TWO SHIRTS
From Press Quarterly, 1999
© 1999 George Bishop, Jr.

 

“Ipa, where are my shirts?”


Ipa doesn’t understand.

“My shirts. My two shirts. Two,” I say, and hold up two fingers; “shirts,” and pluck at the one I’m wearing. “Two shirts.”


Now she knows what I’m talking about.

“Ah! Moment!” she says, and rushes off calling for the other one.


I first noticed them missing a week ago. The laundry here normally takes only three days, but my two new shirts have been gone for nearly ten already.

Ipa returns with the other girl, Ima. They’re chattering back and forth. Ima is a little older, and she knows more English than Ipa. She seems to be in charge here.

“Yes? Mister Tom?”

“My shirts,” I repeat for Ima. “Where are they?”

“Dry clean,” she says, and points somewhere back above my head to the rear of the house, where they do the laundry, apparently. I’ve learned they use this word “dry clean” to mean any kind of washing.

“Still?” I ask. “How long will it take? When?”

“Um—tomorrow,” says Ima, nodding. I’ve also learned that they use this word “tomorrow” to mean any amount of time. I frown.

“Sorry!” she says.

“Okay. Tomorrow, then,” I say. I make a motion like I’m driving a car. “Driver? Driver?”

“Moment!” she says and rushes off shouting for Imbang, the boy. Ipa, the younger one, just stands there, uncertain what to do. She looks down at her bare feet. She sees a fly on the jam jar on the breakfast table and takes a swipe at it.

“Whoo!” she says.

In a moment Imbang appears and we go together out through the living room and across the hallway. I carry my briefcase. Ipa and Ima follow. Imbang quickly sidesteps around me to open the front door, but then he stands there right in the doorway holding it open with his arm extended so that I have to edge past him to get out. “Sorry!” he says.

The gardener is already out in the front yard, doing his gardening. Even this early in the morning it is hot—oppressively hot, and humid. He opens the big spiked iron gate at the end of the drive when he sees us coming. He’s an old man; he’s wearing his coolie hat and ragged brown trousers torn off at the knees. He smiles his big crooked teeth and bows as he holds the gate open for us. Imbang twists around to back the car up. He doesn’t look old enough to drive yet—fourteen or fifteen maybe. But then, everyone here is so small, it’s hard to tell.

Ipa and Ima are standing side-by-side in the doorway, in their skirts and bare legs, with the door wide open and letting the mosquitoes in, watching us leave. I’m twisted around watching that Imbang doesn’t scrape the car, and when I turn back front the gardener’s head is right at my opened window; I bump his coolie hat with my nose. I jerk back, startled, and Imbang laughs. “Sorry!” the gardener says, and we’re out the gate and on our way, Imbang maneuvering the car down the narrow pot-holed lane.

Ipa and Ima, Imbang the driver, the gardener, all came with the house. There’s a maintenance man, too, and all his helpers, and the others who come on weekends. The house is big—you might say ridiculously big for one person. Round white columns stand out front; inside, a marble staircase with a black and gold iron railing leads from a spacious entranceway up to the second floor. It all seems brand new, or at least newly renovated. The maintenance man is always at work around the house, and plasterers or bricklayers are always busy with something. The servants all live here, in wings and add-ons behind the pool or up on the roof. There are thick carpets, heavy drapes, large stuffed armchairs with elaborately carved wooden trim in the indigenous style, and glass-fronted cabinets full of knick-knacks and chinaware I will never use. There’s a button molded into the wall right above my nightstand that I can push for service to my bedroom. The rent is high for the country, I suppose—somewhere near two and a half a month—but the company foots the bill for everything. A/C, hot water, drinking water and satellite TV are all included, so I’m comfortable enough.

 

Next day I’m running a little late, so I don’t eat any of the breakfast Ima’s laid.

“No time,” I tell her. “Driver? Driver?” and do the thing with my hands.

She rushes out shouting for Imbang. I grab up the Herald Tribune from the table and Imbang and I are off. While he’s holding the front door open for me I remember the shirts. I decide not to bother with it now; I make a mental note to ask about them later that evening. The gardener comes trotting around the corner of the house to get the gate. “Sorry!” he says.

At work the market’s up and down. The local CEO’s all get panicky with the slightest bump in the exchange. We foreigners—all hired-hand analysts, advisors, trouble-shooters—stay cool. We impress them with our level-headedness. Even when we’re completely wrong, even when we miscalculate by ten or twenty points, we stay calm. We keep their trust, and they turn to us for the last word. “That was to be expected, of course,” we say or, “It’s what we call the Heisman Variance.” They’re very happy to have us here, and we are well paid for our work.

For myself, just out of graduate school, I will earn more in one year here than I would earn in two back home. The extra high salary is considered a kind of hardship pay for us foreigners, though some, I’m sure, wouldn’t consider living here a hardship at all.

Wilson, for example. Wilson has been here five years already, going on six. “Man, we’ve got a sweet deal,” he likes to say. Wilson’s considered a kind of “party guy” at our office, but his work is good, and his shirts are always clean and freshly pressed. He was in my office today. He likes to drop by.

“Hey, Tom!” he said. “Getting any yet?”

You wouldn’t think from the way he talks sometimes that he graduated from the Wharton School. Maybe he drinks, but I can’t say for sure.

“Man, we’ve got to get you out of this office sometime!” he said. “Get out and see the city. Take a little walk on the wild side.”

“Okay, Wilson,” I said. “Whatever you say.”

“Check out that new receptionist, huh? Man!”
“Yes, she looks all right.”

“Hey—don’t be getting any ideas. I’ve got first dibs.”

“She’s all yours, Wilson.”

It’s true enough, though, what my friend Wilson says. The local women are very attractive. They possess a kind of lazy, unstudied grace that many Western men find alluring. In our office, too, the secretaries are all very pretty; some are quite stunning, actually. Their English is good, and they all know how to operate the computer, but one suspects that they may have been hired for their appearance as much as anything. When I come in mornings I always wave with my Herald Tribune. “Morning, ladies!” I say. They all giggle—they seem to think this is very funny. “Good morning, Tom!” they call back. “Whoa,” the foreign men say, shaking their heads after they’ve run the gauntlet of smiling little secretaries in their little secretary suits in the front office, and we all know what they mean. I believe Wilson has gone out with a number of them—they’re all extremely friendly to foreigners.

Back home, Imbang stops at the gate and honks the horn. Soon the old man comes trotting out to get the gate, and Imbang pulls in and parks the car. I tell Ima that I’ll want dinner and head upstairs to shower. It’s so hot that in just walking from the car to the house I break out into a sweat. After one day of wear my shirt collars are brown with stains.

Upstairs are many mosquitoes. They leave the doors open when I’m gone during the day, I’m sure of it. I get bitten three times on my legs and ankles and once on my back during my shower. I decide to wait until after dinner to say anything. I haven’t forgotten about the shirts, either.

Ima has made steak for me. She’s a fair little cook, though she does serve everything with rice. She stands back and watches while I take the first few bites to see that everything is okay, then she disappears. When I finish my dinner I call for her.

“Very nice dinner, Ima,” I say. I push back from the table. “I wanted to ask Ipa about those shirts again.” Ipa, I know, is the one who takes care of the laundry. Ima has caught my meaning, because I see that she looks worried. “Oh! Yes, moment,” she says and runs out of the room calling for Ipa.

They come back together in a little while. Ipa is holding one of my shirts on a hanger, washed and pressed.

It’s not one of the shirts that was missing, though.

“No. No, not this shirt,” I say. I explain to them that I’m missing two other shirts, not this one; this one is not missing. They talk back and forth.

“Moment,” says Ima, and they both run off again. Soon they have returned with another shirt on a hanger, but this isn’t the right one either.

“No, no. Not this shirt either,” I say. I try to explain the color and style of the missing shirts to them again. I remember them well enough because I took some time in picking out just the right shirts. Ipa’s nervous. She runs off by herself with the shirt while Ima stays behind with me in the dining room. “Sorry, Mister Tom,” she says. “Moment.” Ipa comes back again, another shirt on a hanger, but it’s still the wrong shirt—I’m getting a little tired of the whole shirt thing by now. “No, no!” I say. “No, that’s not it.”

“Dry clean,” they say. “Tomorrow. Sorry. Very sorry.”

“Yes, okay,” I say. “Tomorrow.”

I start to leave, then remember the mosquitoes. “Raid?” I say, “Raid?”, and make a hissing sound with my teeth while I mime spraying the air. Ima runs to get the can while Ipa slinks off with the shirt on the hanger.

I follow them upstairs, trying to explain about the doors and the A/C. “You can’t leave the doors open. The mosquitoes all come in. That’s what the A/C’s for.” Ah-say they pronounce it here. Ima’s carrying the can of insect spray, Ipa’s walking beside her. They’re both barefoot, and as their dark legs kick out from below their skirts on the marble stairs in front of me, I wonder, not for the first time, how old they are: fourteen? fifteen? twenty?

I stand back while Ima sprays in the upstairs bathroom, then the master bedroom. But she’s not doing it right, so I take the can from her, shake it good, and show her how you have to spray it up into the curtains, and down behind the chairs and furniture, and especially around the bed. “Okay. Sorry,” she says. I spray some more in the hallway and closets, and down by the baseboards where the carpet meets the walls, then send them away with the can. But in a minute my eyes are watering and I begin coughing. I’m having trouble breathing from the spray, so I go back downstairs and turn up the A/C and wait for the fog to dissipate.

Later that night, while I’m lying in bed trying to fall asleep, I hear the voices of Ipa and Ima. Their rooms are out back, and even though the windows are closed and the A/C is on full blast, I can hear them. They’re giggling and laughing and chatting in their language. Then one of them says, in accented English, “Sprey! Sprey!” The other one laughs. “No! More! More!” she says. “Here! Here! Sprey! Sprey!” She makes hissing noises. “Oh Ima Ima! Hm! Hm! Yes yes!” They both laugh very hard, and I think I hear then, mixed with their shrieks, the gruff adolescent laughter of the boy Imbang.

 

“Tom! You wild man! Getting any yet?”

Wilson the next morning looks like he’s had a rough night of it; his tie is a little crooked, but his shirt is still nice.

“Working on it,” I say.

“Man, we’ve got to get you out of this office!” he says again. At the coffeeshop down in the basement, the pretty little girls who work there greet me with big smiles. “Hello, Mister! I love you!” they say: It’s the only English they know.

When I come home that evening Ipa and Ima are sitting outside the gates under the streetlight visiting with servants from the other houses. When they see Imbang coming with the car down the lane they stand up and brush off their skirts. The old man gets the gate, and Ipa and Ima saunter in after us, not in any too much of a hurry.

 

I completely forget about the shirts for a couple of days, until that Sunday.

I’m waiting in the breakfast room for Imbang to take me out to the club. The boss is entertaining a visiting CEO. I’ve got a nice set of irons and a pretty good swing, so I’m included in their important little game. I’m there to impress, I know, but I don’t mind. I rather enjoy it, in fact—my unofficial status as the boss’ American Golden Boy.

I mean to ask about the shirts, but then, while I’m waiting, I hear quarrelling from out back. Soon Imbang comes into the breakfast room from the service entrance. Following behind him in the walkway are Ipa and Ima.

They halt in the doorway. They’re both carrying wicker baskets, and Ima’s wearing a long, clean skirt with sandals on her feet. She looks very nice, dressed up like this, and I’m about to say something friendly when she snaps some words at Ipa. Ipa sighs loudly and turns and goes back down the walkway, chattering at Ima. Things clatter outside. Ima continues to stand in the doorway, her arms crossed sternly over her pink shirt, the basket hanging from one elbow. She’s wearing bright red lipstick, gold earrings, and her hair is combed out and tied with a pretty native scarf of some sort. And she’s frowning at me. At me.

“What?” I say.

I turn to Imbang. “What?”

He shrugs and smiles.

And then I remember that this is their market day—their one day off, their one day to dress up and go into town with the other servants, and that I have promised them the car for the day.

Ima taps her foot as she narrows her eyes at me.

“Oh. Gosh. Right. Sorry,” I say.

“Sorry!” Imbang echoes, and Ima puffs out air through her lips, spins around and leaves. I hear her complaining out back; I hear my name, “Mister Tom! Huh!” and more loud complaining. And then I remember that I forgot to ask about my shirts again.

 

At the club we’ve got a foursome: me, the boss, one of his V.P.’s and our guest of honor. He’s a Chinese man, tanned and healthy-looking. He’s wearing a full Arnold Palmer golf outfit. He’s got a terrible swing, but I catch on pretty fast that we’re not supposed to beat him. The links are beautiful—lush and green and nicely laid out. He wins, shooting one-twenty-eight on eighteen holes.

Back at the clubhouse we all have showers and massages, then sit down together for drinks and a late lunch in the dining room. I’m sitting to the left of the Chinese man. He gives us tips on how we can improve our game. He’s wearing a light-cream silk shirt under his sport jacket, and I’m reminded of my missing shirts; I make a mental note to ask about them that evening. After a drink or two apiece we’re all laughing and trading stories about crazy business experiences. The boss smiles at me and I can see it’s going good. The rich, successful atmosphere at the club helps, of course—the lovely hostesses, the dozens of boys in uniforms bowing in and out of every room.

Sometime during the roast beef the Chinese man leans over to me. He’s at once confidential and joking.

“Tom, my friend. What about this market? Hm? Do you have some tip for me? What is hot? What is not? Hm?”

He seems to think that, being an American, I have some inside line on the market. I repeat that I really don’t know any more than anyone else; all the market information that’s available is a matter of public record.

“You help me, I help you!” he says, and soon we’re laughing again and eating on our roast beef. But he goes on in this vein, needling me and trying to get something from me, until I’m frankly surprised at some of the “favors” he ends up promising. I make my goodbyes on the way to the karaoke bar. The boss isn’t pleased with this, I can tell, and the Chinese man seems genuinely disappointed that I won’t be joining them, but I think they can handle this part of the business well enough alone. Outside, I find Imbang waiting with the car.

 

It’s sunset when I get back home. The house is quiet and empty. Imbang returns from putting away my golf clubs and claps for the girls, “Ipa! Ima!” Soon Ipa comes barefoot into the living room. I haven’t turned the lights on yet, and the house is dim and cool.

“Yes? Mister Tom?” She wipes something from her chin, like she’s just been eating. I hand her my gym bag full of dirty clothes. “Here you are.” I smile. “More laundry.” She takes the gym bag and turns and starts off, and then I remember the shirts. I’m a little reluctant to ask about them, the house is so quiet and restful just now, but I do.

“Shirts? My shirts?” I say. Ipa stops. She turns around to face me, holding my gym bag. “Did you find them?” She looks like she doesn’t know what to say. At my side, Imbang makes a worried exclamation, “Oh!”

“Moment,” says Ipa, and then hurries out shouting for Ima. “Ima! Ima!”

It’s getting to be annoying. I go into the breakfast room and sit down. I leave the lights off. Soon Ima appears in the doorway.

“Yes? Mister Tom?”

“Oh. Hello, Ima.”

“Hello.”

She looks like she’s just waking up. Her long black hair is scattered around her shoulders, and she’s pushing it out of her eyes with her hands. The one-piece thin yellow dress she’s wearing looks like it’s just been dropped down over her head. And, oddly, she’s still wearing her red lipstick.

“Do you think maybe I could have some tea?” I ask. A cup of tea sounds suddenly very good. “Tea? Tea?” I ask, miming drinking from a tea cup.

“Ah, yes. Moment,” she says, then turns to go to the kitchen. She’s barefoot, and the little yellow dress brushes at the back of her knees when she goes.

I sit there in the dim breakfast room for a while, listening to Ima getting the tea ready. While the water is boiling she returns with cups and things on a tray and begins to lay them out on the table in front of me. She’s careful not to touch me as she bends and moves around me.

“How are you, Ima?” I ask as she’s laying the silverware.

“Sorry?” She turns her head so that her black hair falls over one shoulder. Her face is so close, I can see where the lipstick has clumped at one corner of her lips; I can smell the sweetness of her breath, like cloves, or cinnamon.

“How are you today?”

“Oh—thank you,” she says and smiles quickly before turning her eyes away. She blushes, embarrassed.

I don’t ask about the shirts again that night.

 

“Morning, ladies!”

“Good morning, Tom!”

At the office on Monday, Wilson mentions my golf game with the boss. “That’s the way, Tom.” He chucks me on the shoulder. “Getting in good with the old man, huh?” He asks me about afterwards. “Did you do the karaoke thing?” He’s grinning, like he’s onto something.

“Nope, no karaoke for me.”

“Oh man, you missed the best part!” he says. “They’ve got these booths—private little karaoke rooms, you know. All strictly V.I.P. And then these girls, these karaoke girls come in and . . . Man!”
For a meeting that afternoon, I realize that I’ve left some papers I’ll need back at the house. I have to go retrieve them. Luckily, Imbang’s still there with the car, and we make it back to the house before noon.

Pulling up to the gate, Imbang honks the horn. I’m in a hurry, so when no one comes right away, Imbang gets out and opens the gate himself and then climbs back into the car. At the front of the house he honks the horn again. I’m already jogging up to the front door, so I can get my things and get back to the office, when the gardener comes shooting around the corner of the house. He’s wearing his coolie hat and, funnily, just a pair of white underwear. The underwear are wet, and his skinny dark body is wet, too. He sees me, jerks around, and ducks behind some bushes at the side of the house. It’s strange, but I don’t have time to worry about it. I hurry into the house. Out front, Imbang honks the horn several more times.

I find the papers and am headed towards the entrance hall when something catches my eye. I turn and look out the glass-paned doors to the back, where the pool is.

When I yank open the doors half the bodies are already out of the pool and running across the lawn. I see naked brown figures jumping over hedges and crashing through bushes at the edges of the yard. The water in the pool is blue and splashing brightly. I see the gardener in the coolie hat again; he spins and runs back towards the front of the house with long gawky strides. It’s all strangely silent—except for the water splashing and a few sounds that escape from all the running servants, there’s no noise, no one is laughing. Towels and blue jeans lie scattered around the perimeters of the pool. At one end of the water, little Ipa is clambering up the ladder, a man’s white t-shirt plastered down over her bra and panties. And standing up to one side and wrapping a towel around herself is Ima. She’s staring at me, terrified.

I take it all in: the neighbors’ servants, the glass of cola tipped over next to a lounge chair, the opened bags of potato chips. I stare back at Ima. I have my file folders in one hand.

“Ima!” I say. I don’t know what to say; there’s no time for this now. “I’ll talk to you later!” I say, and turn sharply and go back through the door.

 

Later at the office I ask Wilson about it. “I need your advice on something.” I tell him about the shirts, the servants’ pool party. He laughs.

“Have you fucked them yet?”

“What?”

“The girls. Have you jumped them yet?”

“Wilson—please. They’re only about twelve years old. They’re just little girls.”

He laughs. “Okay, I’m just kidding you. Well, obviously you need to get some control over your household staff there.” He sits down in the big chair behind his desk and picks up a pen. “First thing, you need to be very clear about what you expect from them and what each of their duties are. And don’t tolerate any infractions. Let them know you’re in charge.”

“Right.”

“Swimming in the pool, inviting the neighbors over while you’re away—this is all definitely way out of line. They’ll use every opportunity they can to take advantage of you. Don’t let them. Get angry with them. Shout at them. They expect you to be angry with them. You’re their boss.”

“What about the shirts?”

“You make them pay for them. Or fire one of the girls if you think you have to. That’ll put them in line.”

“I don’t think they have very much money.”

“No kidding. They’re servants. They don’t have shit.”

As if on cue, a boy wearing a white jacket whisks in with two glasses and a carafe of water on a silver tray. He leaves the tray on the desk and then ducks his head down and backs out. Wilson smiles, picks up one of the glasses and unwraps the paper napkin from around it.

“There, you see? Nice and quiet, keeps his head down. No problem. And there’s millions more where he came from, believe me.” He pours himself a glass of water. “If you don’t like one, you can get another. Hell—I’ll lend you one of mine if you want.”

 

Imbang’s quiet when he drives me home that evening. He doesn’t smile. I’m still wondering what to do, what to say to them. I’m not even sure if I can fire one of them. I make a mental note to check the rental agreement.

After dinner I call for the servants. I stay seated at the dining room table as Ima, Ipa and Imbang come in and line up. I don’t know where the gardener is. I finish my glass of wine, wipe my lips with a napkin and drop it onto the table. I begin, loudly.

“First, if I ever—ever—find that you are inviting the other servants over here and using the pool without my authority again, I will not hesitate to fire each and every one of you. Do you understand?”

I’m being very firm; I’m almost shouting. They all nod and say quietly, “Yes, Mister Tom.” I know for a fact they can barely understand a word of what I’m saying, but from their pitiful looks I see that they’re getting the message.

“Secondly—Ipa.” I turn to her. “You are responsible for the laundry. This is your job—the laundry. If any of my clothes go missing, you are responsible. Understand?”

“Yes, Mister Tom.”

“And as far as my two shirts are concerned, if I do not have my two shirts returned to me by this Thursday, and in good condition, then you will have to pay for them. Is this clear?”

They nod.

“Thursday. The shirts or the money. Okay?”

“Okay, Mister Tom. Sorry. Very sorry.”

They’re still standing there. Ipa has her head down, her hands clasped in front of her t-shirt, chewing on her bottom lip. Ima keeps darting her eyes up to look at me; her big eyes are wet, like she’s about to cry. Imbang looks like he’s trying to stand at attention, like he’s trying to hold his breath.

I let them stand there for a minute, to let it sink in, then say brusquely, “Okay. Go. You can go now.”

They shuffle out in a clumsy line. “Sorry, Mister Tom. Sorry. Very sorry.”

Later that evening I’m sitting on the edge of the bed in my pajamas when I hear their muffled voices from out back again. It’s a worried, serious kind of talk this time. I think I hear little Ipa crying. Ima sounds like she’s trying to comfort her. I lean over and push the button above my nightstand. In a minute Ima is at my door.

“Yes? Mister Tom?”

She’s wearing what must be her pajamas, a thin pink t-shirt with matching cotton shorts that stop above her knees. On the t-shirt is a picture of a kitten. She looks freshly scrubbed and ready for bed. Her hair is held back with a plastic band and, as normal, she’s barefoot. She’s very nervous.

“Ima. Get me some water. And a glass. Now.”

“Yes, Mister Tom. Moment.” She runs out the door. Soon she returns with a glass and a pitcher of water on a tray. She doesn’t know where to put it, though. She turns towards the chest of drawers, then towards a chair. I pat the nightstand next to the bed. I still haven’t gotten up.

She comes over with the water, passing just in front of me. “Sorry,” she says. She bends over to set the tray on the nightstand. She smells clean, of soap and shampoo.

“Okay. That’s fine, Ima.”

She passes by me again as she backs towards the door. But then she stops, and stands there awkwardly near the door. She obviously has something she wants to say, or to ask me.

“Yes, Ima?”

It’s hard for her to talk. The A/C’s going full blast and she’s holding her arms crossed in front of her like she’s cold. She seems to be shivering.

“Sorry, Mister Tom—ah. Me, Ipa—we must go? Or stay? I do not know.”

Knowww,” she says, drawing out this last word in a sad, imploring way, almost like a little cry. I see that she’s frightened of me, and I feel, just then, oddly excited. I fold my hands in the lap of my pajamas to cover myself.

“No, Ima. You and Ipa can stay. For now.”

She looks relieved.

“But don’t ever do that again. Do you understand?”

“Yes, Mister Tom.”

“This is private property, and if someone should be injured while they’re here, or if something in the house is damaged, or stolen, well, it could be a lot of trouble. You understand, don’t you Ima?”

“Yes, Mister Tom. I’m very sorry.”

“That’s okay, Ima.”

She’s still standing there, shivering in her little kitten shirt.

“All right. You can go now.”

“Thank you. Thank you, Mister Tom.”

“Oh—and Ima. Don’t let Ipa forget about those shirts, okay?” I smile.

“Okay, Mister Tom.”

“Okay. Goodnight now.”

“Goodbye.”

 

Thursday we’re at the office late finishing up a report. Afterwards, I accept Wilson’s invitation to go out for dinner. He’s been wanting to get me out of the office and so finally I agree. We go to a place he’s talked about before, a popular “British style” pub and restaurant. The dining room is downstairs, and we have a very nice dinner of grilled salmon and steak with high-balls and coffee. After, he takes me upstairs to the bar/lounge area.

The men are all foreign, and almost all white. By the shirts and ties, you can tell it’s the business class crowd. Many British and Dutch, some Germans, also a few Korean and Japanese men. The music is fairly loud, international pop. Off to one side a band is setting up to play. We’ve obviously hit the pub at the right time, because more and more people are arriving. The mood is clubby and loud, with a businessman’s kind of excited expectancy.

And the women. The women are all, save for very few exceptions, local women. They stand in conspicuous groups against the walls, sipping on colas or mineral water and, like the secretaries in our office, they are all carefully made-up, and lovely. Some are wearing jeans or slacks, but most are in short, tight skirts; down below, dark stockings or bare tanned legs slip into modish shoes and shiny high-heels. Some have joined groups of foreign men, others move a little to the music, watching.

“What did I tell you, huh?” Wilson says, squeezing my arm. We have a tall table near the bar, right in the thick of things. He orders us Guinness Stout and introduces me to a number of people that he knows. I’m beginning to loosen up and relax a little. When the band is ready the house lights dim and the lead singer, a girl, welcomes us to the bar. She introduces the band and they begin to play. She’s very pretty, with short black hair and a short black skirt, and she begins to sing, in a perfect American accent, an old American song that I recognize called “Fever.”

Then a girl is at our table. She’s a friend of Wilson’s. They kiss; they seem very happy to see each other. She gets some of her lipstick on Wilson’s cheek and we laugh about this. I’m introduced; her name sounds like “Fifi.” She’s wearing a glittery, gold slip-like dress held up by two thin gold strands lying over her bare brown shoulders. She stands at the table between Wilson and me, up on our high chairs. Wilson orders more drinks for us all, and he and Fifi share cigarettes while talking.

The pub is crowded now. Women weave their way through groups of men. The band is playing, people are dancing. Wilson has his arm around Fifi’s bare shoulders, and when I look down, I see her hand rubbing the inside of his leg.

We have more drinks. More people, people that Wilson knows, come to our table. They’re laughing and making jokes about things I don’t understand. On the dance floor, clutches of girls who look to be no more than teenagers are dancing together, laughing and clapping and holding and kissing each other. There’s a big red-faced man, German or Dutch, dancing with a small dark girl in blue jeans, half his size. He’s got curly white hair and looks to be about fifty. He’s dancing foolishly. The little girl grabs hold of his belt on either side of his pants and laughs and twists with him. He pulls his tie loose from around his collar, then swings it like a lasso above his head and whoops and hollers.

Then there’s a girl at my side. Fifi has her hand on the girl’s shoulder and is introducing her. Her name sounds like “Nonny.” She holds out a hand to me. The other hand she drops onto my leg.

“Nice to meet you!” she smiles.

“Nice to meet you, too!” I say.

Wilson laughs at something Fifi says, and the two of them turn and look at Nonny and me. She’s still holding my hand. Wilson’s tie is loose; his shirt collar is open and his sleeves are rolled up. He claps me on the shoulder and leans in.

“What did I tell you!” he shouts over the music, grinning broadly.

We have more drinks. Nonny rubs and massages my shoulders through my shirt. “You like?” she says. “You like?” Then it’s getting late, and we’re throwing down lots of money on the table, and then we’re going out and looking for our drivers. The girls are with us, and Wilson is saying in my ear, “You like her? Huh?” but I can’t understand if I’m supposed to give her a ride home or take her home. I can’t find my car, then think maybe I sent Imbang home with it earlier. Nonny’s standing barefoot in the street in front of the club, her shoes held above her head in one hand, her bare legs thrown apart, waving for a cab. But then Fifi grabs her, they have to go back inside for something, and I say, “No problem! Here’s one!” because a green taxi is right there in front of me, and so I get in, someone slams the door and then suddenly I’m riding alone in the back of a cab, sliding back and forth on the vinyl seat, feeling very drunk.

 

At home everything is quiet. I let myself in and leave the lights off. I pull off my tie as I find my way through the rooms downstairs. The house is too warm. I need some aspirin or water. I pull my shirt out of my pants, then remember that it’s Thursday.

“Ima!” I yell. “Ipa!”

I go through the breakfast room and out the service entrance, past the kitchen and along a covered walkway in back. It’s shadowy and hot out here; I knock against baskets and cans and gardening things and shirts on hangers lining the walkway like ghosts. Their rooms, I know, are on this side of the house, behind the car garage. I come to two plain doors, side-by-side, decorated with stick-ons and pictures of girls from magazines. I grab one of the lever-like handles and shake it but I can’t open it, the door seems to be locked. I try the next one. The door flies open and hits the wall and Ima jerks up with a gasp.

I’m inside her room. It’s hot and dark and smaller than a closet. Ima is sitting up on a narrow mattress on the floor; her mattress fills half the room. Her eyes are big. She’s half uncovered by a white sheet, her bare skin glowing against the cloth.

“Tom!” she says.

I look at her. My mouth feels heavy. I don’t know what I’m doing there. I’m swaying back and forth, breathing heavily. I bump the door trying to turn around, the room is so small. I raise my arms up and twist back through the door, and then Imbang pops out of the next room. He jumps out of the way, pulling a sheet around his brown naked waist. The other door is open now, and I see little Ipa crawling forward, also naked, holding a towel in front of her like she’s trying to stuff one end of it into her mouth. She’s wearing bright red lipstick, and she’s laughing, she can’t stop laughing. I stumble past, feeling my way along the walkway and knocking things over until I reach the service entrance and turn and go back inside.

Upstairs I drop down onto my bed. It’s so damn hot. I lie there on my back, breathing heavily, trying to catch my breath. I can hear doors opening and closing and things moving out back. And then I understand that the A/C isn’t on, and this is why it’s so hot, and why the house is so quiet. I pull off all my clothes while still lying on the bed and kick them to the floor, then lie there breathing, the bed swimming beneath me. In a flash, I’m thinking about those shirts again. I’m trying to remember: I looked at them in the shop, I tried them on, even. But did I buy them? Can I remember a time when I ever wore those shirts?

I turn my head on the pillow and notice the pitcher of water and clean glass on the nightstand. I roll over and sit up to pour myself a glass of water, then drink it down. I’m sitting on the edge of the bed, holding onto the empty glass. I see the glowing red numbers on the clock flick “3:36.” In a few hours I know I’m supposed to go to work. I reach over the nightstand and press the button on the wall. Then I stand up and throw open all the windows in the room.

Ima comes to my door. It’s dark, the lights are off, there’s no A/C and the windows are wide open. I’m hot and sweating, I have no clothes on. She stands in the doorway wearing a white bedsheet, her hands lifted and lightly touching either side of the doorway. She tilts her head, and I know then that this is the end of me.

“Yes? Mister Tom?” she whispers.

“Ima!”