I have long admired D’s writing over at “Written In Pencil,” and most especially his written portraits of people he has known. Usually, I try to incorporate the people I get to know into my fiction somehow, but I don’t know the man in the portrait I want to offer you. I’ve only ‘read’ him in a moment. I’ll never know him. Part of me doesn’t want to. But he deserves to be here and, for my part, I need to keep him…somewhere.
Phnom Penh, Cambodia, April, 2014
It’s two in the afternoon and the sun hammers down on the paved promenade that gracefully hugs the left bank of the Mekong River as it winds its way through Phnom Penh. A little man comes trundling towards me, following the flow of the outbound tide. He’s old – perhaps sixty or more – which is ancient here in the land where the bulk of the population is under 25. The short grey bristles that cap his skull glint in the oppressive light, his skin is stained mahogany and his face is a mass of wrinkles. Barefoot, he has a rolling gait and his legs are slightly bowed. The sign of a youthful encounter with rickets. He’s carrying a collapsed Fanta carton in one hand, and what looks like an unpotted plant in the other. The printing on the cardboard is impossibly orange, and the roots of the plant trail along the ground.
As he passes one of the decorative white lampposts, he stops, lopes towards it and aims a slow, ostentatious kick in its direction. His foot doesn’t quite connect with the post, but almost. Then he continues up the promenade. At the next lamppost, he makes the same puzzling gesture and, when he passes a small bed of low, dusty bushes, he doubles back and does the same thing before resuming his amble in my direction. Another lamppost, he repeats the gesture, then carries on. But after a few paces, something changes his mind. He walks back to the post and makes the gesture again, not once, but twice, from several angles.
It is then I notice his ragged dark trousers are completely split up the crotch. Every time he lifts his leg, I can see his dirty white boxers beneath them.
Further on, he stops and eyes the grass in the verge beside the paved walkway. Rather cautiously, he steps onto it, squats down and starts digging with both his hands. Clods of grass and then dirt fly up into the stale air. He’s making a hole. When it seems to be to his satisfaction, he stuffs the plant he’s been carrying into it, plunging it into the earth with brutality. As if, if he’s too gentle with it, the plant will escape. He gently pushes the Fanta carton into the earth around the plant like a wind-break, until it seems quite fixed. Standing up and surveying his work, he makes the same dramatic kicking gesture over and over.
I realize it’s not a kick at all. He’s cocking his leg and peeing. All the way down the length of the Sisowath Quay, he’s pissed on every upright thing, every planted area, marking his territory. He probably ran out out of urine a kilometer back, but it doesn’t really matter. This is an articulation, not of speech but of body, intentional, a proclamation. This abject, crooked, weather-worn creature is not a man; he’s a dog. A green-thumbed dog.
I’d like to talk to him, but I know, instinctively, that he can’t talk. Because dogs don’t talk. Dogs do doggy things and that is it. As we pass each other, I can smell him. The sweet, acrid stink of piss. I put my hand in my pocket, to give him some Riels, but although our eyes meet, I don’t register to him. His world is one of lampposts and walls and plants and scents.
I’ll never know this being’s story. The best I can do is create a possibly fictional narrative to build my mnemonic of him. These days, we seldom have time for stories anymore. We use words like schizophrenia and explain it all with neurochemistry. But I look his face, his toothless mouth, his scarred and dented skull, his ruined legs, calculate his age, and figure that he must have been in his early twenties when Pol Pot came to power and the Khmer Rouge purged this country of its Western decadence in a conflagration of blood and fear.
In those days, it would have been safer to be a dog than to be a man. And once you’ve gotten good at it, how do you stop?
And now I know Lacan was wrong. He said there was no experiencing the Real, but he is mistaken. I’ve seen a man who lives there. I think he traveled to the Real 30 years ago, and he’s been there ever since.