Megan McNelis, 131 TESS
The dishes were already done when I showed up at the meatball counter this morning. “Mai bpen raai! Set laew! There’s nothing left to do!”
They’re going to start thinking I do this on purpose. I’m bad at naam jaai-ing. It’s a shortcoming I attribute to how rarely I go to the market, but in actuality, it tends to slip my mind more often than not. By way of compensation, I try to make myself useful and present by refilling people’s glasses, being generally sassy, and most importantly, helping with the dishes. I used to do dishes constantly. It was the only task I could do without looking hopelessly inept. Dishes are what pulled me out of bed on a Saturday.
Meh Nii is my landlady. Her meatball counter’s set up in front of her sister, Meh Tong’s, shop, and we all have an almost nightly ritual of sitting and talking to each other until she closes down. It had started raining lightly as we filled ourselves with meatballs and Leo and chatted about foreign languages, music, and men. I’d started toward the small pile of bowls and pans.
“Nam-Dtaan. Leave them ‘til tomorrow. It’s raining.”
“The rain will help clean the dishes,” I’d said. Meh Nii tittered, and repeated the joke to her sister.
“Goodnight!” Meh Nii and I went home.
Saturday morning, I woke to the sound of Meh Nii washing something in the kitchen sink. I tugged on some shorts and ran out to make sure she wasn’t cleaning my own dishes–the plates and bowls I’d left in the sink last night from the small mountain of sub-par stir fry I’d made with one hand while talking on the phone with the other. I’d salvaged it with my time-tested strategy of dumping untold amounts of oyster sauce in it, and taken it over to the shop. Arroi, they’d said. Needs some salt.
Meh Nii disappeared. I washed my plates and puttered sluggishly around the kitchen. I saw the third sister, Meh Thik G., hanging up laundry.
“Hello!” She said cheerily, coming over and peeking through the door. “Oy! It’s gonna rain again today. Where’s Nii?”
“I’m not sure,” I said, then remembered and corrected myself: “Oof! She’s probably washing the dishes from last night. It was raining. I wanna go help.”
Coffee mug in-hand, I ambled over to Meh Tong’s shop, timing my steps to the Thai pop hits blaring from a nearby wedding celebration that had started the night before. I rounded the corner and walked bashfully up to Meh Nii, who was washing the last pan. I sighed, grimaced, and apologized, but her attention was turned not toward me, but to a covered motorcycle and side-car that was parked (stalled, actually) in front of the luuk chin stand.
“Hurry up and try n’ start it! We gotta get to the suan” Said the bike’s would-be driver. “Watdee, ka!” I said to them. “Kraap!” They replied, running a rough hand over their close cropped hair and lighting a cigarette. I took note of the masculine greeting and logged it away in the back of my mind.
“C’mere. Try n’ start this motorcycle! Ya look strong. We’re going to the suan,” They slur-barked, swaying as they gestured to the yaai in the sidecar. The grandma was bundled up in a shawl and a knitted yellow monk’s cap–protection against the bite of the sub 80-degree morning air. The driver’s thin frame was likewise clad in a tight-fitting flannel shirt, worn over a white tee and tucked neatly into wrinkled (but clean) denim jeans.
“I don’t know how!” I said, laughing. I wondered if Peace Corps would mind me helping to start a motorcycle.
“She rides her bike everywhere,” said one of the neighborhood aunties, who stood by watching. The driver grunted. Meh Tong greeted me at the doorway to she shop. “Good morning! Sit down and drink your coffee.” I plopped down on the wooden bench at the doorway, watching the driver go back and forth between heckling Meh Nii and hailing customers and passers-by and admonishing them to try to start the bike. “Who’s this person? I don’t recognize them,” I asked Meh Tong.
“Ploy. That’s Pii Ploy. She answered unenthusiastically, scrunching her mouth to one side.
Ploy’s eyes fell on some neighborhood girls–my students from the elementary school. “Come. COME HERE. Hundred baht for whoever can start it!” Ploy shouted. The girls glanced excitedly at one another and rushed to the machine. They took turns pushing down on the starter pedal with all the might their slim legs could muster. Their plastic sandals flew off, and the pedal slapped the backs of their calves as their feet slipped from the pedal, over and over. There was no way they could start this machine, but they tried with a strength and tenacity I could only wish I’d see from them in the classroom.
Looks like money motivates them, I smirked to myself. Useful information.
“What’s going on?” Said a young-ish woman in a yellow shirt, sidling up to the shop on her own motorbike with her sons. The boys hopped off the bike and ran over to join the other kids in their efforts. The small crowd explained the situation in a mix of central Thai and purring, animated Khmer–words I don’t understand yet, despite their familiar sound. The patient yaai chimed in occasionally from the side car, looking on amusedly at the morning spectacle.
“Diao, diao. One second, I’m just gonna check my weight,” she said, stepping onto the top-up machine–a small kiosk where you can both put money on your cell phone and, for reasons unbeknownst to me, weigh yourself.
Meh Nii put the last of the dishes away and wiped her hands on her apron. She stood, arms akimbo, as the young woman hopped off the machine and approached the bike. A few seconds later I heard the bike catch and roar, and I cheered and clapped from over on my bench.
“Yem! Yem maak leuy!” Excellent. A hundred baht for everyone,” Pii Ploy pointed to each kid in turn. “Hundred baht. Hundred baht, hundred baht.” The kids looked at each other excitedly as Pii Ploy reached into their pocket and pulled out…a pack of cigarettes. The kids walked away, looking disappointed. Ploy fumbled with the box, pulled out a cigarette, and walked over to Meh Tong, who passed them some lao kaao disguised in an energy drink bottle.
“Go get on your bike before it stops working again! Grandma’s waiting!” Meh Tong scolded. Pii Ploy grinned, mumbled something around the cigarette in their mouth, and unhurriedly mounted the bike, seeming almost disappointed that it was over. The yaai remained sitting gracefully in the sidecar as the awkward vehicle swung around, swaying drunkenly like its owner. Pii Ploy called out to me: “Watdee kraap. We’ll see each other this evening.”
“Uhm. Okay…ka.” I answered, knowing full well that we wouldn’t. Pii Ploy drove away. Meh Nii and I went home. Nothing left to do.
suan – garden
luuk chin – meatballs
yaai – grandmother