The room was dark, hot and crowded. Smoke, sweet and sickly smoke could be seen drifting up in a lazy manner by vacant eyes in a place where time and reality stopped and fantasy reigned over the wasted lives there. Who cared?
Gaston Bouchard sat up on the dirty pallet he’d been lying on all about him were men, or at least what was left of them, in an opium stupor, their time occupied in a dream of slow wasting death. Bouchard rubbed his red rimmed dark eyes and with aching joints, grabbed a hold of a rough hewn post and struggled to stand up, reality ungratefully seeping into his situation which he regretfully had to accept. Once he was standing he sagged against a support post and looked around to identify his place in the room. The door was in front of him, he could make it out but its distance was deceiving to his muddled mind, he wasn’t sure he would be able to walk that far. Christ, he didn’t want to crawl out of there he still had some dignity though others might think differently.
“Merde!” he said to himself, “If I can’t reach the door, what the hell will I do on the other side of it?”
An Asian man in silk robes appeared his voice pleasant and friendly. “Do you require assistance Monsieur Bouchard?” Even in this heat the small man did not appear to perspire.
“La porte,” crocked Bouchard. “I have to leave.”
“But of course Monsieur. Please come and visit us again. Monsieur is always welcome.” With that the Frenchman was guided to the door and lead outside.
It was evening and Bouchard was grateful for that small concession as he slumped against a slimy black, brick wall vomiting in a filthy alley off an unimportant street in Saigon, a recently acquired city, part of the new French colony in Southeast Asia, opium and the joys of imperialism. He had started “chasing the dragon” Friday night, he remembered that. “So what night is it now?” he asked himself.
He made his way to the room he rented in the Chinese quarter, stumbling and falling. It took him two hours to cover a normal thirty minute walk. Those who saw him some ignored him, others pointed and shook their heads, a nameless expat, a failure in all places it seemed. Bouchard knew there were people watching him, some snickering from their ramshackle shacks and hovels that lined the street. To hell with ‘em, he just wanted to get back to his lodging, a two story hotel that had been quickly built trying to copy a European style, which had been done badly. At night it would go pretty much unnoticed given the fact that most people in the area drank or smoked too much but during the day, it was an eyesore that most would agree should be condemned and destroyed along with those inside, never thinking about the fact that those living there were already condemned, one way or another. When he arrived at his building he stopped for a moment to catch his breath and then with a sigh, he entered. Christ, what a pissoir!
The seedy looking desk clerk looked up from his paper and frowned. He didn’t even bother to reply when Bouchard greeted him with a flat “Bonsoir”, but just returned his gaze to the paper in front of him. Bouchard just shrugged his shoulders and walked up the stairs to the second floor where his room was.
Using his key, he opened the door and went inside, thankful at being what he called “home”, no matter how passing that might be. He struck a match and lit the kerosene lamp on the only table in the room its light somehow making the room even more depressing, if that could be so. The paint peeling off the walls reflecting the glow was a faded lime green that did not age well. Bouchard wondered if anyone who ever occupied the room ever complained about the color, he doubted it. There was a wash basin in the corner of the room and a piss pot under the cot which served as a bed. Above the basin was a cracked mirror, the face that was reflected
back was a stranger to him, tired and gaunt, so different from the person who first came to the colony. The drinking and the opium had taken their toll, he lived one day at a time and he often wondered why he bothered to do that. What did he tell people before? About his childhood in Nice, his father the baker, his sister married to the policeman…they lived in…? Hell, he couldn’t remember. What had happened to him?
He sat on the cot. His eyes followed a crack in the wall. It had a beginning, from the water stained ceiling, came down and branched out. A cockroach scurried across the floor, moving, stopping. Another cockroach appeared, big son of a bitch.
There was a loud knock on the door. The noise startled him. He pulled out a pistol from under his pillow and walked over to the door.
“Who is it?” he rasped.
“It’s Wright, open the fucking door!” said a voice accented in Queen’s English.
Bouchard cracked the door open. “What do you want?” he asked already knowing the answer and not liking it.
The rat faced features of the Englishman came into view, a brown derby on the back of his head and showing a grin with missing teeth. “You been hittin’ that pipe again, ehhh Frenchy? And by the looks of ya, pretty hard I’d say.”
“What do you want?” Bouchard asked again.
“It ain’t what I want mate, it’s what Mr. Phillips wants, you know that,” said Wright as if he were talking to a small child.
“I don’t work for him anymore.”
“Look friend, you ought to know better, you don’t walk away from a man like Mr. Phillips, it just ain’t done.”
“Well, I did and I’m not going back,” said Bouchard.
Wright nodded his head and sighed, “Yeah, he said you’d say that, but he also knows ya need the money. He said this was the last one. After this you can go to hell anyway you want. He wants a meeting.”
He didn’t need a lot of time to think about it. Wright was correct when he said Bouchard needed the money and Phillips would know that. One last time and maybe he could get on with his life. “Alright, when?”
“Tomorrow, usual place, usual time,” said Wright. “He’s expecting ya.”
Bouchard nodded, “I’ll be there,” he said and closed the door. He could hear Wright laughing on the other side. Bastard!
Bouchard woke up early the next morning, feeling better than he thought he would, which wasn’t great. He shaved, paid for a bath and put on a cream colored linen suit that had seen better days but was for the most part, clean. At twelve o’clock he made his way to the Hotel Demers (which privately, Bouchard thought was ironic), where most of the foreigners gathered in Saigon, where the man called Phillips always was.