Deluge Upstairs (Tomorrow is a New Day)
One sweaty April day the old man who lived next door approached my house dressed in a white linen shirt, traditional Khmer red and white gingham scarf and black cotton pants. He placed his hands together in formal greeting and I jumped out of my chair to reciprocate, inviting him to sit down at the card table where I was sketching. The table was a mess of colored pencils and plastic animal shaped sharpeners, children’s scissors and scraps of paper. Many people had come by to draw with me throughout the day.
I poured him some lukewarm Jasmine tea from the big metal teapot and began trying to understand what he was asking me. Sometimes countryside accents deliver such a radically unfamiliar sound I can’t decipher their meaning. Finally, after a typical charades session I realized he was asking me to purchase a large whiteboard to gift to the Buddhist monks at the local pagoda for their classroom.
I agreed and gave him three crisp $10 bills. He thanked me profusely and left. Over the next few months he would often come back to my house, and over tea, explain to me how the monks were thankful and were making good use of their new whiteboard.
A year later we were on our way to the village for a visit as we do several times a year. In the car Nin told me,”We have to go see the neighbor man, you know, the old guy.”
“Why?” I asked.
“He almost die.”
We arrived at the village in the mid-afternoon. My sister and close friend were there for the first time from America. We had to leave the car about 2 kilometers from our house because the road was completely destroyed. Rainy season flooding combined with hard use from the giant stock trucks carrying sardined garment factory workers to and from work makes the road impassable for months every year.
We hoisted our bags from the trunk, removed our shoes and rolled up our pant legs for the long walk ahead. First we were greeted with the usual entourage of curious children chasing us, hiding behind each other, pushing each other towards us and giggling. Sometimes they look at me like I’ve just stepped off a UFO and have three heads but most of the time they warm up quickly, especially once they figure out I can speak their language. I was the first foreigner to visit this remote village in 2009 since the Japanese occupiers were here during WWII according to the oldest woman in this community.
We prodded along shading our faces with our cotton Kroma scarves and leaping from one muddy tire track to the other when the puddles got too deep. Every time we pass a house the dogs run out to bark at us which is quickly followed by an angry reprimand from somewhere inside the house. Soon we see a bicycle coming our way with a man holding a cigarette gingerly maneuvering through the muddy wasteland. It’s Uncle Nan, his big toothy grin shines through his shyness. He gives my sister his bicycle and takes my hand.
All my friends one by one are picked up by friends and family on motorbikes or given bicycles to borrow to get their bags home but not me. Everyone knows I want to walk with Uncle Nan. He offers me a droopy Cambo cigarette from the twenty five cent soft pack in his saggy shirt pocket and lights it for me. He teaches me the Khmer word for “election” and asks me about Trump and is sad for me when I tell him I don’t like him but he won. He asks me if it’s true Hillary Clinton and Bill Clinton are married. He’s been watching on his tiny ancient TV perched on a bamboo platform from his hammock in his flooded house.
Then he asks me how many days I will be in the village and no matter how many days I tell him he’s always disappointed. He starts in on the village gossip. Nita’s mom has run off with another man she met at the garment factory and now Nita’s father sits in his house all day drinking and blasting songs of lost love from his karaoke machine. Auntie so-and-so is having another baby. How many is that now? Eight? One of my former students has typhoid. Auntie Rice Wine has gone sober due to chronic headaches. Now she just drinks Coca-Cola. He tells me about my neighbor, the dying old man.
We finally reach the house and are greeted by Ma and Pa and a pack of dogs and puppies stumbling over themselves trying to jump on me. Ma immediately opens the giant orange cooler and pulls out chilled cans of cheap beer from between the ice blocks, handing them to us. She proudly serves us an amazing set of traditional dishes and when we compliment her cooking she says her typical line in Khmer, “Don’t press me, I’m very shy!”
Many people pass by the house on foot, bicycle and motorbike and when one is recognized Nin and the other local friends call out to them “Hey! Come here and drink one glass!” Every time I see my former students I yell their names and run to the road to greet them. Sometimes they are shy with me but I ask them gently to say some English words they remember and they smile and give me high fives.
After a couple of hours of partying, suddenly Nin turns to me and says “Ok let’s go see the dying man.” I put my beer down and leave the table of laughter. I fetch my sweater from the house and comb my hair. Nin and his brother Sarat put on their nicer shirts and swat the dust from their pants and shoes. We walk together to the house next door.
We are greeted outside by the dying man’s wife. She quickly wipes subtle tears from her eyes with her Kroma scarf. She puts her hands together in greeting and says a lot of words quickly and with a sad sort of mumble I can’t understand at all. She leads us up the stairs.
The single room dwelling is wooden with a floor covering of brightly colored linoleum sheet with tiles drawn on it in psychedelic patterns. To the left of the door two old men dressed in white cotton shirts, white sashes, and black cotton pants, like the dying man used to wear, sit on the floor eating rice with fried fish and drinking Jasmine tea from glass mugs. Gift baskets dot the room with great quantities of dried goods and incense wrapped in golden patterned cellophane. There are coconuts with religious adornments sticking out of them, incense burns in the room and a pack of cats and kittens wind skittishly between the diners and gift baskets searching for scraps.
We shuffle into the room with our hands pressed together, bowing low to these religious old men. The shirtless dying man is laying on the ground just behind them positioned towards the TV which blares a commercial for dish soap. He tilts his head towards us and lifts his right hand to his forehead to greet us formally but apologizes for his left hand “having died already.” His left arm lays dormant on a pillow next to him. He is completely emaciated, his bare ribs protrude and his dead arm has virtually no muscle mass left on it. Pillows with happy knock-off cartoon characters printed on them prop up his limbs. He asks me where my baby is, mistaking me for my ex-boyfriend’s new wife.
Nin asks him how long he has been sick and he says four years but never this bad. Then he asks him how old he is.
“Seventy-six.” he says to which Nin replies, “Oh, my grandfather is 89 and he has no problems moving around. He’s still so strong.”
The dying man’s wife, sitting near the dying man’s head, adjusts the fan to point at us.
To my surprise the dying man asks the typical questions you’d expect from a healthy man like “When did you arrive? How many people are with you this time? How was traffic? When do you go back?” Nin chats with him for a while while Sarat and I sit in silence.
We hand him five dollars in Khmer Riel each and say goodbye forever. He puts his good hand to his forehead again thanking us and wishing us a long life. I see a tear fall from his eye which he reaches around his face with his good hand to wipe off.
Nin pats me on the shoulder and we walk back into the party. Ma cracks a new can of Cambodia brand beer and hands it to me.
He died about a week later.