Nobody was quite sure why this monk was in the brothel. A cigarette burned in his ashtray but he did not touch it. It just burned slowly down and the beer in front of him puddled on the murky surface of the bar. The girls were over him like flies on shit. They ran their fingers over his orange robes, over his hairless cheeks and bald pate. Their mouths moved but who knows what they were saying over the music. It would be Thai, anyway. And yet for all their flirtations they could not rouse the monk. When I went upstairs with one of the prettier girls--she told me her name was Juliette but who was she kidding, she was darker than a city girl and from the countryside, as were all the whores here--I got a good look at his face. For a moment on the stairway I was stopped cold. I had never seen skin so smooth, unblemished as a baby’s bottom. There was a wrinkle nowhere and his eyes, when he lifted them up to mine, shined with this peculiar knowledge, an ineffable secret, perhaps. The meaning of pleasure, of life, of pain, of any of the teachings of the Buddha. I turned away and followed the girl and she opened a door and ushered me into one of the dim rooms. In the weak red light I saw her smiling. It was a false smile, no doubt. I’m not a pretty man and I never have been. Pretty men don’t wash up here. Boys, sometimes. The ones looking to tell a tale back home. They never stay, of course. They have their lives ahead of them. She was smiling and she began taking off her clothes in an unpracticed, unsexy way and I looked up at our reflections in the mirror on the ceiling and thought about the monk. Then I looked this village girl in the eyes and told her to get on the bed and she did so. I took a long pull of the beer and stepped to the bed and half an hour later I was back downstairs. The monk was still there. He had another cigarette in the ashtray as if in offering. I chuckled, but without happiness. I sat down next to him and ordered another beer. We did not speak. Some time later the girl came down and she smiled at me. Because I had left her a generous tip, I imagine. She was a nice girl, as they all are, and you can’t blame me for the inequity in the world, which makes this profession among the most profitable here. Wash up here for long enough and you hear stories. Of doe eyed beauties who spend twenty years on their backs and the rest of their lives in handsome homes, with servants, pets and maybe even a doting husband. I turned and looked at the monk. He had excellent posture, radiated this gentle aura. Something about him raised a violence in me. How dare he come here? I looked around for validation from my fellows, but they had eyes only for the girls. To the monk I said, “Do you smoke, or not?” He turned and smiled faintly at me. “I have been considering it.” “Do you drink?” “I have…” “Been considering it.” He smiled that same innocent, childlike smile. Like the horrors of the world had never touched him. As if he had never known loneliness or desperation or fear. I shook my head and looked away at the bar. We were the same age, I reckoned. Somewhere past the halfway mark. But whereas I had a gut and a gobble neck he was thin as a beanpole. His veins raised against his dark forearms. Mine, covered in tattoos, were as formless as ham hocks. And in the mirror behind the bar I saw those beady red eyes, my left eyelid drooping. I took another slug of the beer and asked him what the hell he was doing here. He looked at me curiously. Without any obvious intent or judgment, as if instead the question had surprised him. As if we all belonged here and I guess that much was true. “I cannot remember.” “Can’t remember what?” “I cannot remember what brought me here.” I laughed. “Well, that makes two of us.” I raised my beer. “Cheers.” He looked at his Chang in its pool of condensation. It was still full. He picked it up like a child picks up a cauliflower and we clinked glasses. As I drank I watched him. Tentatively, he raised the beer to his lips. Tentatively, he took a sip. And then he took another. Then he took another right after. Now he was putting the beer back quickly. He reached for the cigarette in the ashtray and dragged it like a heavy smoker after a transcontinental flight. Soon afterward he lit another. And as if his motions were some signal, the girls returned. They petted him, whispered to him. One reached for his groin and he offered no resistance. The girl laughed. After an hour or so a group of them succeeded in dragging him upstairs. He had forgotten his purse on the bar stool. I sat there for a long while feeling quite drunk, waiting for him to come down. The place was emptying out. I had lost count of everything and paid the bill without registering the notes. I passed the purse to the bartender for safekeeping. Then I got up and left. I was not sure of the time. The hands on my watch were fuzzy, spinning around rapidly. After a time I realized that was the second hand. I stopped and looked around. It was very quiet. I had never seen Bangkok so quiet. It must have been some ungodly hour. In a dark street somewhere two cats were fighting. I stumbled along the avenue, down an alleyway, the wretched homes slanting toward each other. I thought I knew the way but I did not. I tried to hail a cab but I could not find one. I kept wandering, looking for a landmark, for anything to point me in the right direction. Eventually the sky began to brighten over the rooftops. People began to materialize in the streets. I noticed Chinese characters on the storefronts. The day was turning over. Trinkets, charms, watches, shirts and socks, onions, ginger and strawberries. All of it was being put out as I wandered. Kumquats, pig snouts, whole ducks, trimmed ducks and duck heads, apples and yams and flower arrangements. Men squatted in groups, dragging cigarettes, their women setting up inside Chinese medicine shops. Fireworks, incense, varieties of tea, herbs and spices--all available for the right price. A menagerie of citizens passed me and jostled each other on their ways to work and school. Breads, sweets, pastries, mushrooms, buddhas. Buns, rings, sesame coated mochi, passion fruit, dried boxthorn fruit and tomatoes stood neatly arranged next to noodle stands and soup stands, quail eggs floating in dark broth. I bought a bag of pistachios and sat down in a doorway and thought about the monk. I thought I needed to do something with my life. I couldn’t let it keep dragging on this way.
Bio: Jacob Cox work has appeared in Litbreak, The Gambler, Anti-Heroin Chic, The Basil O'Flaherty, Atticus Review, Belleville Park Pages and The Santa Clara Review. But those are all prissy, primed stories--here's a raw piece about the dichotomy of man, and the slippery slopes we can't help but stumble towards.