An Encounter at The Thirsty Camel

AG2 William Benson has a special gift: he can travel short distances into the future. With his wife out partying, he goes to a bar, where he meets a woman who can short distances into the past…


 

The cab dropped William off at a beachside bar with a statue of a camel out front.

He entered a den of cigarette smoke and conversation. He sat at the far end of the bar, alone, and ordered a Coke and Rum.

While waiting, William looked around the bar. Older crowd. They said a lot of Chiefs frequented this place. William didn’t recognize any.

The bartender brought his drink. William sipped it and out the corner of his eye he noticed someone sitting beside him. The woman raised her glass.

“Cold night.”

“And they’re only getting colder.”

“What’s wrong?”

“Did you just come in?”

“Nope. Been sitting here all day.”

She smiled. Black hair reached halfway down her back. She was thin, in a tight yellow shirt and black pants. She wasn’t dressed like she belonged in any bar, let alone The Thirsty Camel.

“I didn’t see anyone here when I came in,” William said, avoiding her eyes. She wore no makeup, and William quickly realized she didn’t need to.

“Well that makes two of us. I didn’t see anyone here when I came in.”

William nodded. Maybe he hadn’t been paying att . . . no. Something was wrong.

It was her.

“What are you drinking?” she asked.

“Coke and Rum.”

“Isn’t it Rum and Coke?”

“Sure, if you want to be wrong.”

She swished her own drink around. “I thought men were supposed to drink strong drinks.”

“It’s still early.”

“So? What do they say? Go big or go away?”

“Go big or go home.” He looked at her glass. “What is that?”

“Something too strong.” She got the bartender’s attention, and ordered a Rum and Coke. The bartender brought it and she sat stirring it with her finger.

William watched her drink. Something not right about her. She met his eyes over her glass and gave him a gentle smile.

“Where are my manners?” She raised her glass. “To strong drinks.”

Despite himself, William smiled too. How long since he’d talked with a woman? Chicks on the ship didn’t count — William would never seal the deal, no matter how comfortable the boat goggles felt. One misstep there, and you could kiss your career goodbye.

He toasted with her and drank. A big gulp splashed down his throat and before he knew it the woman was ordering two more.

“Don’t worry. I got us.”

William covered a burp. “I’ll get the next round.”

“If there is a next round,” she said. “Did you drive here?”

“Taxi.”

“Smart. I imagine your employer would frown on drinking and driving.”

“My employer would put me in jail.”

“Important job?”

“You could say that.”

“Government?”

“Close.”

“Military.

“Closer.”

“Come on. It is military.”

“Can you guess which branch?”

“Army?”

“You get two more guesses.”

“Four.”

“What?”

“Four. There are five branches.” She ticked them off on her fingers. “Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force and Coast Guard.”

“It’s easy to forget about the bastard Navy.”

“My father was Coast Guard for thirty years.”

“Sorry to hear that.”

She pretended to smack him. “For that, you are buying the next round.”

#

The drinking continued and they moved to their own table. AC/DC was playing on the stereo. Across the bar people were shooting pool and men at the counter kept throwing glances their way.

William was telling a story.

” . . . in the left lane has his right signal on, and the jackass in the right lane has his left signal on.”

“Of course.”

“And there it is, that’s it. Norfolk drivers, in one simple scene.”

He held back a burp and drank some Rum and Coke. He didn’t know how many that made — he wasn’t keeping track, of anything. The Rums and Cokes, the time.

The strange feeling hadn’t gone away. The Rums and Cokes had buried it, but the feeling was still there, calling out to him from beneath the empty glasses.

“Who’s got next round?” she said.

“There’s not going — ” He burped.

“No problem. I didn’t want another anyway.” She picked up her glass. “Two’s enough for me.”

She finished her Rum and Coke.

“I’ve had more than two,” William said.

“You’ve had enough, and . . . ” She leaned forward. William leaned forward too, their foreheads touching. “I have you right where I want you.”

William grinned foolishly, his world swirling. “What is wrong with you?”

“I’m glad you noticed.”

“No, I mean, everything. You come in here, you sit beside me, you act friendly but not too friendly . . . ”

“I was here before you. That stool, I was sitting there before you came in.” She took his chin in her hands, neat fingernails caressing his cheek. “Do you know how many nights I have come in here, looking for the right man? Too many. I was sitting at that stool, and then I came back, and there you were. I watched you, the way you drink, the way you move, and I knew. You are the one I need. So I went back, sat beside you, and . . . ” She searched her mind for the right words, her eyes rolling up. She blinked and gave him a sharp look. “Let’s say I changed history.”

William pulled her hands off his face.

“Can you feel it?” she whispered.

He could. He’d never discussed his gift with anyone — not his so-called shipmates, not his so-called wife, no one. The words gathered on his tongue, bursting for release. He let them go.

“Time slows down close to you.”

“Time speeds up close to you.”

“Why?”

“Keep your forehead on mine, and look to your left.”

William turned his eyes to their farthest stretch. A few tables away, a middle-aged couple having a quiet chat. It wasn’t their words, inaudible beneath Lynyrd Skynyrd’s guitars, it was their movements.

They were almost frozen.

“If they came closer,” William said, “would they stop moving?”

“Yes. Where fast time meets slow time there’s no time.”

“How long have you known you could do this?”

She leaned back. “I prefer not to think in those terms.”

“Someone like you . . . fuck.”

“Did you think you were the only one?”

“No. Honestly no, I didn’t.”

“Then why are you surprised?”

“I just didn’t think I’d run into you tonight.”

“I ran into you.”

“You saw me.”

“Yes.”

“You were ahead of me.”

“Uh-huh. When I was sure you had the right stuff, I climbed down a few steps. That’s what time is to me: steps. What is it to you?”

“I don’t know. Minutes, hours, stuff like that.”

“Amateur.”

“Did you go in the bathroom?”

“Nope.”

“So you did it in front of other people? They didn’t notice?”

“People only notice what they want to notice. It’s not like there’s much pomp to it. I stand still, concentrate on a step below, and when I can hear my old thoughts, I open my eyes.”

William nodded. He heard his new thoughts, she heard her old ones. Both of them had to play catch-up. He held his glass in a soft grip and asked, “What’s the farthest you’ve ever gone back?”

“Eight steps. Someone mugged me.”

“Really? Where?”

“Downtown. They took everything in my purse. Two men. When I climbed down, I called the police. The muggers were laying in wait. It just happened to be me.”

“And you still remember what happened?”

“What didn’t happen, you mean?”

“Sure.”

“But it still happened. I just remember it as a dream, like I remember seeing you. The new past pushes the old past away like cold air pushes away warm air. In time, the old past becomes little more than some unremembered dream.”

“Can I tell you something? Sometimes warm air slides over cold air. That’s one of the ways we get fog.”

“Does it now? Are you a weatherman?”

“It’s what I do for a living.” He finished his Rum and Coke. She slid her hand across the table, and he held it. “No more.”

She put her other hand on his and looked into his eyes. She wore no make-up. Alisha smothered herself in that shit. William told her she didn’t need to wear any, but she wouldn’t hear of it. She had lines here, aging there, fat everywhere. The name of the game was Looking Nice and she needed all the help she could get.

“I need to ask you something,” he said, thinking of how Alisha spent an extra hour or so to put on make-up for a trip to the Commissary — the fucking Commissary! “Can you take someone back with you?”

#

“Your words are wrong,” she said. They were sitting on the hood of her car. Across the parking lot a gang of youths was playing loud music, lights flashing under their cars.

“Why’s that?”

“Ahead, back. There are other ways to perceive time. Why not up, why not down?”

“Different ideas, I guess.”

“I do not hop back. Why can’t I climb? I climb down into the past, you climb up into the future.” She grabbed his arm. “To be safe, you should put your arms around me.”

He did. She felt warm through a dark purple P-coat. The gang of youths was dancing. To William they looked like high school kids up to no good, exactly what high school kids got up to. William had done his share, but he’d never gotten in trouble. Others had — alternative school for nine weeks, suspension, their chances at college ruined. William was lucky. Others weren’t.

“There’s a lot I would change, if I had your gift,” William said.

“You wouldn’t want to do that. Too much time playing catch-up.”

“I wouldn’t mind.”

“Too much. See that guy in that red sweater?”

He wrote something in the dust on the back of a Volvo. Volvo owner came around, saw it, and pretended to kick him.

“Close your eyes,” she said.

William closed his eyes. The world bent all around him. Then movement, like he was on a high speed train. Nothing like what he felt when he jumped ahead. Voices floated by

other ways to perceive time

faint, puzzled like lost travelers. Her voice rolled over them.

“Open your eyes.”

William opened his eyes. The scene looked the same. Still holding each other, they waited.

Soon, the guy in the red sweater wrote his message.

“I will only climb down here once,” she said. “Do you know why?”

“Because it will degrade. Like a fax sent repeatedly.”

“Interesting analogy. But yes, the step will crumble.”

“It’s alright. It’s not that interesting of a sight anyways.”

She let go of him. “Has the old past faded yet?”

“Almost.” William listened to the last of the old thoughts, from an ignored scene that was becoming just what she’d described: an unremembered dream.

“You are taking a taxi?” she asked.

“Yep.”

“Wise choice. You don’t want to get behind the wheel. You had a whole two Coke and Rums.”

“Rum and Coke, and I had four. I’m fine to drive. I just want to be careful.”

“You can never be too careful. Here. I have something for you.”

She pulled a rip of paper out of her pocket. She handed it to him.

“You might not call me for a while, but you should. You and I have a gift that we need to use. There are few like us.”

“Just us.”

“Yes. Just us.

#

She left. William read the note. Lisa, and her phone number below her name.

William waited for the taxi by the big camel. This late Davin was asleep and Alisha was still out, maybe in the arms of some drunken chubby-chaser who’d picked The Banque to troll for pussy tonight. He didn’t think about jumping ahead or climbing up while waiting for the taxi. He just waited and when it came he looked at the number and realized that he hadn’t given her his.


 

This was a sample from Keepers of Time. Samples, in order:

  1. A Step Ahead
  2. Thirty-Four with a Shrug
  3. An Encounter at the Thirsty Camel

Thanks for reading!

 

The Seven Year Laowai Chapter One – Annotated

The Seven Year Laowai is the backstory for a long novel called Little Red King.

I’ve spent years revising Little Red King‘s mammoth 260,000 word manuscript, eventually shelving it indefinitely.

A book I recently read inspired me to go back and set it right. If I succeed, I’ll self-publish it. This is not the kind of book that lends itself to traditional publishing; if you read it, you’ll see what I mean.

The Seven Year Laowai is more than backstory though. It’s a prologue, told through a series of interludes in the main text of Little Red King, providing crucial background info and build-up throughout the book.

I have annotated the first chapter of The Seven Year Laowai.  Read on for some trivia, my thought process, etc.

Enjoy it for FREE!

The Seven Year Laowai Chapter One – Annotated

Blacklist

From a literary journal’s submission guidelines:

We do not ever accept unsolicited submissions of art, novels, novellas, novelettes, or anything else longer than 5,000 words. If you submit a novel or anything way over the word count limits, we’ll probably blacklist you.

Okay. Nothing over 5,000 words. Got it. What about content?

There are some things we absolutely do not want. If you send us stories with these, the story will be rejected and you will be blacklisted:

Are you sure?

This isn’t negotiable, so don’t ask. If you need to have these things in your story, find a different market. We really do have a blacklist.

Somehow, I believe you.

9781941758458_FC

Migrant Laowai: a review of Quincy Carroll’s ‘Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside’

She continued to badger him in Mandarin. She asked him why he had come to China and, more pointedly, what he was doing in Ningyuan. Daniel told her that he was bored of America, and when he spoke, the others started, taken aback. They considered him as if he were crazy.

One of the things you learn about China, once the initial excitement wears off and having a white face is no longer a novelty, is that you are an outsider. Master Chinese or not, you are still an outsider.

Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside is the story of two outsiders. Daniel is a young ESL teacher who tries to ingratiate himself with China. He has great Mandarin, understands the culture and takes his job seriously.

Thomas has recently arrived from a kindergarten in Changsha, where it’s implied that his departure was not by choice. Daniel gets him signed on at the last minute, and Thomas is not the least bit grateful. Quite the opposite: he believes it is the school’s duty to hire him, China is his playground.

In that way Thomas is like many older men I worked with in China. Compared to Daniel, Thomas is cynical, making no effort to understand China. He passes cold judgments and gives his teaching duties the same enthusiasm you would muster for sweeping a dirty floor.

Daniel is the young optimist, less set in his ways. Throughout the book he displays a fondness for Chinese culture absent in Thomas. For Daniel, as for many expats, China is a place for discovery. For Daniel, that dream is still vivid:

They asked [Daniel] about China, but he could not articulate how it had changed him, for, despite trying his hardest, he could not explain it to himself. There was a wildness to the country that fulfilled certain promises in his heart, promises he had made to himself as a boy but had long since forgotten.

The China described in this book was brimming with possibility, opportunity, and the barriers that held you in check back home are gone. Daniel seeks what he wants, understands what he doesn’t want: to live a quiet life of work like his friends. As for what he does want, he decides the best solution is to integrate himself into Chinese culture.

Thomas makes no effort, thumbing his nose at everything they do, barely speaking Mandarin. Tension between Daniel and Thomas grows, climaxing at a Spring Festival dinner. After Daniel calls out Thomas for being a creepy lecher, Thomas points out:

After all is said and done, he’s here for the exact same reasons as the rest of us: easy living, zero responsibility, and a chance to make himself into whatever he wants.

The truth of that statement cannot be glossed over. No matter what Daniel tells himself, the Middle Kingdom is a place where Daniel can work little, live freely and dream the eternal dreams of youth in a developing Never-Never Land where responsibility comes to die.

Daniel understands that Thomas has a point, that Daniel is also an outsider no matter how hard he tries. He gets a taste of this earlier, before argument with Thomas. Daniel is close to the carpenter and his family — the carpenter’s son shares his English name — and Daniel agrees to celebrate Spring Festival at their house, bringing the carpenter some whiskey.

Over dinner they commend Daniel on his Mandarin, and we slowly see what Daniel is: an oddity. A show. They pressure him into eating a dog’s paw, and after a heavy round of drinking the men turn on their new karaoke machine. Daniel doesn’t want to sing, but…

When Hong noticed him standing there, he stood up and started pointing — first at Daniel, then at the screen. He pulled him by the forearm to where he had been standing, then gave him a microphone and sat down. Laowai chang! he shouted, to the approval of everyone else. Then he started chanting: Laowai chang! Laowai chang!

They want Daniel to dance for them. He refuses, but in the end he does what every other laowai does, no matter how hard they try to resist.

He dances.

***

All of us who teach English in China are migrant laowai. Some just acknowledge it. For all of Daniel’s attempts to integrate himself, one must ask, is he successful?

Thomas isn’t, and it is clear that he stopped trying years ago. While Daniel is a migrant laowai in denial, Thomas understands not only what he is, but that it is too late to change. After Thomas wears out his welcome, he pulls a midnight runner; we then find him in Bangkok, ready to start fresh:

Hailing a cab, he paid the driver using the last of his money, then climbed into the backseat and nodded off, dreaming of Bangkok. He knew that he would have a drink in his hand soon enough, and, after all, he had always been a believer in second chances.

East Asia offers many men second chances. For men like Thomas, it offers third and fourth chances too. Men like Daniel are still on their first.

Men like Thomas better hope the supply never runs out.

***

Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside is available at Amazon and Inkshares.

You can learn more about author Quincy Carroll by following him on Twitter and liking his Facebook Page.

Thirty-Four With A Shrug

AG2 William Benson, who can travel short distances into the future, comes home from a long underway to find that his wife has “gone out with the girls”. This follows sequentially from A Step Ahead.

On the drive home William experienced the aftereffects. Strange thoughts, mixed voices. It was just his mind playing catch-up, but still, he had to be careful.

He stopped at the package store. Friday night, packed as usual. William roamed the aisles for a while, pretending to browse and noting how the line grew. He let his mind finish playing catch up. By the time he was done, the line had wrapped around the coolers in the back.

William got in his car. All better now. He drove home in the dark. Party this weekend. Weekend pleasure, Monday morning regret, and no regret was worse than the regret experienced in a floating steel labyrinth.

Just wait till deployment. Nine months, maybe eleven.

Current mess deck rumors suggested they’d get extended. It made sense. Hadn’t the Bataan gotten extended? The Bush? Or were those just rumors too? The worst rumors were the ones that had come true before. Precedence. Hard to argue against it.

Deployment. Nine months, eleven. Eleven? Call it what it is: a fucking year. No amount of port visits could justify that. William had never jumped ahead more than a few hours. Not one day, let alone 365. How long would it take to catch up then? Could he ever?

He pulled into the driveway. They lived in military housing, free but you lose your basic housing allowance. Fourteen hundred dollars you won’t see, to live in a safe neighborhood. It seemed a fair trade-off to William.

No lights were on and he knew what he’d find before he found it. The note taped to the door was written in marker.

Got tired of waiting up. Davin’s at Jess’s. I’m going out with the girls. Don’t wait up.

Past this was her name, Alisha, a heart dotting the i.

William nodded. Made sense. She rarely waited for him anymore. He plucked the note off the door and turned it around, smiling in triumph.

On the back she’d written, AKA ADMIN BITCH

#

William stood over the sink and poured himself a shot of Jack Daniels. He downed the shot, poured another and held it up.

Davin would be okay — let the fat bitch keep him tonight. Jess worked part-time as a caretaker and she had great reviews. Alisha would be okay too — she’d gone out with some girls, all Navy, attached and single, and they chose the designated driver beforehand, no rock-paper-scissors or its close cousin hatchet-shield-club. Alisha would be okay. She might meet a guy.

It wouldn’t be the first time.

His wife’s infidelity only gave him an excuse to be unfaithful too. And while he did flirt with some of the girls on the ship, William had found that since discovering his gift his desire for sex had dropped. He didn’t want her like he had in the early days, and when they did have sex, he laid there and let her do everything. She acted like she preferred it, but he knew better.

Their last passion was after boot camp graduation. William’s family hadn’t come and Alisha’s left the two of them alone. They’d gone out to “get some donuts” and William didn’t know if it were true or not, and with Alisha yanking at his dress blues, he didn’t care either. Their last moment of lust.

William downed the shot and poured another.

Life had changed since he’d discovered his gift, but it wasn’t Alisha’s infidelity, her impending exit from the Navy or his own lack of lust that bothered him. In the end, it was a simple feeling.

He hated his life.

He had hated his life since grad school, when it became apparent that even if he did finish, it didn’t matter: he was going nowhere. He looked at the other graduate students, who gave little shrugs when asked what they planned to do with their degrees. Thirty-four year olds, some with families, pissing away their youth for a piece of paper, and when asked what they planned to do with it, they shrugged. Hell if I know.

William would be in debt the rest of his life, thanks to college. The Navy was supposed to give him money to go back and do a real degree. Computer Science, Computer Engineering, Civil Engineering. A little something to show for his efforts, that would be nice, not Thirty-Four with a Shrug. What are you going to do? Hell if I know.

Then Alisha got pregnant.

We were using protection, everyone’s classic excuse. In William’s case, he didn’t know — when he’d lost his lust, he’d lost his interest too, his planning . . . and one morning Alisha turned up pregnant, and what are you going to do? Hell if I know?

But, no. William knew.

It involved two decades and a Thank You for Your Service.

A car went by, brake lights flashing, easing over the speed bumps. He downed this shot and laid the glass in the sink.

Alisha wasn’t the only one who could go out.