Billy Unsure bought the alligator skin from a man named Benny Profane and that was how it all started, that was how Billy found God. This all went down at a crocodile farm south of Pattaya, during a mid-point of a wet summer that both of us just sort of fell into. Thailand can do that to you, Bill would say, this country is like a wounded woman.
We took a bus there as Billy was afraid to drive outside of the tourist areas, and this was not unusual as he was afraid of a lot of things, and I remember on that day he was specifically worried about being misunderstood.
‘We do not know the native language,’ he said, ‘and if we were to find ourselves marooned in a ditch on an isolated road who knows what could happen.’
He lit a cigarette as we walked towards the station down a side street lined with carts selling food for those who had longer journeys. He smoked it through and dropped what was left of it before an old woman’s fruit stall, and then stared at her for a few seconds, as if making a point to some invisible menace watching us from a nearby rooftop. Who knew what demons lived in such places. He spat on the floor before he continued speaking in that excited way he once had that I found deeply unpleasant.
‘I mean the local animals could misinterpret our pleas for help as an invitation to feast. How tragic would that be? We’d be newspaper clippings for a few days and then we would wrap fish.’
He laughed as he said this but he was sincere.
His greatest fear in life was to be consumed alive.
The bus was old and overcrowded I felt nauseated and I learned nothing of humanity. I have no doubt that in the near future there will be a movement of poets who write about public transport in some unnecessary ways.
I had come to Thailand to scout for a movie, a big budget action flick which was to feature some A-List talent but had been relegated to a B project for a C-List director with an actor I had never heard of. He wrestled at one point, or still does. The theatrical kind, not the Olympic. I am told that many who come from that world are dangerous to work with but very punctual.
Billy owned a bar in the town and had in a former life worked in public relations in the motion picture business. That was how I knew him. He left it all when a client of some repute was found hanging in a closet in Saigon. There was an inquisition afterwards and many found themselves lacking. The coroner released a report and the case was closed. The actor’s family cried tears and his friends said kind words and his fellow actors moved on to the next character so they could more easily forget.
After that happened he told me he felt compelled to taste responsibility in some silent way. What he meant was not exactly clear but I knew he had felt some terrible guilt over the whole affair. A few months later he came to Thailand looking for some memory and opened a bar and waited to die.
Profane collected us at the other end. He was a self-proclaimed uber-fan of a famously reclusive novelist and had changed his name in honour of the writer but later admitted disliking the author’s later works. We did not hear of his birth name. He was Thai but considered himself more western in spirit, and decreed all religion to be an unnecessary evil. He did this openly with a t-shirt that proclaimed that god was not merely dead, he was in remission and on this t-shirt a cartoon Jesus was being shunned by an enlightened middle class.
For a few hours we sat on the farm and drank beer and tried to ignore the smell.
Benny spoke of the impenetrable reaches of the human mind, of the vast landscapes that we all contain, and how impossible it was to change people’s perceptions of reality. He saw the west as the new world, but acknowledged that the new east was the right place to be. He spoke often of a French novelist who wrote of the sex trade and told a story of an Irishman who wandered drunk into a Muay Thai gym in Bangkok screaming about the persecution of children and was summarily beaten, in turn, by an orderly queue of boxers.
He had left Thailand only once and it was thirty years ago. He had visited Mexico City to try and find the place where that writer shot his wife in what he referred to as ‘that robin hood game’. He wandered for a few days and found that the city reminded him of Bangkok and that was enough to convince him to return.
His love for all things western led him to purchase the American alligator, Alligator mississippiensis, for his skin trade.
He knew there was a Chinese alligator, the Alligator sinensis, but he had little time for anything Chinese and had found them to be rather mocking in their ways, the few who visited, looking for amusement.
We did not speak of that country again.
Benny asked if there was anything else he could do for us, in that way those who wish to please often do. When Billy asked to see the alligators Benny laughed and said that was ‘no problem, but hardly worth it.’
We walked across a gangplank over murky green water to a short locked door which was opened by Benny with a brass key.
‘There you go’, he said, and we could tell from his voice that he was expecting disappointment.
There was no congregation, just a single lonely specimen. It was unnaturally large, forty feet long and tied down with ropes. It was surrounded by animal carcasses, a food source I presumed. Along its back large sections of its skin had been cut away forming perfect rectangles.
A young boy stood by the tail smoking a cigarette and cleaning a knife.
‘It’s okay,’ Benny said, ‘it grows back. It grows back. Just very slowly.’
He shouted something at the boy who smiled back with a fierce idiocy.
The alligator opened its mouth, for whatever reason it is that alligators do.
Benny drove us back towards the bus stop. He listened to the radio presenter reading sad news. His rear view mirror held three crucifixes which dangled and leaped with us. He told us a story about how they were necessary, in some way, to ease the nerves of American tourists.
He entertained us with references to St. Augustine, the Roman origins of ketchup and the economic ramifications of the common cold. When he ran out of stories I thought of combinations of words.
Murky locked key.
Green short brass.
Alligator smile door.
Benny sang briefly in a high voice that was not without charm, but I did not recognise the song, and found myself so deeply distressed by this lack of knowledge that I began to pierce my skin with my thumbnail.
Benny left us on a dirt path below the bus station. A late sun sat above us, and the shadows of the busses on the embankment above fell framing upon the yellow dirt. As we climbed we heard gunshots in the distance and found them strangely comforting. We wanted to look back, to find the origin, but the shadows were enough.
I went back to Pattaya a few years later. An eastern European auteur who had made his name in commercials needed me to find him a village in the jungle he could destroy with the permission of the locals. He was adamant that the village be real and not a reconstruction, and that it was given over to him freely so that he could, in his own words, lay his wastes upon it.
It took two long days and three quick bribes.
I spent some time in the village that was chosen for destruction. I learned nothing of humanity as expected and was poisoned by the water. I learned that the village was regularly destroyed by floods and so giving its life away to another was not such a great sacrifice. When I came back to the city I was spent. I knew I had taken the job for the wrong reasons, to avoid dealing with what my son had done.
The last night I was there I went looking for Billy who until that point I had been deliberately avoiding as one sometimes does when connections are broken.
Outside of his bar there was a stall set up, a small thatched one with an awning above. Day glow lights flittered around it. Billy stood there in front of a mingling crowd, a young boy on either side dressed in off white.
A queue was forming and then was formed as I waited to be acknowledged.
The locals came forward and held out their hands and Billy blessed each one and handed them communion, a small square of dried alligator skin. I joined the line as it quietened down and stood before him as he offered me some skin which I accepted. If he knew me I could not tell. Later on I threw the skin on the floor.
I went inside and sat at the bar and waited for the small figure in front of me to finish cleaning a glass. It was Benny, wearing a cassock and a few extra pounds.
‘Ahh movie man. Good to see you. So good.’
He raised his arms and held them pontifically.
‘Why is it so good?’
Benny waited, looking as if he was thinking about it, his face turning upwards in reflection, the ceiling a new God. A silence then until the epiphany, but that is how epiphanies go, they come from places that cannot be shared.
He snapped his fingers pointed at something behind me. I turned because I had to. It is hard to explain even now, but I didn’t want to turn right then, there was nothing I wanted less at that very moment in time, but something came over me, compelled me, and turn I did.
On the wall at the far end of the bar there was an alligator nailed into the wood. His tail was removed, only a stub remained wrapped in cloth touched with red. Three identical rectangles were cut into the skin, the pink white flesh touching the air. He was alive, or so it seemed. My first thought was that this was a special effect, a model of sorts for the tourists, until the alligator opened his mouth and closed it and his eyes began to move. He seemed to be trying to communicate with something or someone. There was life there, this was no trick for the cameras.
The young boy from the farm came out of a doorway and walked up to him. He hit the beast a few times with a small hammer he was carrying in his belt before he wiped himself with a towel he had draped over his shoulder. He looked even more stupid than before. Benny shouted something at him before turning his attention back to me.
‘What can I get you?’
‘I am sorry, we don’t sell that anymore.’
I remember the grin on his face, it took effort, he was tired.
Benny knew that what was going on was some sort of bizarre attempt at redemption, and that Billy had designed his own purgatory in a dive bar.
‘What do you have then?’
‘Beer, whiskey, water, salvation.’
‘Salvation. Best in the country.’
‘Ok. I will take two of those.’
Benny poured two glasses.
I drank them.
Roy Endean lives in the south of Ireland. His work has appeared in Brand Magazine, The Steel Toe Review, Burningword, and Corium, and has been performed by The Accidental Theatre Company.
He is the recent recipient of the Burbage New Writing Prize.
All work is the rightful property of the author and is distributed with their permission.