Roman Sturgis Take care of each other and make good decisions.

September 5, 2008

Brand new trashy fiction short from Roman!

Filed under: Blog — Roman @ 1:45 pm

A Drink With The Guys

The cobra’s black pebbled skin shines under the hurricane lamp that sways from underneath the rotating fan blades. Chung Yee smiles wide, showing his long white teeth, and says in his British primary school accent, “Would you like to do the honors?”

Four low ball glasses and a bottle of unopened red label Johnny Walker stand in front of me on the shellacked wooden table. Chung Yee and his two friends are laughing, waiting to see if the American sitting at their table is going to flinch. The snake writhes, knocking against the aquarium glass with its undulating coils. Chung Yee flicks the glass with his finger and the snake winds up in a spring, raising its head. It lunges against the glass again, hissing. The hairs on my arms prickle and my legs want to push away from the table and move against the wall, but this is a very special night and I am a special guest and it would be rude to Chung Yee if I were to refuse his invitation. We go back a long ways.

“Shall I pour, then?” I ask, and the other men laugh. One of them, an older Asian man with yellow teeth, pulls a Marlboro from the pack I’ve given him and nods at me as he lights up. Chung Yee told me that it would be good to bring a few cartons of American cigarettes with me, for gifts. Only a gesture really, since one can get pretty much anything here for a price. But still, complimentary Richmond tobacco has its merits.

The safety ring fused to the red whiskey bottle cap cracks as I twist it open. I pour with care. The man with the cigarette exhales, sending a plume of smoke up towards the weak fan, which pushes the haze back to the table. The smoke makes the shape of a jelly fish. Two bricks holding the screen on top of the aquarium tremble a little as the snake smacks its head against the glass one more time with a loud thump. Then it coils into a tight knot and waits.

“I’m happy to pour,” I say, “but there is no way in hell I’m serving that thing.”

This causes many laughs. Besides me, there is another white person at the table: a guy named Von, or Van, but in my head I’ve been calling him the Dutchman. He is very tall, with pointed features and a long nose, and even sitting down he has to slouch to be at our eye-level. I saw him on a mountain bike earlier in the day and asked him where the best bike shop in Chiang Mai was. “I’ve just moved here and I’m looking for some wheels to get around,” I told him. He told me where he goes when he’s in Chiang Mai and we struck up a conversation. I had no expectation of ever seeing him again, but here he is, at the back of this very unique bar. Small world.

The Dutchman stands up and he is even taller now. He towers over us and I wonder if he’ll forget where he is and hit his head on the fan. He has arms like giraffe legs and he says in his perfect English, “I would like to do it. Where is the blade?”

Chung Yee says something in Thai to a boy, maybe twelve years old, who has been waiting on us. The boy says, “Khrap,” but it sounds to my Western ear like, “Cop,” and brushes away on bare feet. The floor is concrete and his feet swish against the uneven surface as he passes other empty wooden tables. We are almost alone here, except for a man who is sitting behind a greasy table with a charred wok on a single burner and bowls of ingredients for stir fry. He’s reading a Thai paper, the front page of which shows the demonstrators in Bangkok sitting in at Government House, but I can’t decipher the foreign characters. The boy ducks into the shadows behind the tin roof structure we are sitting under. He returns a moment later with a thick, round cutting board that looks like it was cross cut from a wide log with a chainsaw and then sanded smooth. On top of the chopping block is a large metal cleaver, slightly round at the edge, with a hole punched out in the top corner, away from the dark wood handle. He sets it on the table and the other men cheer. The Dutchman reaches down and picks up the cleaver. The metal catches a glint of the rocking lantern and for a second it feels like the floor is swaying beneath me and I am reminded of a ship I was on once.

Outside, a tuktuk putters past, radio blaring, many bright red and blue LED lights stuck to the front and back, flashing. It’s not a busy street, just some quiet, poorly lit soi behind a strip of bars on a busier, better lit soi. When Chung Yee brought me here fifteen minutes ago, I thought we were going to have a beer at a local’s joint before having a night on the town.

“This is a friend’s place,” Chung Yee had told me as we walked down the alley. “He’s a good friend from Hong Kong who lives here now. We worked together in Burma. We’ll show you how to start the night off right, so you know how when you visit me in Shanghai.”

The Dutchmen scratches the flat of the blade down his left thumbnail, peeling off a thin shaving that floats gently to the table top. Suddenly I remember cherry blossoms in DC.
“Are you ready?” Chung Yee asks the Dutchman. “Remember, you have to move fast this time, without indecision.”

The Dutchman nods and Chung Yee says something else to the Thai boy waiter. The Dutchman’s face is very still as the boy removes one brick and then the other from the screen on top of the aquarium. The snake hunkers down inside itself, tongue flicking out from its fox hole.

“Okay?” the boy asks.

The Dutchman says, “Khrap.”

The Thai boy grabs the screen at the edge and it screeches as he pulls it back. The cobra rises from its coil and stands, its head moving higher and higher above the edge of the smudged glass.

Around the table, the only thing that moves is the smoke from the end of the man’s cigarette. A large bead of sweat rolls down from my armpit and as it trickles along my side, I suppress an urge to shiver. There’s a cobra rising three feet away from me and a Dutchman holding a cleaver.

“I am faster than you, Mister Cobra,” the Dutchman says in a low breath that smells of liquorice. Chung Yee and the other man twitter, daring him further. Me, I clench my ass tight, as I’m afraid the mild dysentery I’ve had since yesterday’s dinner of delicious street vendor food might make the wrench in my gut do something terrible and embarrassing.

“Hello, Mister Cobra, how are you tonight? Are you ready for me?” The Dutchman croons to the snake, moving his weight from one foot to the other. I try to act casual as I lean back in my chair.

The cobra stands taller and opens its hood, displaying a white oval and flaring like a parachute when it first opens. Its tongue flicks and the Dutchman adjusts his grip on the cleaver.

With one fluid motion, the Dutchman swings the cleaver parallel to the table top and decapitates the hissing snake. The triangular head travels across the miserable room, flinging dark blood. More pours from the severed body, which knocks against the walls of the tank with violent seizures, twisting in on itself like a hoop rolling down the street endlessly. Dark fluid splashes against the glass sides and over the top. A fleck hits me in the face and I flinch. As I wipe the blood off my cheek, right below my left eye, the Dutchman opens his mouth wide and says, “Ahhhh!” while he gets a hand on the writhing body and pulls it out of the tank. The Dutchman pulls it to the chopping block and several hands reach out to hold the long body still as he carefully slits the belly open, searching for the heart, which is still beating. “Ahhh, yes! There you are,” he says.

“For our guest,” he says, holding the heart, which is still pulsating, between thumb and forefinger. He looks at me and drops the beating heart into one of the low balls of whiskey, where its movement disturbs the surface of the yellow liquid, causing ripples that push rings up the sides of the glass.

“Cheers!” Chung Yee exclaims, raising his glass—one without a beating cobra heart in it, I am dismayed to see. The other hands reach for other glasses.

It has been explained to me several times. The one remaining glass is mine.

“Quick, man, before it stops beating!” the Dutchman yells.

I can not process what I am about to do, so I act on impulse.

Once a philosopher, twice a pervert, I think, and pick up my glass. I hold it to the middle of the table and say, “To your health!” which is met with a resounding, “Ahh!” and the clinking of glasses.

I hold the glass to my lips and tip it back. I try not to think about the blood I saw swirling in it, or, for that matter, the tiny black heart. The organ reaches my lips, still twitching. I open my teeth and suck it in. It feels not unlike chicken liver, but a bit tougher. I give it one good chomp, way back in the molars, and it bursts with salty sour blood juices. With the help of the rest of the whiskey, I swallow the remainder and slam my glass down against the table. I take a deep breath and hold back an urge to vomit. I think I can feel it still twitching as it travels down my esophagus.

“Fantastic, man!” the Dutchman is saying. “Well done! Not bad for an American!”

Chung Yee is laughing, and the man I gave the pack of Marlboros to is holding them out for us to take one. He has a cow’s lick that I’ve just noticed.

Chung Yee says, “Now you are ready for Karaoke!”


  1. This was very well done, Roman. It held my attention the whole way. Good job. My only question is – How in the world did you hook up with Andrew Zimmern?

    Comment by Uncle Steve — September 5, 2008 @ 2:34 pm

  2. Very nice. Love the last line.

    Comment by Jessica — September 6, 2008 @ 11:07 am

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