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Lightning on the Sunby Robert Bingham
Asher waited for the bats. The little rats, he thought, where the fuck were they? All day long the bats took shelter in the eaves of the National Museum, waiting for dusk, waiting for the heat to die. Asher paced. The bats were late, and to be late on this particular evening was unsettling. Bad luck, bad karma, bad what? He did not know. He paced his porch, sweating. Asher's porch had a commanding view of the National Museum. It faced east and received good light in the late afternoon. At around six o'clock, give or take twenty minutes depending on the season, the bats took to the local skies in a great cloud of squealing motion.
When it came to his life in Phnom Penh, there were few things of which Asher was proud. One was his third-floor porch with its view of the museum and its back gardens; another was his Honda Dream; and the last was a rule he'd never broken: no drinking until the bats flew. He checked his watch. It was a little past six-thirty.
"Fuck," said Asher.
This evening was of considerable consequence for him and he badly needed a drink. It was late March and windless. The dry heat of January and February had intensified into stupefying weather, and though they were more than two months away, already he'd begun to pray for the rains.
Asher had originally arrived in Phnom Penh as part of a UNESCO restoration team. His first assignment had been the thankless chore of cleaning bat shit off Khmer statues housed in the National Museum. Back then he had been no friend to the bats and their shit. He'd quickly fallen into the camp of "preservation experts" that wanted to see the bats driven from the rafters. His ally in this camp was a Pakistani who would smoke anything handed him, and who like Asher had washed up in Phnom Penh for easy UN money and to get away from a woman.
It evolved that the French preservation community was quite fond of the bats and their shit. From their UNESCO compound computers they spewed memos in nearly perfect English arguing that to rob the bats of their "indigenous setting" would be cruel and unusual. Apparently the National Museum bats weren't just any bats. They were a rare species. Besides, the French argued, it was charming how a handful of the natives were making a good living selling organic fertilizer derived from the bat shit. The debate raged for nearly eight months and engendered a surprising amount of ill will and accusatory letters to the editor in the two local English-language newspapers. The French eventually prevailed, and Asher and his ally Alex were kicked up north to the town of Siem Reap, where they helped reconstruct the earthquake-damaged Elephant Wall, an infuriatingly complicated Khmer bulwark that had fallen into several hundred pieces some centuries ago. The pay was better in Siem Reap, but eventually the two friends, Asher and Alex, fell out with their project supervisor, a pedophile from Rotterdam with a yen for his young Khmer employees. Alex went into the hotel business and Asher into almost nothing at all.
Through his Nikon binoculars Asher watched a lovely Khmer woman he'd nicknamed Lovely Lane Lily sweep the pathways that meandered through the museum's gardens. Ordinarily this view of Lily would be standard enough but tonight he needed her more than ever because her serenity was a powerful antidote to the transaction upon which he was about to embark. Lily was as stunning as ever. She wore a baby-blue dress and looked like a sexy nurse. It had white buttons down the front and was cut fairly low to the breasts by Khmer standards. It had a nice slit at the back. Asher watched Lily sweep. Unlike Asher and the country at large, Lily was at peace, at peace with herself and her work. Asher wondered if she'd ever slept with one of King Sihanouk's many offspring. The Royalists and their FUNCINPEC party--oh, how they'd blown it. It was really kind of sad to see how that murderous bastard of a fascist dictator Hun Sen had muscled them out of power despite the Royalists' victory in the UN-sponsored election. The only ministries FUNCINPEC now controlled were Tourism and Culture. The National Museum was one of the few undisputed bastions of Royalist patronage. The employees were said to be hired for their looks and nepotistic connections to the royal family. It was considered a good job.
Asher put the binoculars away and wiped the sweat from his brow. He walked into his kitchen, drew a bottle of Stolichnaya from his freezer, and returned to the porch. Tonight it would be necessary not to get drunk. He poured a measure into his water glass and waited. The city was nearly silent but for the distant hissing of street stalls and the clattering yelps of his landlord's children playing soccer on the street below. Heads of green palm trees were catching the orange light from the river. It was a windless dusk.
Nervous and impatient, Asher lit a cigarette. The day had dragged horrendously. He'd had breakfast at a noodle stall at the foot of Wat Phnom, where he'd been harangued by street urchins and amputees. An elderly man had offered him an elephant ride. The elephant of Wat Phnom was drugged and lumbered around the circular hill occasionally carrying intrepid tourists.
Asher had arrived at the Bank Indo-Suez five minutes before opening. Standing in the blinding courtyard light he'd felt stupid and criminal. The guards had eyed him suspiciously. Phnom Penh was a secretive town, and when hungover, Asher was susceptible to the distrusts and paranoias that informed the place. The bank had been his only errand of the day, and with it over well before noon, he'd had nothing to do but return to his apartment and wait--wait and try not to drink. When he stood up to put something on his stereo, the bats suddenly took to the skies.
"There you are, you little rats," he said, draining his glass. "I don't know what I see in you."
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