by Father Joe Maier, C.Ss.R.
Published June 17, 2012, Bangkok Post, Spectrum Section
Her dowry was a nice gold chain and sacred medal. His? A threat: a knife and a gun displayed on the table in front of him – a reminder of what would happen if he didn’t take his vows seriously.
It all went down in Aunty Tien’s Noodle Shop.
Auntie Tien – proprietor of the Slaughterhouse Ladies Local Noodle Shop, where the matriarchs of the neighborhood trade stories and gossip – had taken the girl in. A teenager on the run from the brokers. Sleeping nights in a stall in the Klong Toey fresh market. Auntie asked around. No one knew her. She was just a “stray.” So Auntie Tien gave her a home and protected her. She became Auntie Tien’s assistant at the Noodle Shop.
The girl, in her middle teens, was from the border in the far North. Fragile. Not sickly, but almost. Not a first choice for marriage. She couldn’t hold up under long hours in the rice fields and would quickly lose her pretty looks, so best move her on to Bangkok. She was attractive enough, and in Bangkok, they don’t know anything about rice fields. A woman who came to the village now and then gave her parents a down payment and said she would get the girl a nice job.
But the girl managed to escape, and to forget.
She was happy working with Auntie, more like a daughter really – serving noodles in the shop, cleaning Auntie’s home, washing clothes. Everyone liked her. It was just the two of them in the shack. Actually, Auntie’s husband, a slaughterhouse butcher, was there also, kind of. But since he was into the sauce, Auntie made him sleep under a mosquito net out on the porch.
He died not long after the girl had moved in.
They had about 30 pigs in the pen that night he died – more than normal as it was the eve of the weekly Holy Day when there is no butchering. Her man collapsed. The men thought it was the booze kicking in until he didn’t get up.
Auntie Tien arrived at the same time as the Chinese Benevolent Society Emergency Van came to take the body, but she said, “No, wait for the priest.” (She is Catholic.) He came quickly.
Her husband was fading fast. Auntie Tien shoo-shooed a couple curious pigs away. Slapped his face hard a couple times to “bring him back.” His eyes focused and the priest told him to nod to show that he was sorry for all his sins. Husband groaned. It was the short version of a last minute absolution. Then husband’s eyes rolled up to the top of his head. The priest said, “never seen one that close before!”
Auntie Tien said, through her tears, “I know now I shall see him in heaven. And he will be sober.”
The priest said, “Well, he’s got a better chance now than he did five minutes ago.”
She pushed his hair back and kissed her dead husband on the forehead “I’ve prayed he would die with a church blessing all my married life. I became a Catholic for him, because the old people used to say if I stayed a Buddhist, yes, I’d be in heaven, but maybe in a different section and he’d be in the Catholic section – and maybe we wouldn’t be together.
“Then he took up the drink, was known to occasionally use a gun. But they tell me there’s no booze in heaven and no guns, so maybe we can find the happiness we missed here.”
Her husband hadn’t been to church since their wedding 20 years before because of some gangster business of years gone by.
The men had moved his body to the side of the pen – washed him down to clean him up a bit as butchering pigs can be slightly messy. Besides, the tao gae who owned the pigs and rented that particular pen didn’t want any dead guy with his pigs. So they laid him out nice-like “for the trip,” and then went back to butchering that night’s quota.
Next morning, the tao gae got some holy water from the church plus also some blessed lustral water from the temple to sprinkle in the pen where Auntie Tien’s man died. Also two joss sticks stuck in a small glass filled with sand, one from the church, one from the temple. Both religions were represented, just to be sure the bad spirits kept their distance!
After the funeral, Auntie Tien served noodles “on the house” for all at her shop. Served giam ee (short noodles for funerals – long noodles for weddings.) For the other normal dishes, of course, guests paid for as usual.
Later that day, Auntie Tien gave her dead husband’s gun plus bullets to one of his old time drinking cronies. Didn’t want a gun in the house, and didn’t want any hassle with the police.
Auntie and her slaughterhouse man had three children. Her oldest was a few years’ dead. As the saying goes, “he brought a knife to a gun fight.” The daughter shows up now and then. Sometimes with a bit of cash for mum, sometimes to borrow. It just about breaks even. The youngest is crippled.
When dad collapsed, the crippled son was in prison. Did six years, six months for messing with little girls. The guards take glee in telling everyone inside “we caught a pervert.” Most of the lads in for other crimes do not favor such actions. So they constantly slapped him around, kicked his gimp leg. Broke it for him once, which doesn’t help his posture or his walking a lot.
On the street about a month, he was sent back to prison a second time. Four years for possession. A couple of the girls he had “ bothered” years before had since grown up. They saw him around – whispered to a policeman that they saw him using drugs, which was strange because he hated drugs. Had never touched a drug in his whole life. When the police cuffed him, there was a scuffle, and his pocket had filled itself full of amphetamines. The girls smiled.
Then came more trouble: He borrowed money in prison, hoping his mum would pay the debt.
Auntie took advice from the “regulars” at her noodle shop, and wrote a letter to her son: “I taught you to never borrow money. Work out your own debts.”
Normally, that’s the kiss of death in prison. But luckily there were a couple Klong Toey Slaughterhouse lads in the same cellblock, who saved him from a fatal accident. The lads didn’t like him, nor would they pay his debts. But simply to uphold the reputation of Klong Toey in the prison, the fatal accident did not happen.
Finally after ten years he came back to the Slaughterhouse. He helped his mum at her Ladies Local. Carried out the garbage – stuff like that. But mostly he ran errands, peddling his bicycle, one- legged, around Klong Toey for the lads who saved his life while he was “inside.” He’d taken on a lifetime debt.
Soon Auntie Tien’s crippled son became “chummy” with her assistant. Made her pregnant. Told her he loved her, and convinced this wonderful girl to become his wife. Auntie Tien wasn’t pleased.
Maybe if she totally ignored him, he might come to his senses. Might care for this wonderful girl. The regulars in her Ladies Local all agreed. Totally ignore him.
But to save face for the girl, and herself, Auntie Tien arranged a wedding. Not in church, of course. Auntie Tien said “marriage is sacred for life,” and she wasn’t sure about her son. Wait and see.
Thus, it was a quiet gathering of her regulars. Yes, she did serve the long noodles.
There were two dowries. For the bride, a cash collection. Not a lot, but respectable. The old tao gae bought her a proper gold chain from the local pawnshop.
Auntie Tien gave a sacred medal of the Blessed Virgin Mary to make her working assistant, now daughter in law, soon to be a mother, very happy. And to give her “face” in the local ladies noodle shop.
Her husband? He did take a bath, wore a white shirt and got a haircut. His dowry present? The lads who had saved his life in prison came for a bowl of Auntie’s wedding noodles. Before leaving, they placed a large butcher knife used in the pens, together with a gun, on the table in front of the new husband. The message was implicit: be good to her or you will die a horribly painful and slow death.
The new bride gave birth to a son. She and Auntie raised the boy. He’s now 20, educated and handsome with a real job. Looks after Auntie Tien. Tolerates his dad.
His mum loved him with all her heart. When he was six, she took him home to that border area in the far North. Wanted to show off her son to her family. It was her first time back in 18 years. She gave the gold chain with the sacred medal to her mom, stayed a while, then returned to Bangkok. Somewhere along the way, she picked up a fever. She died in Auntie Tien’s arms with her son holding her hand.
Auntie Tien is still the “main lady” at her local ladies’ noodle shop in the old Slaughterhouse section of Klong Toey. Like any well-run local shop, she’s owner, cashier, and cook. She’s a bit “of an age” now, so her grandson – with a real day job – goes to the pre-dawn Klong Toey fresh market to personally choose the fresh veggies and pork for the day’s cooking. He buys from the market stall there that is still rented by the old tao gae for whom his granddad worked as a butcher for years and years.
Grandson doesn’t know it, but it’s also the same stall where his mum slept as a stray runaway years before.