Sunday, November 16, 2008

I will tell you something if you have ears to listen

My friend Dave and I walked over to the nearby pool hall to talk poetry. He is applying to grad schools and wanted some feedback on his writing sample before he sent it out.

Before we began, he went to the restroom. While I was waiting, a white guy walked by. I nodded at him, since he was a bule like me.

"Where are you from?" he asked, and I told him.

"What do you think about Obama?" he asked.

I don't like to discuss politics, especially in bars, and especially with people from different countries. I only said, "I think he will do better than the man currently in office."

"Hmm. That is interesting," he replied. "Very interesting."

He pried for more information, but I only gave different versions of the same response. Each time he replied, "That's interesting." When I asked for his thoughts, he would only say, "It doesn't matter," or, "We speak a different language."

I learned he was from Finland and living on a military pension. He had lived in Surabaya for almost two years.

Dave returned from the bathroom. We introduced ourselves; the Finn's name was Jan. He asked me what type of alcohol I liked; I said good whiskey or good rum. He spoke as if he was going to buy us a shot, "just a little one."

He walked away, and the shots never came.

My friend and I talked poetry. Eventually Jan returned. He asked if he could sit, and I moved my backpack to give him space. But I kept talking to Dave.

"If you need to work, just say so," Jan said. I stared at him. "Just say so, and I will let you be."

"Do you mind?" I asked.

"Not at all. You just need to say what you want." And he walked away.

We finished our drinks and our discussion and went to the bar to pay. While one of the bartenders went for our tab, another bartender put two pitchers in front of us, and soon a third. We looked down the bar and saw Jan. We sat down next to him.

As we poured our beers, Rowan and our roommate Sinead arrived. They sat down and Jan motioned to the bartender for another pitcher.

We were arranged with me on Jan's left, Rowan and Sinead on my left, and Dave at the far left.

Jan and I talked. I learned little about him. Most questions were answered with more refrains of, "It doesn't matter," or, "We speak a different language."

At one point, he determined the girls weren't drinking fast enough. "If you don't drink, I will give you a massage," he said. The girls drank.

Jan looked at me. "Do you feel..." he said and then beat his chest, "...for the blond? Because I may have an interest."

"Yes, I do."

"Then I will not pursue her."

He ordered six whiskey sours. I figured he had two for himself and one for each of the rest of us. But he put three in front of himself and three in front of me. "The men will drink these." Rowan pointed at Dave further down the bar. "We are drinking these," said Jan.

And we did. We sat in relative silence until he got up to use the restroom. "You're not drinking," he said as he passed Rowan. He stopped and put his hand on Rowan's shoulders until I motioned his hands away.

"What are you doing in Surabaya?" Rowan asked.

"I have a little interest," Jan said. Later, Rowan said she thought he meant prostitutes; Surabaya has Asia's largest red light district.

He returned and we continued drinking.

Then he looked me in the eye. "Are you a professional?" he said, and I replied negatively.

He pointed at the bartender, who was slicing lemons for more whiskey sours. "Is he a professional?"

"He's a professional bartender," I said.

"Give me the knife," Jan said to the bartender, and the bartender complied. Jan held the knife with the back of the blade running up his forearm. "If I hold the knife this way, you can't take it from me."

He spun the blade in his fingers and returned it to the original position. "Could you take it from me?"

"No," I said. I waited until he set the knife back down.

We sat in silence for awhile.

"I will tell you something if you have ears to listen," he said. He stared at me. He placed his hand on my leg, uncomfortably high up my thigh.

"Do you have ears to listen? I will tell you something if you have ears to listen."

I stared at him and he stared back for almost two minutes. When he began speaking, he spoke quietly. I couldn't hear at first, but then began to make out places and dates. And then numbers.
And then the words, "people killed."

I remember only two parts of his soldier's accounting:

"Lebanon. 1982. Twelve people killed.

"Afghanistan..." Here his voice gave out and he moved his lips soundlessly. I thought I saw him mouth the words, "Sixty-two."

We sat in silence. Later, I tried speaking, but received, "It doesn't matter," and, "We speak a different language."

He paid our tab, and we continued to drink. He passed out in his bar stool soon thereafter.

My friends and I finished our drinks. The bartender assured me that he would take care of Jan. This had happened before.

We left the bar and headed for home, just around the corner through Surabaya's thick nighttime air. My bed would be waiting for me, and my girl would lie beside me, and my sleep would be dreamless.


Anonymous said...

What can I say? True story. Strange story. Definitely worth recording. Definitely recorded well. There are a few people I don't want to run into again in this city, and he's one of them.

Steve said...

Frickin' creepy. This reminds me of that one old drunk native guy I met at the Big I that one time...although he was much less scary and much less crazy than this Jan dude.

I think the story was recorded well, too.

Jeremy Smith said...


Christina said...