Volume 32, Number 3

Thong Man

Robert Collings

I have always believed great friendships start with a blessing, but the bad ones start with a series of chance encounters you fail to nip in the bud.

Everyone said to go on a cruise when you retire, so we went on a cruise. This ship was like a gargantuan hotel turned sideways on the water. There were so many restaurants and cocktail lounges that I lost count. Each cocktail lounge had a live music act, and each act had a full slate of musicians. Tucked in behind every gaggle of musicians was the ubiquitous drummer, rat-tat-tatting to the lounge music, each one looking intently at a music sheet propped up beside him. For a solid hour, those drummers stared at the sheet, never seeming to turn a page, never changing expression. I wondered how many drummers the ship employed at any given time. I wondered about the salaries for those drummers, the benefits for the drummers, the sick time for the drummers and the days off for the drummers. Then I multiplied all those salaries and benefits by all the piano players and the keyboard players. Then, I took that number and multiplied it by all the other employees on the ship and tried to imagine the mind-bending amount of money it took to run the whole thing by the time your fifteen days were over. This piece isn't about drummers, or keyboard players or the proper way to calculate these things. It's just the way my mind works whenever I wander too far from my own comfort zone.

Everyone said to sit by the pool when you go on a cruise, so we sat by the pool. There could have been a pool for each person on the cruise, but every one of them gravitated to the pool we had chosen. There was a guy who called himself the Cruise Director who seemed to follow us from pool to pool. He never stopped smiling. He was always bouncing around and dancing and waving his microphone. No matter how hot it got, he always wore his blue blazer with the ship logo along with white slacks with nary a wrinkle. He would hop up and down and make announcements and I never saw a drop of sweat on him. He had a batch of Assistant Cruise Directors who wore blue Polo shirts and white shorts and they never seemed to sweat either. They all bounced around, too, and got people cheering and dancing and ordering more drinks. I didn't get up and dance, but I cheered on cue, and I ordered more drinks, and I'm sure those extra drinks went a long way to pay for all those drummers and keyboard players.

One day we were sitting around the pool when one of the Assistant Cruise Directors bounced up to the microphone and blurted out: "Okay, all you hot guys out there! Which one of you has the sexiest legs?"

I wanted to bolt for the exit, but it turned out they were not forcing people to come onstage like they do at those awful audience-participation magic shows. With a little prompting from the Assistant Cruise Director—"Come on guys, the girls are waiting for you!"—a few willing participants shambled up to the poolside. Most were young bucks craving the attention, and some looked more up to the task than others. But it was the final member of this motley crew who really looked out of place. He was a shirtless, grinning, pale looking guy in cargo-type shorts. His faced was lined, and he looked to be in his fifties, although he could have been older. He wore his hair in a Prince Valiant style, with the bangs cut straight across his forehead and curls that covered his ears and neck and fell down to his shoulders. He had a shallow chest and skinny legs and his skin was so white it looked translucent.

Starting with the first volunteer, these guys were instructed to give their name and home city and then strut their stuff to some bump-and-grind music in front of three female judges who sat on the other side of the pool. This went on forever, with each superstar waving to the crowd and fist-pumping the air. The crowd cheered in response, but by the time they got to the third or fourth contestant I had the impression the novelty had worn off and everyone was longing to get back to their holiday reading. As his turn approached, I began to feel sorry for the old grinning guy. I was sorry he had to go last, and sorry for the oddball vanity that had put him into such an embarrassing spectacle in the first place.

"I'm Thong Man from Idaho!" he shouted with a big smile when his moment in the sun finally arrived. "The potato capital of the country and the cannabis capital of the world! Where's all the chicks?"

The crowd responded with some polite clapping, whereupon Thong Man unbuckled his cargo shorts and stripped down to a pair of skimpy black bikini briefs that hugged his crotch and rode up towards his navel. This was met with scattered laughter and more clapping. Just like the others, Thong Man raised both fists and pumped the air and did a bumping and grinding routine to the boom-boom music as he made his way around the rim of the pool towards the judges. He was a stick-man with painted-on skin and bones everywhere, all held together by that smear of a bathing suit.

"My God!" I exclaimed to my wife over the music. "That poor guy has to be on something!"

"Oh, he's just having fun," she responded. "Probably his first cruise."

Thong Man did not win the contest, and he did not even win the attention of the three judges as they greeted the contestants when the whole thing was over. I saw an old lady with a walker slide up to him and pat him on the shoulder, but he was largely ignored by everybody else as he made his way back to his lounge chair, alone and forgotten. The Sexiest Legs Contest had surely been one of those bad-to-worse ideas that cruisers write nasty comments about when they arrive home and go on the Internet. There were thousands of people on that boat, and I assumed I would never lay eyes upon Thong Man again.

The next day my wife and I went to the same spot in the upper deck by the pool, and there was Thong Man a few feet away from us in his skimpy bikini, lying on his deck chair with his hands behind his head, all by himself, smiling away like he was the happiest fish in the sea. Our travel agent had told us you begin to recognize people on the cruise and first-time cruisers often mistake these repeated sightings for some sort of odd coincidence. Coincidence or not, I was surprised to see this guy again, and when we took our places I pretended not to notice him. He would say hello to people who passed by, but no one ever stopped and joined him. Still, he kept smiling and turning his face to the sun, and I wondered when this lost soul would finally realize that the solitude on an expensive cruise was every bit as grim as it was back home.

"He's alone and desperate to make friends," I whispered to my wife.

"Lots of people cruise by themselves," she whispered back. "He says hi to everybody else. Why don't you go and say hi to him? He's probably a nice guy."

"Don't look now, he's trying to get our attention."

My wife saw some humor in all of this, and she was trying hard to hold in her laughter. "Would it kill you to make conversation with a complete stranger? You don't have to be so cautious about things these days. You're not a lawyer any more, remember?"

I did not say hello to Thong Man at the pool. I did not say hello to him in the lounge that night, and I deliberately avoided him over the next few days when we seemed to spot him everywhere we went. He was always alone and always chatting to whoever paid him the slightest attention. One night towards the end of the first week we were being escorted through the dining room to our favorite table for two near the window and we spotted Thong Man seated alone a few tables away. He was wearing the short-sleeved sport shirt he always wore, but he had managed to work a thin necktie into his ensemble to observe the protocols of formal night. He was having an animated conversation with the waiter and as we got closer, I heard him say something about "post-truth" politics, and when we walked by his table I heard him expound to no one in particular:

"With loss of Eden, till one greater Man... Restore us, and regain the blissful seat..."

"He's going on about the socialists, and he's quoting Milton in the same breath," I observed to my wife after we were seated. "He's unbelievable! He's an exhibitionist!"

"Keep your voice down! He's just lonely. He said his wife sleeps most of the time."

"His wife? When did you talk to him about his wife?"

"I overheard him at Crooners last night."

"He's following us around."

"Don't be silly."

"He's following us, and he'll jump right into our holiday if we let him, just like that weirdo in Rome. Besides, there is no wife."

"Stop being a lawyer! You don't trust anybody."

"Nobody spends a fortune to go on a cruise and sleep all day."

"Why would he lie about that?"

"People lie about anything if they think it makes them interesting. And he thinks he's a man of mystery with all his mumbo-jumbo about the 'loss of Eden'..."

Some people have a genius for bringing a prickly conversation to an end. "You knew what he was talking about, didn't you?" my wife queried, staring down at the menu. A pause, another pause, and then: "He must have one of those useless English degrees."

Thong Man had never done me the slightest harm, and I felt true sympathy for his social isolation. But I must confess to you I was now more determined than ever to avoid him, even if I had to hide in my stateroom for the remainder of the cruise. I despise superstition in all forms, but I still couldn't shake the eerie feeling that the fates had placed this gentleman on the boat, so he could zero in on me as his best friend forever, and I was determined to put a stop to this conspiracy before it ever got started. The following day we went to a different swimming pool on a different level, and he was not there. We had a late lunch at the Neptune Buffet just before the changeover, and he was not there either. Getting a little bolder in the afternoon, we took a stroll around the entire perimeter of the boat and we didn't see him anywhere. When it came to dinner, I told the steward we wanted to sit as far away from the window as possible because the sight of the waves was making me seasick. We were then escorted through hundreds of diners to a small table way in the back of what had to be the biggest room on the boat, and there was Thong Man at the very next table, holding up the menu and grinning to us as we approached.

There was a much younger woman next to him, and she was strapped into one of those black motorized wheelchairs with the little black wheels and all the bulky electronic gadgetry beneath the seat. Her legs were bent and secured to the frame of the chair, and her torso was twisted to one side with her arms pinned to the armrests. There was a padded headrest that held her head so tight and so fixed into position that even the slightest movement from side to side looked impossible. She had a plastic tube inserted into her throat that was held into place by an inflated cuff, and the tube curled around to a breathing machine at the back of the chair. There was also some sort of stick-gizmo near her mouth that worked a computer screen in front of her, and as Thong Man read out the menu she would make tiny motions with her lips that caused the screen to make a beeping sound and light up with a multitude of colors and symbols. Despite all the eye blinking and the whispering lips, she was the most completely helpless adult human being I have ever seen.

I nodded to Thong Man as we took our seats, and he nodded back, but he became preoccupied with his companion, and there never was any real conversation between us aside from a few comments about the menu. My wife and I tried to engage each other across our own table, but it was the sort of forced discourse that fools no one and never works. There was a lot of silence. I could hear the steady hum of the breathing machine, and I tried my best not to gawk like an intruder. Thong Man only ordered two appetizers, and when the meals arrived he inched his own chair over to the wheelchair and began to spoon-feed his patient with bits of food he was arranging on her plate. This lady was barely able to open her mouth for each bite, but Thong Man applied himself to the task with the patience and precision of a surgeon. He would place the tip of the spoon to her lower lip and then lift the spoon up ever so slightly, allowing her to take the morsel into her mouth and giving him a second to deflate the breathing tube cuff in advance of the next spoonful. This was repeated over and over in a sort of ritual silence, marked only by Thong Man's occasional whispers as he worked through the delicate task: "Up-up... okay... good-good..."

They did not stay long. Thong Man had been able to eat his own small meal with his free hand, and when he was finished he stood up and said good-bye to us, and we said good-bye, and I think I made another comment about the quality of the food. Then, they were gone in an instant, doctor and patient, buzzing their way through the tables and the chairs and the cartloads of fresh entrees with the plastic covers that reminded me of a space helmet from a fifties B-movie.

"He was so wonderful with her," my wife remarked quietly. "Did you see how gentle he was?"

We sat in silence for the longest time. Finally, I said, "I have a little announcement that should make you happy."

"Oh? Then please make me happy."

"I've stopped being a lawyer."

The ship had a day in Lahaina, and this meant a visit to the outlet mall at the far end of the city. This outlet mall had taken us several days and thousands of dollars to reach, so it was blessed with a special charm that could never be found on the mainland. I had wandered alone into one of the box buildings, and I was thumbing through the blaze of Hawaiian shirts when I felt a poke from the elbow of the busy shopper beside me. This intrusion was so slight that I did not even bother to turn my head, and then I heard the familiar voice: "Oh, sorry, sorry, sorry..."

I looked at Thong Man, and he looked at me and I said, "Gotta get those bargains."

Thong Man clapped his hands together in a show of enthusiasm and he said, "Yep, yep! Gotta go out and get 'em!"

Having exhausted the topic, we returned to our shirt-thumbing in silence. I was ready to move on to other bargains and new discoveries when Thong Man suddenly reached over and took my elbow, as if he had known at that moment that I was going to walk away. This was only the slightest of gestures, much like the careful touch I had seen him use with his wife that night in the dining room. But when he took his hand away, I didn't move.

"You saw me at the contest by the pool, and the two of you were in the same spot the next day," he said. "I should have come over and said hi to you then. When I was a kid my mother used to say if you don't say hi to other folks, you can't expect 'em to say hi to you."

His candor startled me. "Well, you should have come over," I said. "We weren't doing anything. We don't know anybody."

Thong Man shook his head. "No, you both wanted to be alone. In the dining room you like to sit at a table for two. Before you get seated, they always ask you if you want to sit with someone else. I figured you wanted the same thing at the pool. You a doctor or lawyer or professor or something like that?"

"I'm a retired lawyer. How did you know?"

"Oh, you just have an educated look about you."

I shrugged and pretended not to be flattered by the remark. "I guess lawyering stays with you even
when you stop lawyering."

"Heck, that's not a bad thing. You look like you're thinking serious thoughts. I never look like I'm
thinking about anything."

He had just given a perfect description of himself, and the observation caught me by surprise. I said, "I know a couple of people who might disagree with that."

Thong Man gave me his familiar smile. "You and your wife make a good couple. Others think so too, I can tell by the way people look at you. My wife and I don't get out much. Our families had a big fundraiser for us, and they all chipped in, so we could go on this cruise. When I got on the boat, everybody seemed to know everybody else, and they all seemed to be having a such a good time. My wife keeps telling me to get out on my own and do things and meet people and have fun. Not the easiest thing to do when you're one of those guys who always feels like they've crashed the party."

Thong Man gave another smile after this comment, and I nodded to him. That was the way I had felt about the cruise. Every person on that ship seemed to have some sort of inside information that I did not have, some jolly secret that bound them all together. Something had been bugging me throughout the whole cruise, and that's what it was. Just like Thong Man, I couldn't escape the notion that I had crashed the party.

I muttered a few words to him about going off and hunting for more bargains, and he said a few words about showing his wife his own bargains, and then I left the store. It was now close to sunset. The ocean was still shining, but there were long shadows creeping between the outlet buildings. I walked around aimlessly for a few more minutes and finally sat down at one of the tables by the main walkway leading down to the street. My wife was now looking for designer handbags and we barely had a half-hour left before we had to be back on the ship. As I sat there staring at the fishing boats in the distance, I saw Thong Man out of the corner of my eye. He was headed towards me, approaching the walkway from the opposite side. He was looking down, and he did not see me. I was expecting him to walk straight into my table, but he turned at the last moment and continued down the walkway towards the busy street. I watched him walk away, and I wondered what we might have talked about had he lifted his eyes and spotted me sitting there alone, as he always seemed to be. A chance encounter that never happened, I thought to myself.

I made up my mind to seek him out that night and insist that he and his wife join us in the dining room. I might even help spoon feed her to show the rest of the diners what a sensitive fellow I was. One dinner with strangers would not kill us, and besides, Thong Man did not seem like such a stranger to me any longer even though we had only had that brief exchange in the discount shop. In fact, I now had the odd sense that I knew him better than I knew most people.

But I never saw him again, although I looked for him everywhere. I couldn't spot him in the dining room or any of the lounges or even at the pool where they had the silly contest. It was like he and his wife had simply vanished from the boat, leaving only an impression behind. All of us carry pictures of the things we remember. Some of those pictures are bound to change with time, but my picture of Thong Man will always remain the same.

He is the solitary figure at the outlet mall, bag in hand, heading down the walkway towards the street and the blue water beyond, another lonely shadow against the vast ocean.