A week since Benz and Tintin had come off the construction job, off without full pay, and Tintin’s hand was mangled and pink as a pig’s knuckle. He had cleaved it with an industrial staple. Now it was souring, adding to the bathroom’s yellow perfume.
“I need to wash it again,” Benz said. “Okay?”
He had Tintin pinned against the sink, his chest flat on the big man’s back, knees fitting into knee-backs. Rum wafted from the bottle Benz held poised to flush the wound.
Tintin resisted his weight.
“Hold up.” Tintin took the bottle and swilled the alcohol in his mouth. He raised the rum as if to toast the ruddy faces in the mirror and said, in the beefy voice fit for a commercial, “Captain Q. It’s better than rubbing alcohol.”
They laughed. Their eyes met—Tintin’s squeezed and red, like two welts.
“God, Benz. What are you even doing with a friend like me?”
Benz looked into the sink bowl. Blood-marbled water coiled the drain. He motioned for the bottle.
Their room, the top story of a boarding house, was pressed up against a corrugated roof that seemed to glow under the midday sun. The floor was a jigsaw of thin mattresses, bedding of the men they boarded with.
“Two things to always buy in bulk: toilet paper and rum,” Tintin said, dropping the final, empty bottle into a case labeled “SAMPLE.”
Benz was prone and sweating on someone else’s blanket, watching the roof burn.
They were out of money. Two scaffold monkeys: wherever Tintin climbed, Benz had to follow. But too often it was down a hole, a job mucking street sewers beside convicts.
What am I doing with a friend like you? Benz would observe, whenever Tintin fucked them out of good work, say, by arriving drunk at the site and shooting a staple through his hand.
Today was Benz’s turn to be drunk, awfully, in a way he hadn’t been in months. He usually let the big man drink the lion’s share, but now he outpaced Tintin, upsetting laws laid down a decade ago, in their adolescence, a time when boys realized that even among the poor there could be disparities.
A difference in smarts: Benz outperforming his poverty, boggling teachers, topping his classes. And height: Tintin’s territory, a change Benz couldn’t comprehend at first, the trouble his friend had with arranging his legs beneath schoolboy desks, or that the skewer vendor referred to Tintin as Pee—older brother.
Benz learned their difference when, following a job running back-kitchen booze, the boys had been rewarded with a plastic bag rubber-banded at the top and containing a quart of precious moonshine. And Benz got thoroughly drunk. He relied on his clearheaded friend to conquer a staircase, realizing then how easily Tintin bore his weight, had borne the alcohol.
Tintin’s ability to outdrink the other boys had crowned him with a new sort of cool. The other arena of adolescent respect was, of course, soccer. It was a sport long married to alcohol in the advertisements that were lore for strayboys with nowhere to spend their afternoons but in a scrum around the television in Apah’s corner store.
For Benz, those afternoons had been a time of magic. Ask a younger Benz about The Flying Dutchmen. Ask him how many Oliver Kahn, The Titan, had saved (more than Superman’s career total). And there was never a zero-to-hero like Maradona. World Cup ’86, the “Hand of God” goal—Benz could tell you how he did it: superpowers. Over the players’ hearts, in the customary place of a hero’s crest, would be stitched the logo of a leading beer brand. Carlsberg! Heineken! To the boys these represented distant kingdoms, those centers of sporting empire. Boys with their own rags-to-riches futures rolling from their mouths, unscrolling before them like red carpets. They swore themselves into the cult of Singha beer. They bowed back to the Manchester United legends, lifted fists to toast the screen. No, you, Roy Keane! the strayboys laughed, sloshing imaginary pints. Thank you!
Adulthood had since fallen, sobering and black over Benz. He lifted himself to the sink and washed. On the tiles, Tintin’s pus-caked bandages lay split open, a carapace picked of meat.
They found their way to a warehouse address.
“Looks like the scene of a crime.” Tintin stood with arms akimbo, appraising a building boarded up and neglected by all but the local graffitists. The moon was up, and they found an open door.
Inside, the petty crime boss Khun Somyod ran a garage. Somyod had inherited the business from his recently imprisoned brother, and he knew little about crime and less about cars.
Benz walked a circle around an old Camry, surveying its value. The front had been crushed when the driver rear-ended a municipal bus, which, like a tank, was constructed of steel sheets, bumpers armored with junkyard miscellany.
“Entertainment system’s gone. Gasoline’s been siphoned but the tank is intact. There’s good aluminum in the wheels, copper in the wiring. Rear end’s whole. Could take the lights, bumper, back wheels.”
Tintin stood by a table laden with tools, flicking the blade of a dusty power saw.
Benz reached inside the car to check whether the passenger-side airbag had deployed. He noticed a splatter of brown crusted into the ceiling fuzz.
“Airbags are spent,” he reported.
“I want to see you take it apart,” Somyod said.
“You want us to work for free?” Benz asked.
“I want to know you have the skills.”
“Oh, Khun Somyod,” Tintin said, yawning luxuriously. “Child’s play.”
Word of this job had come to Benz along the childhood grapevine, a network of orphans who, as boys, had learned the value of junk. Boys who, at twelve, could swarm an abandoned car, pick precious metal from carrion already scrapped over by less-hungry scavengers. Their troupe would romp through neighborhoods and come down on anything untethered. They even dared one another to steal into the rich areas, not for the cars—expensive vehicles had an intimidating gleam—but for the trophy of a hood emblem, the standing star, Benz’s namesake. He had kept a row of emblems fixed to his orphanage bunk in ascending order: C-Class, S-Class…
Benz handled the nimble-work, stripping and spooling the wiring, thumbing the little brass screws from the tire rims. Tintin hid his injured hand in a sleeve, jacked up one side of the Camry, and started the oil draining into two blue tubs. Then he went to work on the wheels.
Somyod paced around them, shoulders curled, his arms aping by his sides. He didn’t speak. They worked by the illumination of a half-dozen car headlights that had been pulled from their sockets and set up in a circle, the trailing innards looped back to a noisy generator that fumed the air. Now Benz understood where the gasoline had gone. So the building was without power—nobody expected to find them here. From the middle of the staring lights Benz couldn’t see the ceiling, but he knew there were no windows. What looked like a tough, dark moss was spreading toward the island of scraped and oil-stained concrete in the center of the space.
“What sort of building is this?” Benz asked.
Somyod had been hovering over Tintin’s attempt to saw through a rubber tire and strip it from its wheel. Tintin’s hand had twice slipped, and Benz noticed that his grip was bloody.
Somyod looked up, seemingly into darkness. He pointed. “It was a movie theater.”
Benz could see the poster now, hand-painted, like a weathered mural sinking into the texture of the wall. It was half of a tank roaring over a hill, the gun muzzle exploding in a white flame that appeared to have consumed the rest of the poster. The remaining English title read “BATTLE OF.”
They were finished when the car had been flayed, its fiberglass and its components heaped into piles of copper, plastic, aluminum, glass, rubber—a car in its elemental state.
“We tore that apart,” Tintin said.
The universe wants to return to its natural state, Benz remembered being told by the chemist and moonshiner who had once caught young Benz and Tintin sneaking into his distillery. Chaos.
Is that a threat? Benz had asked, surrounded at the time by the chemist’s boy workers, Tintin and Benz’s equivalents, only smaller than Tintin, and stupid, unlike Benz, which is why the chemist had spared them punishment. He gave them the alcohol they wanted and put them to work. Two years later the man was killed in the fire that razed his distillery, what everyone knew to be a police purge, those same officers the chemist had bribed when all parties had profited from the situation.
Never so sweet a job, Tintin had said when they went to see the building’s carcass the following day.
There are other ways to get alcohol free.
Oh, it wasn’t the money. From the rubble Tintin unearthed an empty bottle, its interior seared black. We’ll never find drink that pure again.
“So who’s procuring the cars?” Benz asked.
Somyod plucked at the piled treasure and recited a tale involving Japan, abandoned cars, shipping containers, his brother.
“Japanese people won’t even live in used homes”—that’s what Somyod said, “used.” “They throw them out, bulldoze them, build them new. If only we could ship those back, too? Ha ha!”
This after Benz had filed off the Camry’s VIN number, which identified the car as local, Thai-made. Whatever, better to be lied to when it came time to get out. So they didn’t ask Somyod when the work came in, older makes Benz knew were easy stealing, still bearing the marks of a break-in: a split gear-shift lock on the passenger seat, ignition wires swinging loose.
“Amateurs,” Tintin muttered, rolling up a window to find it a shattered stump.
The cars arrived predawn, in time with the rooster call of Bangkok’s outskirts, that rumble of ten-wheelers downshifting, halting after thundering overnight from up-country. The activity drowned out their minor operation: the unloading of cars with license plates clipped off, sometimes with the hubcaps already poached, to which Somyod said, “What the fuck is this? You stealing from me?” to the small, country-hacked men who did the unloading. But nobody was afraid of him, and, recognizing that the cogs of this operation were the competent men his brother had assembled, Somyod began to absent himself from the production line.
In four weeks, Benz and Tintin dismantled over forty cars. They worked by their own rhythms, taking turns to go buy food, to sleep on the bedding they had dragged in. They worked to the radio, American oldies, rock and roll, Benz silent but Tintin chiming in on every “hound dog!” What they knew of the outside came stuttering through the speaker. They hardly even spoke to the truck drivers, who didn’t converse so much as maintain a constant Isaan patter, teeth chattering, up on M150, the lifeblood of Thailand’s workforce.
Benz and Tintin finished their meal (lunch? their cycle was the delivery cycle) and lay back on blankets, The Beach Boys lusting on the radio, and drank themselves happy on rum. What had been rent money now supplied a case of Captain Q, bought at cost from a nearby Elvis-and-jazz bar that was closing.
“Holy water.” Tintin splashed rum over his hand and flicked it in Benz’s face, imitating a street-walking monk. “Bless you with good fortune. With money and women.”
“Stop.” Benz grabbed the hand and sensed a jolt from Tintin. “Oh. I thought it had healed.”
“Doesn’t hurt. Just habit.”
Benz’s finger drew a line along Tintin’s skin, scrunched as if chewed, but whole.
“I can’t make a complete fist, but otherwise it’s like new.” Tintin turned his hand and flexed as if trying on a glove for size. “What did I tell you? Holy water.”
Deconstruction occupied Benz in a way their old work as bricklayers or welders hadn’t. Childhood sessions in a temple had done a number on him, belief in the Buddhist cycle ran deep, and he felt he was returning the cars to earth.
But Tintin was restless. He disappeared into the black end of the hall, where rats had made a plush nest of the heaped theater seats, nibbled warrens through the cushion foam. Back there was a room with flaking walls and a termite-laced desk, its wood sheeting curling up like a man rising from the grave. Up a short flight of stairs was a projection room with, Tintin claimed, a working projector and reels of good film.
“I reassembled it and greased the parts.” Tintin’s black-tipped fingers rubbed stripes into his pant legs.
Benz anticipated the question. “You want to connect it to the generator.”
Gasoline was precious, but Benz wanted to settle his friend.
So a day later, extension cables roping up the stairs into the projector room, Tintin got the bulb sputtering. A sun flared on the wall, lifting Benz from his efforts prying apart an airbag hub.
“Hello!” came Tintin’s voice from the back. The silhouette of his hand appeared in the circle of light and wiggled its fingers at Benz. “Watch that point!”
The light obscured and then seemed to condense as an image came into focus. A flashing countdown, curtains, a comic book, credits.
“Superman,” Benz whispered, recognizing the emblem that appeared.
“No sound!” Tintin called.
Benz stood up. The picture transitioned into a scene on another planet.
Tintin trotted up behind him and squeezed his shoulders, shook him. “Our own cinema!”
“That’s fine. No sound is fine,” Benz said softly, the images blowing through him like a rising wind that billowed the screen of his memory.
As a boy he had seen a few Ultraman episodes thrown against a white sail staked out in a field, its fabric perforated with flapping triangles. This was the set-up of the primitive, roving cinemas that projected off the back of pickup trucks. The operators would make a parade of the evening traffic in their outskirt neighborhood, calling the children to the curb with news of Ultraman’s battle against Gomora! Wat Hin Tong at sundown!
The horns of the temple’s shadow closing around them as they hunkered and waited for dusk, the movie image gradually cleaving from the remaining light to reveal a cityscape and Ultraman’s signature glowing eyes. The children raised a cheer. They sat rapt, hardly noticing the offscreen man with a microphone live-dubbing the dialogue from scrappy notes:
We Ultramen are certainly not gods. No matter how hard we try, there are still lives that we cannot save and feelings we cannot convey.
The man’s voice chased the image, a delay as natural to the viewers as thunder responding to lightning.
At the halftime break, car headlights snapped on, illuminating tables spilling candy. There was something for everyone, the microphone man announced. Bamboo spears and plastic pistols for kiddy turf wars. Household items to satisfy the parents. There was the broomstick man with his trundling bicycle cart that sported a tail of chicken-feather dusters, a broomstick plumage.
And Benz and his boys, proud, poor, skirting the light, awaiting the return of the free show and the story of a man winning a war against monstrous forces. Against all odds.
That night, Benz lost Tintin during the break. When Tintin returned he had a plastic bottle bartered, he said, from old man Chart in exchange for patching the chicken wire around his hen patch—a job Tintin would never finish.
What is it?
Tintin stood above the other twelve-year-olds, a shadow, but the car headlights caught the crystalline moonshine he tapped casually against his leg.
For all of them it was a first attempt at drinking. Benz held the alcohol in his mouth.
Tintin watched him. Go on. It burns through you. Like it’s purging something. He swept his hand over the spotlighted bustle below them: the children thronging, the parents herding, and the vendors calling, telling them that there was something for everyone.
Like you could burn this all away. Go on.
They rafted together their mattresses and plated meals usually eaten from the Styrofoam. They kept the rum within reach.
“It’s clearly very toxic,” Tintin said, speaking for the silently mouthing captain in their current film, a space adventure. The voice he assumed was wooden and fully annunciated, like a radio host’s.
Benz asked what the hell that voice was supposed to be.
“That’s the voice of Captain Q,” said solemn Tintin.
Silence drew out the spaces in the movie, and there were the long spots of ruined film where they lost the picture completely. To Benz this was like watching rain against a dark windshield, the oncoming headlights parsed, appearing as flashes in the water curtain.
“You suppose the captain’s dead?” Tintin asked.
The picture flashed on, an alien exploding through a man’s chest.
“Fuck!” Tintin yelled. They curled their legs instinctively.
Then everything turned splotchy again and they fell apart laughing.
The film reel ran out before they reached the end. They agreed that somebody had to survive.
Benz raised the garage door.
“This is the fucking life,” Tintin said, in a voice still possessed by Captain Q.
They had bought several half-liters of beer, and Tintin was alternating alcohols. “Drinks and movies and sex.” He looked around. “No sex. But you know the ladies love rum. Mix it up with some sweet Hale’s Blue Boy and a little soda water, a little bubbly. They love it.”
“We’ll go drinking and I’ll show you how much they love it. How they want to put it in their mouths.”
But they never went out to the beer alleys, didn’t pursue the stories, the women. They hunkered on their mattresses side by side, Tintin reminiscing:
“Remember how Paeng used to claim she had white blood? Father an American GI, something like that. She would rub water into talcum powder and hide her face. It dried so firm she hardly moved her lips when speaking. I always wanted to take a chisel to it. Just—” he lifted his fist and drove home a hammer. “You know?”
Benz said nothing.
The bats chittered up in the old airshafts. Their black forms swooped in through the garage door, dotting the dusk, seeming to bring in the night.
The next morning Tintin stayed asleep (“Captain’s out,” he murmured), so Benz handled the delivery himself. The driver was shifty, sucked his brown bottle of M150 like a pacifier.
Benz hadn’t seen the man this week.
“We haven’t been paid,” the driver said.
When they rolled the cars into the warehouse, waking Tintin with the blaze of morning, Benz noticed that the drivers had half-stripped the cars themselves—crude but effective work. He looked from the missing parts to the driver, who lowered the bottle in invitation.
“I’ll tell Somyod you’re looking for him,” Benz said. But by the next delivery Somyod still hadn’t come for the parts. Benz lined the inside walls with car components, imagining that this structure had been erected of their labor. But there was no hiding the spent cars. They loitered in the lot outside.
Hot season arrived overnight. They had to keep the door shut while they worked but knew noontime by the swell in the day, the heat a presence in the room. They switched to working nights; daytime they tried to sleep, in the morning on the concrete, still cool from the night, but by the afternoon the floor baked their soles, their backs, and they retreated to the mattresses.
And then there were no more cars. The deliveries had stopped. No one came for the parts.
“We could sell them ourselves,” Tintin suggested. But neither of them knew where to find the buyers. There was the problem of the police.
Benz enjoyed the feeling of having been forgotten by the world. He felt he had stepped out of a gridlocked road, away from its horns and darting motorbikes and thick smog.
A week passed in which they used too much money. They spent the stockpiled gasoline to keep their films running. Benz hardly watched, instead lying back on the mattress and observing the movement of light overhead. It was dusty enough inside that he could watch the projector rays braid above him. He listened to the voice of Captain Q take on each movie’s leading role. But only the lead, so that each film was a monologue, a man in earnest conversation with friends who had departed, whose response was silence.
They ate less, didn’t leave for food as often. The heat had made them sluggish, even after Tintin found an old fan, creaking at the neck and missing one of its metal blades, throwing the gait of its revolutions.
“Wum, badum, wum,” Tintin would mimic absently.
They slept side by side on a mattress to share this single wind. They woke often, tossed against one another, sweat patching where their bodies touched, the floor-grit that coated them turning slick as graphite.
“Sorry,” Tintin murmured.
“It’s not evening yet,” Benz said.
Tintin rose and went into the bathroom. Benz, restless and awake, followed. It was a bare room with a latrine-style drain dug around the wall. The linoleum tiles—blue—were uneven and spat up water when stepped on. A toilet squatted absurdly in the center. This had probably been a closet re-outfitted after the theater became a factory. Light chipped through the slatted cinderblock wall.
Tintin was in his underwear, dousing himself from the drum bucket. The water always ran warm from the hose and reeked of sulphur. Benz halted in the doorway, eyes adjusting.
In their world of narrow men, Tintin had always appeared as out of place as the Michelin Man. He was built like reinforcing steel. A man of rods and bars and girth. The opposite of Benz, whose armature was a noodle. Tintin’s chest was wide and his legs rounded with muscles that tensed now to every shock of water he threw over himself.
Tintin tossed Benz the pail.
“Make yourself at home.” He turned on the hose and slid it into the drum bucket to fill.
Benz washed looking down his body. The sun had marked him dark as drain water, except for the halo of skin at the lip of his underwear.
“White,” Benz remarked.
“Your farang parts!” Tintin laughed loudly and pinched Benz’s hip. “White as toothpaste. White as Made-in-America.”
Benz reached back and grabbed Tintin between the legs. “You want to see your face light up?”
He gave a squeeze, expecting a comic, stuffed-animal yelp, but Tintin hesitated. The underwear fabric was ridged and wet, soft and rumpled as flesh.
Tintin clutched Benz’s hand with his hand.
Then the hose slipped from the bucket lip. It thrashed on the floor and Benz released Tintin to subdue it.
The film was called Rocky. They exchanged the bottle during the opening credits, drank quickly, didn’t take their attention from the men fighting, locked, heaving against one another.
And then Tintin pulled the rum from Benz’s mouth. He leaned into Benz to set it down, breathing noisily. He rubbed his thumb against Benz’s hip bone. He stretched the elastic of the waistband, dragged the shorts to Benz’s knees.
The bottle clinked onto its side.
Benz wanted to speak. There was no dialogue on screen.
Tintin said nothing. He had his tongue in Benz’s navel. He wrapped his hand around Benz’s cock and filled his mouth and Benz tried to tell what was tongue and what fingers. His breaths didn’t come. Tintin’s other hand climbed up Benz’s chest, grasped his neck. The fingers found his mouth and entered him, salty on his tongue—they forced his head back.
Benz was too drunk for performance. The alcohol and heat blunted his anxiety. And he didn’t know how to perform. Instead he stared, head back, at the poster of the tank with its clandestine opponents. “BATTLE OF,” he read.
His teeth caught the ridge of scar tissue on Tintin’s hand. And then he thrust upward, pulsing, spent, suddenly embarrassed by the hold he had on Tintin’s hair.
Tintin rasped his mouth against Benz’s thigh, left a warm smear, a residue Benz would later hesitate to wash, noticing the way his leg hairs had aligned to the gesture.
In the movie, a couple was ice-skating.
Tintin washed his mouth with beer, swallowed, and slipped his underwear off. His penis—how many times since childhood had they bathed together—was thick and it stank.
“Take it.” Tintin instructed. “Put your hand around it.”
Benz hesitated. He recognized the voice Tintin affected: deeper, hollow.
“It’s okay. It’s not us.” Tintin guided Benz’s hand. “I’m somebody else. You know me.”
They woke to the clatter of the garage door. It was still night and Tintin was naked. Three flashlights swung through the room.
“Oh. You’re still here?” It was the Isaan driver and his men. “We thought you’d be gone by now.”
Benz stood, feigning alertness. His eyes were fogged from the press of the mattress. He didn’t understand what the driver was doing here. He searched for a reasonable statement:
“We’ve still got these parts to sell.”
The man’s light turned to the wall of parts. “That’s right. We’re here to take these.”
There was no threat in the statement. That was the casual way these men had with violence—no pleasure, just a tired inevitability.
Tinin joined Benz. He was naked. “We’re waiting for Somyod,” he said.
“Man’s run. Or maybe dead. That’s up to the police now. We came to burn the place down.”
“It’s what the police want. So nobody has to answer tricky questions.” The light beam swung briefly down Tintin’s naked front. “And they’ll come soon. Nobody’s paid them. Nobody’s paid the junkyard and nobody’s going to pay you scrappers. Time to go.” The driver gestured at his men.
The components were piled high, so the men pulled from the bottom, allowing the parts to tumble and scatter. They backed their pickup into the theater, casting the men in the red of the taillights.
Benz went to the tool table. He listened to the men loading, and finally laid his hand on a steel-head hammer with a cruel ripping claw.
Then Tintin was beside him, his fingers on Benz’s wrist. The wound had reopened.
Benz released the hammer, hovered his fingers over the raw tear. “That was me.”
“That was you.”
The driver watched them. He held up a can of gasoline and said, “We were going to burn it down, but you’re here.” Behind him another man had lit a cigarette.
Benz held Tintin’s hand.
“I’ll leave it for you,” the driver decided. He clanked the can down. “Give you time to get your stuff out.”
At the doorway he stopped and pointed up. “You’ll want to make sure the roof catches. Or else the fire will eat up the gasoline. The paint on that old poster should burn nicely.”
“Seems like you’ve done this before,” Benz said.
The man looked at him. “We all learn what’s necessary.”
They returned to the mattress and didn’t sleep.
“We’ll make a clean start,” Benz said. He thought of the day—years back now—that they had aged out of the orphanage without a plan, destination, home. They had tied themselves to the familiar: the khlong that rivered through their neighborhood. Together, they followed it to a new place.
The can of gasoline sat in the middle of the workspace, the pool of concrete like a spotlight around it. There was no more rum. Also, the money: they had spent it. The generator was running down the last of their fuel.
With dawn Tintin rose. Benz watched as Tintin dragged two theater chairs from the back, their feet scraping through the grime. He braced his leg against the spine of a chair and with a jerk he snapped the wood beneath. He shredded the vinyl cushions, which spilled darting pieces of foam. He heaped the splinters, and disappeared for the lacquered sheeting of the old desk. Then a mess of film reels was thrown onto the pile, the black ribbons curling, wild.
Tintin settled on the mattress. It was hot enough that Benz could watch the sweat form on his friend’s arm. He swiped his finger along Tintin’s skin, clearing the beads.
Tintin spoke: “They say that there are coal veins that have been on fire for years. Always raging. When we burn this place down, I hope it stays alight forever. And looking behind us at night we would see the fire and know that this had happened.”
He could say things in a way that made Benz believe they would happen. But Benz didn’t want a funeral pyre. He picked up the can of gasoline. He approached Tintin’s pile, but instead poured all the fuel into their generator.
“What are you doing?” Tintin asked.
Benz began disconnecting the stadium of headlights, one at a time.
“Put on Rocky again?”
Tintin didn’t respond. Each light that disappeared threw new shadows on his face.
“I can do that,” he said as Benz reached the final light.
The film felt short and clumsy, the ending now inevitable. But when the reel finished Tintin reloaded it.
They went through it again, listening to the arrhythmic murmuring of the fan and waiting for the generator to sputter out, the projector’s flare to fade.
Neither of them dubbed the film. They let the images run silent.