UMM Thailand Ch. 3: Ham, eggs, coffee, tea, and a message.
Alone, he pursed his lips together and nodded his head in a show of Hmm, so I guess that’s how we roll.
He turned around and faced the tracks that rolled under his feet. He didn’t quite know what to feel until he felt it. There were suggestions of abandonment, but they were quickly snubbed out by those of guidance. It might have been seen as being tossed into the deep end or perhaps it was a gentle guiding hand into the wading pool. It was the end of something or the beginning of something else.
It was the end of something and the beginning of something else.
He stood there looking out into the darkness of the Thai jungle in the middle of the night. The moon illuminated parts of it and it didn’t escape him that if he were not on the train but alone in the jungle he wouldn’t survive ten minutes — or at least that’s what his first thought was.
Maybe he was in a jungle of sorts where he now stood. Also dropped into the unknown with no tools to survive and not very much of a clue as to what he was supposed to be doing. Seemingly random visits by even more random strangers and maybe a snake and a monitor lizard slithering by in the night wasn’t that dissimilar.
In a dream, if you can realize that you’re in a dream, you can be more bold and brave and daring. You might say something you wouldn’t dare say in your waking state. As Charlie still wasn’t completely sure this wasn’t a dream, he was going to play along with Mary and just see where this all led.
He bid goodbye to the tracks and the jungle, turned around and headed back into the last car. All was quiet in the blue curtain car except for the snoring girl. The green car was even quieter save the hum of the wheels and the purr of the constant air conditioning.
He couldn’t think of a way to check if this was a dream or not, although in a dream do you want to go back to sleep if you are already sleeping? He climbed up the ladder, closed his emerald-shaded curtain number twelve, spread the towel-like blanket over him, rest the back of his head on the pillow and couldn’t remember anything after that.
* * *
“Breakfast! Breakfast!” came the call from what could only have been Mary. “Ham and eggs, coffee and tea, time to wake up everyone.” She was clearly awake and even more chipper than the evening before.
Charlie’s eyes closed again but in what could only have been seconds later came a rapping of knuckles right next to his head.
“Wake up! Wake up!” came the cry from a young man who was determined to interrupt a perfectly good morning’s sleep. “Need to make seats,” he cried and he continued to knock on walls and call out with the friendliness of a drill sergeant.
Charlie peeked out from the side of his curtain and down the corridor. Mary was delivering plates of hot breakfast to anyone who was awake enough to receive it and the young man was enthusiastically waking anyone up who wasn’t yet rocked out of bed with the living and breathing alarm clock.
Charlie fell back into his curtained hideaway if only to sneak away a few more minutes of relative peace. He had two kids to wake up, a wife across and below, and last night to digest. He closed his eyes.
“Good morning, Charlie,” came the voice that was so happy at all hours of the day that it could only be Mary. She had pulled open his curtain and her face was yet again so close to his it was a wonder that they had not been friends for decades.
“Good morning, Mary,” he said with as much spunk as he could muster. As he said it, he thought back and couldn’t remember when they learned each other’s names. Had it been during their first meeting or was it in the middle of the night? Had the middle of the night actually happened or was it truly a dream?
“How are you?” she asked, still so close to him.
“Never better,” he said without having to think. “How are you?” he asked back.
“Never better,” she said and laughed so loudly that anyone around would think she had heard the funniest joke in the world. “I don’t forget,” she added.
Still, Charlie couldn’t remember what they had said in their short exchange about ham and eggs and then again behind the train and then if that had even happened.
She left as quickly as she had arrived and continued to sing the praises of ham and eggs, coffee and tea to anyone and everyone in the car, awake or otherwise. The rapping of knuckles continued along with the wake-up commands from Mary’s young and gung-ho assistant. People started pouring out of their beds, sheets were torn from the thin mattresses, and chatter of toothbrushes and questions of what time it possibly was mixed in to complete the chaos of the rolling circus somewhere outside of Chiang Mai.
Just as he was about to make a move and roll over and out of his bed, Mary was again as close to him as those posters of boxing matches where the two fighters can probably feel each other’s breathing on one another’s upper lips.
“Ham and eggs for you, my friend,” she said as she slid a cellophane-covered plastic plate with plastic-looking eggs and a slice of what-was-probably ham on top of it.
In a follow-up motion, she also slid a paper next to the plate and although she didn’t say anything, she did something that Charlie was growing to hate — or love, he couldn’t decide. She winked.
She again laughed so loudly people were certainly looking into her ears for earbuds and wondering what stand-up comedy routine she was listening to, but there was nothing in her ears but the cackle and rhythms of her own shrieking. Still, it was one of those infectious laughs that, no matter how loud and annoying you might think it to be, you couldn’t help but smile to yourself as that level of joy was impossible to deny.
The small rectangular paper had thin blue lines and was a throw-back to restaurant receipts of yesteryear. It was thin and beige, the color of recycled paper. There were two lines on it, both in the Thai script, which was a cross between hieroglyphics and calligraphy and told Charlie absolutely nothing. Except that there were three hash marks to the right of the first line and then one hash mark to the right of the second line.
Before he could think up some sleuthing scenario, he realized that it was three ham and eggs and one sandwich. He smiled to himself as he realized that this whole thing was just in his imagination. The whole Italy, Holland, and now Thailand, it had all just been a few timely coincidences and these silly receipts had meant nothing at all. Nothing to worry about, no one to answer to, and certainly nothing he had to do about any of it. It was all just funny and no one needed to know anything else about it.
That thought of naive denial lasted a total of three seconds as the curly-cue script started to come alive.
Charlie put the paper up on his blanket/sheet so he could watch the show.
The ink rose up from the page and puffed not unlike those awful gel pens that can ruin any fabric they get near. It seemed to bubble and even crawl and dance — as much as ink can dance.
Charlie reached to above his elbow to get to an itch and saw a scratch on his arm. Last night did happen. Mary did seek him out. He could no longer deny any of it. He was the first to admit that he was a slow learner, that it took metaphorically banging him over the head with information before he believed it, but there was no longer any denying it.
He usually just figured himself unworthy of a cause. Why would they have chosen him anyway? But with happy-go-lucky Mary on the team, how could he not qualify? She was a steward on a night train in Thailand, for crying out loud, why couldn’t he be a part of whatever this was to be a part of?
He returned his gaze to the receipt and enjoyed the show. The blues lept from the paper and slithered around as if looking for more room to play in. They sometimes burrowed under and through the paper to the other side.
“Ready?” Mary’s face was for the twenty-seventh time just way too close as she reappeared standing in the corridor at eye level with horizontal Charlie.
It took him a few seconds to remember that she asked a question, another few to figure out what she had asked, and then finally he got out an answer, yet again coming from nowhere near his conscious, rational, everyday self.
“Yes,” he said and as soon as the single syllable left his lips, her hand was up on his mattress, her fingers on the receipt, and she turned the paper over and set it up on the same bundle of the blanket where he had had it. In her next movement, she took her index finger and tapped just once on the blank back side of the paper and pulled her hand away.
Charlie would have normally said at least something to Mary. Maybe just a pleasantry, or a thank you, or even a I-don’t-know-who-you-are-or-what-you’re-doing-but-yeah-well-there’s-that statement of pure blather.
But he couldn’t speak and he couldn’t remove his gaze from the back of the paper. From a blank sheet, the ink came through from the front side and like a diaper commercial where the fabric absorbs the fake blue pee, but this was in reverse: the blue came out of the paper and this time seemed to walk around the paper.
As if each letter or symbol was an individual, the ink took form and transformed into what could possibly be Thai characters. They moved and reorganized and even seemed to have mini personalities, pushing each other out of the way and falling, tripping, and even sliding around the paper like kids on a slip-and-slide or ants setting up their colony.
It was a full-on IMAX experience but down to the size of a restaurant receipt. As Charlie watched in pure wonder, the letters and characters did seem to have a purpose and knew where they were going. Some of the Thai script squeezed and elongated, others shortened and broke up into smaller pieces and what on the other side of the paper was only two lines of ham and eggs and a sandwich was becoming several lines of letters that were becoming recognizable.
English letters were forming and he saw a word here and there. But then a letter would move from one word to another and make again no sense of it. More expansion and jostling for a spot. More and more words and there were soon enough letters to fill half the page in a glowing, living, royal blue script that was turning into readable English.
“Ham and eggs, coffee and tea,” Mary called from somewhere in the car and Charlie almost banged his head on the low ceiling above him. He also heard his youngest son ask his mother what time it was.
Charlie figured he didn’t have much time and whereas only a few seconds ago was happily enjoying the show, thought that he might be running out of time.
More letters formed, some clear words. Girl was there. Then tomorrow appeared. Help came through.
“Everybody time to wake up now!” came the shrill voice of the assistant sergeant.
More words, but they were jumbled. Entire words starting shifting around the page, some floating above even the paper, others sliding along, bouncing into other words.
“Charlie!” came the call from somewhere in the car. It was Mary.
“Charlie!” came the call from somewhere below. It was his wife.
As if threatened with time, the words jumbled and scrambled, scattered and organized. Suddenly, it was readable. For a moment, there were a few sentences that he could read and the movement stopped, the ink stilled, and he could read it all clearly.
“Charlie?” his wife’s voice was getting closer, she would be up at eye level in a matter of seconds.
The sentences were clear. He read them silently over and over as fast as he could.
His wife’s face appeared at eye level where Mary had been so many times over the past few hours.
“Did you order all of these ham and egg dishes?” she asked.
Charlie looked at her but couldn’t speak. He wanted to look at the receipt but didn’t want to turn his gaze away from her eyes and to the receipt so that her eyes might follow his and see it. But he couldn’t help it. He turned his gaze to the receipt. It was empty.
He started laughing. It was uncalled for and completely without any apparent reason, but then he couldn’t stop. Then he asked his wife something that came out of nowhere, but Charlie knew where it came from. Still, he asked it through his laughs and took full and complete responsibility for the consequences.
In a big, sing-song and probably rather obnoxious voice, he asked, “How are you?”