced Mike that it had been fate that had brought her into his life. “Did Nancy tell you where she lives in the U.S.?”
Coventry tipped his head up, searching through his memory. “I believe she said something about San Diego, in Southern California.”
About forty-five minutes later the older boy led a taxi up to them. “No can find taxi,” he said apologetically. “Taxi no want to come here now—rush hour.” Mike turned to Coventry. The pastor gave him a hug. “Thanks for everything, John,” he said.
“God is with you now,” Coventry replied. “The Lord willing, you and Nancy will be back,” he added.
In the Lord’s Hands
A sea of traffic engulfed him during Bangkok’s infamous five o’clock rush hour. The taxi labored along, sandwiched between two huge eighteen-wheelers loaded with sacks of rice. Nancy and Mike hadn’t exchanged addresses or phone numbers. Why not? Could he have been more foolish?
After six p.m. he paid the driver and raced into the Intercontinental Hotel. At the front desk, he blurted out, “Did Nancy checkout yet?” The receptionist gave him a confused look. He didn’t even know Nancy’s last name. “She said she had a flight this evening… An American girl… Pretty blue eyes.”
The receptionist’s eyes lit up. “Ah, Miss Clock.”
“Clock? Nancy Clock?”
The girl had pulled up Nancy’s registration card. “She checkout already.”
“Can I see it? It’s very important.”
She glanced around before pushing the card toward him.
Mike read her name out loud, “Nancy Clark.” There was no address or phone number. “I need to go to the airport,” he said to the girl. “Do you know how long ago Miss Clark left the hotel?”
“About one hour,” she said and signaled a bellboy. “Follow him. He will get taxi. I hope you find her.”
Don Mueang Airport
After more than an hour of heavy traffic, Mike hustled into the airport terminal and gazed at the departure board. If Nancy lived in San Diego then she’d fly to Los Angeles first. There were three outgoing L.A. flights this evening. His heart sank when he learned that a Thai International flight had just departed. It was a few minutes after eight p.m.
At the international departure gate, he couldn’t proceed without a ticket and a passport. Nancy had most certainly left on the Thai Inter flight, already in the sky above Thailand. The next flight to the L.A. was scheduled to depart at 9:15 p.m. He would wait at the gate.
At 9:30 p.m. Mike’s hopes had been squelched. Nancy surely had already departed. The fact that he may never see her again made him feel hollow inside. He left the terminal and caught a taxi. Instead of his hotel, he instructed the driver to head to the Intercontinental.
At Nancy’s hotel, he stopped to talk to the receptionist. She frowned and said, “I’m sorry.” Mike thanked her for her help. She shook her head when he asked if there was any way possible that the hotel had Nancy’s address or phone number. She admitted they had a photocopy of Nancy’s passport but said she could lose her job. He understood, dropping his head as he proceeded to the bar.
The Intercontinental Hotel Bar
An American businessman named Jack sat next to him at the bar. Jack rued the fact that he wouldn’t spend Christmas with his family back in the states. He was a perfect drinking buddy. Mike ordered four Amarin Gold beers on draught, slid one flagon to Jack and said, “Cheers,” as Bing Crosby crooned the song, “White Christmas,” in the background.
Jack, a petrochemical engineer in his forties was reeling off a story about a co-worker named Peter, an avid fisherman, who owned a boat at Pattaya Beach, south of Bangkok. The guy married a Thai girl from up north who had never set foot on a boat and claimed she couldn’t swim.
“So, for their honeymoon,” Jack said enthusiastically, “Peter took his bride on a fishing trip down the Gulf of Thailand…”
Mike listened to Jack with one ear, but couldn’t get his mind off of Nancy. Maybe she would return next year to John Coventry’s Christmas dinner in Khlong Toei. Yeah, dream on.
“And then Peter hooked this huge fish,” Jack said, his arms spanning two yards across. “The dang fish was so big and strong it pulled Peter right into the gulf.”
Jack paused to gauge Mike’s excitement. “So, his bride had the wherewithal to stop the boat. And get this… The girl who couldn’t swim tossed some life preservers overboard and jumped in after him. Later, she told Peter that she thought the big fish was going to swallow him whole.”
“Wow,” Mike said, shaking his head.
“Somehow, the bride managed to help Peter back on the boat and salvaged the rod and reel. But that’s not all…”
Jack laughed so hard that he almost fell off his stool.
Mike, his thoughts with Nancy, had missed the punch line.
“No kidding,” Jack said. “She not only saved Peter, but she caught the big fish!”
Mike had to smile at Jack’s exuberant oratory. He gulped the last of the beer and began to order two more. Off to the right, a flash like a fish leaping out of the water for a silver lure caught his attention. He turned toward the entrance. A girl stood there. Her silver earrings had reflected light rays emitted by the fixture behind the bar. She appeared like some radiant angel…
Mike couldn’t believe it. “Nancy!” He leaped off the stool and rushed to her, grabbing her in his arms.
“I couldn’t leave,” she said, tears running down her cheeks. “I sat in the departure lounge. When they called my flight, I froze… I just learned from the receptionist that you had been trying to find me.”
“I searched for you at airport departures,” Mike said. “I thought you were on the Thai International flight that departed earlier this evening.”
She reached down and pulled something out of a bag. “Yes, that was my flight.” She handed the small package to Mike. “Merry Christmas.”
He smiled. “A pair of Zori shoes.”
“I had planned to give it to you earlier as a remembrance of today, but I… I guess… in all the excitement I forgot about it.”
Mike imagined Pastor John Coventry’s smile beaming down on them from the second floor of his tin-roofed abode. “Thank you so much, Nancy.” He pulled her in closer and gazed in her eyes. Her empty heart had been fulfilled. “I thought I’d lost you. I didn’t know your address or phone number.”
She blushed. “It won’t happen again.”
“You bet it won’t.” He kissed her long and hard. They clutched each other in the center of the doorway as the Christmas songs played on.
Mike and Nancy’s bridge became complete when Nat King Cole sang the last stanza of, “The Christmas Song.”
“And so I’m offering this simple phrase
To kids from one to ninety- two
Although it’s been said many times, many ways
MERRY CHRISTMAS TO YOU!”