Issue 99, Spring 1986
I know more secrets than any man I have ever met. My neighbor, Harlow Pearson, was a gambler, although this was never a secret and many people knew about it, even when he was in Congress. He came from New England, was tall, and thin, broad in the chest. I am an old man now. I sit in my house, hearing the shutters banging in the winter wind, and I think of things from a long time ago, like the time when Harlow was a young man in Ipoh. His gambling before Ipoh had been done in European casinos, especially those with chandeliers and chamber music played by musicians in evening clothes, and where there were men who stood around the roulette tables with small notebooks taking down the number on each turn of the wheel. Gambling made Harlow feel as though he were participating in the world. He hated to be a bystander. He tried to explain gambling by saying that it was the difference between walking through an abandoned orchard with a gun and a dog, looking for grouse, and just walking.
Harlow had a houseboy, and his name was Xan Thu. In America he was called Xannie. Xannie’s parents had been Asian tribesmen, and in 1950 Xannie was working as a groom at the race track at Ipoh, in Malaysia. He spent his nights there at the racetrack, too, sleeping at the back of a barn, his bed made on bales of hay, on which he stretched out, hearing the rustle of it and feeling the itch through a thin blanket he spread there and smelling the dusty, grassy odor. He took his meals alone, eating while he squatted and leaned against a stall door, or back where he slept. There were other grooms, too, and they found their places to sleep in the barn, each one having a small bag in which there were a few personal things, a book, a photograph, a comb, an extra white shirt, a pair of dark pants.
The man Xannie worked for most often was half French and half Burmese; he was heavy, bald, and had greenish eyes. His skin was smooth, an olive brown color. His suits were made in London, and he wore a large, gold watch that gave the time for any place on the earth. The man’s name was Pierre Bouteille. There were times when he couldn’t sleep and came to wake Xannie up.
“Are you sleeping?” said Pierre.
“No,” said Xannie.
“Have you seen any thieves?” said Pierre.
“No,” said Xannie.
Then Pierre said, “Come outside.” Xannie went with him, and Pierre gave him an American cigarette, a Camel, and they both smoked, feeling the wet, Malaysian sky, and seeing the clouds floating along, made visible by the sickly light of the city.
Pierre told Xannie about the places he’d been. He said Parisian women and Dutch women, too, would do anything for money, that New York was filled with madmen, that there was a desert in Yugoslavia. America had more food than anyone thought imaginable. There were Malaysians and Burmese who had made money gambling and in restaurants in America, and some had become doctors and university professors. There was a Malaysian pediatrician in Chicago.... Xannie smoked a cigarette and thought about piles of food: he saw a cone, high as a volcano, that was made of rice. He smoked the cigarette down to the butt, burning his fingers.
Pierre had a horse he’d bought in the Philippines. It was a good horse with fine breeding and had originally come from Lexington, Kentucky. Pierre was concerned about the horse. afraid that it would be stolen, and he spent nights looking into its stall, saying that there were dishonest people around, and that you had to be on guard against them. Pierre had once gotten drunk in town and fallen asleep in an alley, and when he had woken up, he saw that someone had stolen his shoes. They had been white shoes. When Pierre stood and stared into the stall, Xannie was with him, wanting to hear about the Parisian and Dutch women and the food in America, but he only stared into the dark stall, hearing the restless movement of the horse. When Pierre felt reassured he said, “Let’s go for a cigarette.”
The horse was worked regularly. One night after the horse had been pushed a little harder than usual by a trainer, Pierre came into the room where Xannie slept and woke him by shaking his leg, and then told Xannie to go into town in a taxi and to bring a veterinarian. It was after one o’clock in the morning and Xannie was to tell the vet that he had a sick dog. Pierre gave Xannie a package of Camels, and Xannie rode in the taxi, with the windows rolled up in a thunderstorm, smoking a cigarette. He brought the veterinarian back, a Frenchman who looked carefully into the taxi and who waited for it to air out before he got into it. When they got back to the track, Xannie was left alone in front of the barn to watch while the veterinarian went back to take a look.
In the morning the horse was gone, but the next night, about one, it was brought back. The veterinarian had taken the animal to his clinic, where he had an X-ray machine and a table for the horse, and soon the doctor was back again to talk to Pierre and to show him the strange black and white photographs of a bone in one of the horse’s feet. There was a long, definite crack in it, and the veterinarian told Pierre that one, good hard. run, and the bone would break. The veterinarian said the foot would “explode.” It was best to sell the animal right away, he said, and then he left.
For a few days Xannie heard nothing, but in the middle of the night Pierre came into his room and asked if he was sleeping and if Xannie had seen any thieves. Xannie noticed that Pierre didn’t say “thieves” with the same horror as usual: there was a softness in his tone that verged on the affectionate. Xannie said he hadn’t seen any thieves, and then he and Pierre went outside to smoke. Pierre had been drinking, and he weaved from side to side as he said, “\bu know that goddamned vet blabbed? Everyone knows about the horse. How the hell can I sell him now?”
Pierre hadn’t offered a cigarette and Xannie looked at the lights of the city. When Pierre spoke, he gestured with the hand that held the cigarette, and the orange tip of it streaked through the night, making lines that looked like neon tubing, and Xannie watched the bright, curved shapes and listened to Pierre’s deep breathing.
“It can be arranged,” said Xannie.
“I want to know nothing about it,” said Pierre.
They stood side by side. After awhile Xannie said, “Six hundred dollars. Tens and twenties.”
“Three hundred,” said Pierre, “I am not a rich man.”
“All right,” said Xannie, “Three hundred and fifty and a set of papers for a horse with different breeding. Bad breeding, a different color, but the same age and sex.”
Pierre sighed and said, “All right. Would you like a cigarette?
Xannie took one and lighted it, pulling the smoke into his mouth and standing there, watching the lights of the city, the large, lumpy clouds, and thinking, while he heard the horses moving in the stalls behind him, of the Parisian and Dutch women and ofthe piles of rice in America as big as mountains.
The next day the horse and Xannie were gone.
In 1950, Harlow was in the navy, and he spent some time in Malaysia, at Ipoh. Ipoh is a crowded city, and during the monsoon it rained so hard it made you feel as though you were standing in a shower with your clothes on. The sky turned purple during the monsoon, dark as an ugly bruise. Anyway, one day Harlow was walking down a street that was lined with closed-up shops and warehouses. The shops were shut up with metal doors that rolled down from above the windows, and the warehouses had large padlocks, some of which were as large as a book. At the back and front of each building’s roof there were rolls of barbed wire. The warehouses were used on a short-term basis, and could be rented for as little as twenty-four hours at a time. Harlow walked down the street and stopped in front of one that held bicycles. The city was filled with pedestrians, cars, motorcycles, and bicycles, but Harlow had never seen a horse in it. There wasn’t enough room in the city for horses. He stopped in front of the bicycle warehouse because he had almost stepped in a pile of horse manure.
The door to the warehouse wasn’t locked, and when Harlow pushed it open he saw by the dusky light in the street that bicycles were stacked on the floor and hung from the walls and rafters. When the light from the street hit the wheels of the bicycles they looked delicate, almost fragile, like the spokes of an umbrella without the cloth. After a while, Harlow heard someone say, “Close the door.”
Harlow pushed the door shut, and the hinges made a slow, insect-like screech. He didn’t close the door completely. When he turned around, an electric light came on, and the bicycles were clearly visible, hanging in the air overhead. At the back of the room, which was narrow and not very long, there was an Asian man, dressed in a pair of dark pants and a white shirt, who was holding the halter of a horse. The horse, even in the dim, yellowish light, was clearly a thoroughbred.
Harlow came a little closer, stepping over the bicycles and looking around the warehouse, but he saw no one else. There was only the uncomfortable, confined horse, the Oriental man, the grey walls of the place, the shiny spokes of the bicycles and the piles of black rubber tires and inner tubes, many of which had been patched so many times as to look exotic, like the coils of some enormous pink and black snake. Harlow and the Oriental man didn’t stand close together, but they each took a long, frank look into the other’s face, and while they stood there, it became clear that what had begun as an intrusion or perhaps even a burglary had ended, for a while anyway, as a limited partnership.
Harlow introduced himself. The man said his name was Xan Thu. Harlow ran his hand over the horse’s cheek, along the mus-cled, arched neck, and down its chest.
“Where did you get the horse?” said Harlow.
Xannie blinked at him.
“Is it stolen?” said Harlow.
“No,” said Xannie, “it’s not hot. But, in all honesty, I’d have to say that it’s a little warm.”
“Hmmm,” said Harlow, “how warm?”
Xannie blinked again.
“Let’s put it this way,” said Harlow, “do you think anyone at the track here would recognize it?”
“Anything is possible,” said Xannie.