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  • DEATH  in  SIHANOUKVILLE

    By John Michael Gorrindo

    DEATH in SIHANOUKVILLE

     

    By John Michael Gorrindo                                                         started:  Tuesday, 29 June 2010

     

     

    Vanishing point on the event horizon:

     

    In the virtual age there is no surer sign of death than someone’s email address coming up as invalid.  Thus Spake the Mailer Daemon Death Notice: fatal errors in delivery; user unknown; not an authorized email address. Death of the contact; death of the friendship; death by electrons pouring into a black hole; a silicon shunt.  “How in hell?”, the interrogative, quickly becomes “Lost to hell,” the declarative statement.

     

    Yes, shunt. The shunt of ages now reduced to making passage for a juiceless flow.  At least once the shunt was tangible and coated with the human stain gone dry.  SHUNT- create a channel in order to divert bodily fluids away from a particular body part (Medicine).  A new, clean, sanitized way of death- virtual atomization.  Just a touchless, tasteless, invisible, inaudible rush of negative quanta racing into oblivion.

     

    The medical shunt as originally designed was at once sentimental and visceral; in this context nothing but a notion from a bygone biological age.  In life it jerked tears from their sacs and flooded the ducts that were made for briny wetness. In death it drew blood from the skin and coagulated it into cakey gel into bodily recesses. So far removed from the technological now- an oblivion that is absolute zero lifeless cold and terminal like the idea of death being a biological term limit and not the passing of a spirit to another plane of existence.  The thought of it cues auto-imagery: such as the inevitable limits that pop-up like unwanted cards dealt from a deck and don’t ever bob and weave and dance so to taunt and tease but only demand that loss be unimaginatively realized as final.  No glue is needed to make them stick to the green felt of the playing surface. They stick forever and their number is never forgotten, just not remembered for a short reprieve if the next card feigns some promised luck at hand. They simply appear and burnish an image in a mind that is being sucked into some black hole in an opaque vastness beyond. 

     

    This sea is not the void the Buddha meant to mean.  And for Buddha’s role here we have to call on Cambodia. 

     

    The Cambodians are Buddhists and their fate as a people faithfully portray the unqualified truth that is the first of the four noble truths, Life is SufferingLife is suffering. Life is Suffering. How many times does it need repetition?  As long as there is one soul stuck with shoulder to the wheel. At least once for every man, woman, and child killed in Nixon’s secret carpet bombings as swiftly followed by the most improbable of genocides that targeted anyone who had ever learned how to read and write, think, teach, or treat the sick. Maybe this is why Bill, whose invalidated email prompted this all, was fatally drawn to the fourth world, that perpetual Wheel of Samsara called Cambodia.

     

    Bill had died a few thousand deaths himself.  Maybe that was why he dreamed of Camboj.  It had defied death, and so had he. They were kindred spirits and naturally so. By the end of its frenzied killing spree the Killing Fields had reduced the population from eight to six million, yet a generation later life’s urge to multiply has brought resurgence with the figure now at fourteen million.  Most of those fourteen million have no living memories of what happened; weren’t present at the worst mass killing since the holocaust; and most likely have lost many of those relatives who really knew what the heart of darkness was all about anyway.  Not that anyone would dare ask because who could bear answer.  The Cambodian young today are children mostly of those illiterate farmers of the countryside who were spared because they did the only thing noble in the eyes of the Khmer Rouge- to till the land and put food in people’s stomachs.

     

    How many deaths had Bill experienced?  What killed Bill every day for fifteen years was junk.  With every fix comes the opportunity for overdose but short of that a corner of the soul dies along with each cell of the liver that expends itself in vain, attempting to clean the poisoned blood coursing through. Junk and prostituting out his girlfriend whom he got strung out on junk to begin with- in order to buy more junk.  And alcohol and crack and other late 20th century chemicals sprinkled on America’s desolate city tenderloins like errant angel dust which had been swept out the door into a wind distributing the unsuitable horse tranquilizer in random that hadn’t cut the commercial grade.  Let’s not forget the whole unholy host.

     

    Bill attacked life’s corners like a bike competitor on the motor cross, banking the turns at a fifteen-degree angle with a balancing knee pointed dead on center to earth’s molten core.  At seventeen he was first system savvy, second street smart, breaking into addiction not through peer connection but courtesy of his grandfather the doctor.  The old man died and Bill seized the opportunity, carpe diem.  The small town doc left behind a lone office and a locked cabinet full of prescription drugs.  Bill beat the DEA to the punch, breaking in and pilfering what narcotics were to be had, but proved resourceful enough to clean-out out the Rx pads as well.  This was his grandfather’s unintended legacy.

     

    How it is the DEA didn’t catch wind of Bill’s house cleaning efforts isn’t clear.  Academic, as Bill wasn’t ever caught.  He consumed whatever narcotics he found and then began issuing himself prescriptions for synthetic opiates such as Demerol.  Syringes, too. He method was risky, but proved successful.  Never visiting the same drug store twice was his modus operandi.  Bill soon discovered that a teenager could coax a prescription out of the average New York pharmacist with a stolen RX and false signature serving as thinnest of covers.  It must have been a revelation and great confidence builder for a cocky youngster.

     

    Feeling smart and sassy doesn’t help with funding such ventures, though there is always the possibility of selling the prescriptions.  Transportation factored in, too, as Bill had to find new pharmacies in an ever-growing radius around his home.  But at some point the proportion between drugs used to drugs sold must have tipped a balance, and traveling greater distances every week became a cul de sac of liability. 

     

    All systems have default limits, and Bill’s collapsed like a junkie’s veins in due course.  The details are lost in time but he found himself hopelessly addicted and forced to move out of his family home and out onto the streets. 

     

    Family- just what family was there?  A clueless mom and dad straight out of Levitt Town Americana who had adopted a boy and Christened him junior, in fact Bill + surname, the third.  An only child?- no, not exactly.  An only child and orphan child.  Did Bill, the orphan, see it that way?  That “I am an orphan, and I am in pain.  Life is suffering……..”

     

    There are no potential excuses due to non-existent records.  None here are available. No recourse to substantiation of the patently humanistic- of suggesting psychological predispositions or proclivities according to the orphan syndrome, for instance.  No self-pitying testimonials, too, about a void of self-identity that Bill left behind.  From this sketchy vantage these things become subject to the wagging tongue of imagination and its propensity for covering reality with slobber.  Speculation is left standing stupid, and begging some fool’s indulgent misadventure of mind.   

     

    But what is known is that Bill ditched his life before he owned any of it.  Vanished from the sight of his parents and his home town he began a shiftless odyssey on the road. 

     

    The odyssey spun his head into a wild eyed, “Holy Cow, What if?” as if he had been bred in San Francisco. No strange coincidence that is where he eventually ended up. His physical life spanning ground covered between New York and California was an aimless ambling weighed down by junk gravity, but his soul was more like jetsam abandoned at sea. His natural self was buoyant and bobbed like a Styrofoam life preserver atop a roiling ocean, inundated over and over with walls of crashing brine only to shoot up to the top undaunted.  No amount of vodka or white powder seemed capable of quashing the upward thrust. But he spent as much time spiraling down, submerged, as he did springing free to gasp for air.

     

    He was resilient as a lot of junkies can be, but held captive to the surface tension of the grand tide as junkies always are.  The only skyward voyage he could experience was illusory, courtesy of the manufactured and temporary conjuring of fragmentary, explosive imagery after ingesting LSD-25.  But he was reckless enough to sell perforated squares as neatly torn from pages of a book soaked in the hallucinogen, only to be busted hard in Texas for doing so.  It all happened at a rock festival he said, and one can only reason he thought he’d somehow be buffered from the law by the nature of the event.  It was straight to Federal penitentiary lock-down after the jams had been kicked out.

     

    Once free of jail time and that tribe of monkeys that rode his back like a hysterical mob of chattering zombies, Bill may have emerged the upright soul his final acquaintances took him to be. For twenty years he let junk destroy his moral compass and it was time for redemption.  Redemption, at least, for having eventually sold his girlfriend into prostitution as it is rumored.  Oh! and the collective we feel the obligation to condemn it. Condemn it an pin it to Bill’s legacy that will forever taint his memory.  It wasn’t as if the girl didn’t do it unwillingly, but that according to her own insatiable cravings for drugs. But it was Billy-boy who gave her that first fix.  He taught her how to cook powder in a spoon with a kitchen match; to pump the forearm vigorously before strapping-off with a rubber tourniquet; to have blood vessels pop into view by slaps and teasing; to draw the blood back into the needle first before plunging the liquid gold down the syringe, out the needle and into the blood stream. He taught her the process; the mind set; the lifestyle; and not least of all the tactics for survival once addicted.  What she learned most of all was that she was Bill’s grand strategy for survival.

     

    Are we to forgive him?  Maybe forgive but not forget which means ever to remind ourselves?  And remind him, too, after our own patronizing brand of moral fashion? He’s dead now and the reminders only lay feckless in the memory of a few.

     

    The mood is tense, and faces are taut.  Bill’s more than anyone.  Imagine the nightmares once he had cleaned up and the girlfriend was history; just another wastrel and grim statistic whose fate would probably never be revealed. The roads had diverged after Bill had sweat out the chicken soup from his blood. Bill had surfaced as a successful kicker.  But what happened to her?  If he knew, Bill probably shunned the thought, or if he didn’t, couldn’t bear to track down the truth. He was bound to reclaim his soul in the name of not only his own but also for the soul he had brought down with his own. He was determined to do by becoming a teacher; that hero without badges whose selfless duty goes woefully uncompensated and too often ends unceremoniously as found decomposing, mixed in with the seaweed that washes ashore in anyone’s seaside community.  That in the eyes of an ungenerous, dismissive society- but Bill knew what it would be worth for his own remaining time on the planet. The feasibility of it in the end- the beauty of this planned redemption- was that teachers are needed everywhere and by almost everybody.

     

    And then there are the strange alliances Bill found necessary to make with those fated and cast to play the role of midwifes would help him through the dark confines of the birth canal to a second act.  What was it about the central player, for instance, who claimed to be an “independent counselor and therapist” while making his daily bread as a real estate agent in San Francisco?  What was it about his recounting the tale that made one want to vomit? For purposes of cover, the therapist will assume the pseudonym, Brando.  Brando said he had never helped cure a single junkie until Bill came along. That made Bill a hero- a sweet, sweet hero.  That made Bill a professional success for Brando.

     

    Brando not only found it convenient to “go out” with Bill’s girlfriend during said therapy, but to casually share as much with those real friends of Bill who sought Brando out for information on Bill’s death.  It was not enough to just lay bare the immediate facts. One was forced to become privy to the two-tone glory-cum-underbelly of Brando’s involvement in the triangular affair of trading girlfriend with therapy. Brando just had to paint himself into Bill’s version of Hieronymus Bosch’s “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” square in the triptych’s center panel as a prominent Satyr in full-blooded play.

     

    Once Bill had shown promising progress on the road to recovery, Brando did rent out a tiny subterranean space to Bill for $250 a month in a building in San Francisco’s South of Market district.  It was a small piece of a much bigger piece of city real estate Brando owned.  Brando, the landlord, lived there too, at least one or maybe two stories above Bill’s cramped quarters.  His black sedan was parked in the alley way below and just in front of Bill’s access into the building.

     

    The good St. Bernard of Clairvaux, that righteous twelfth century soul, probably couldn’t have imagined his proverb would so survive- but good intentions do come at a price and do sometimes lead to hell. Bill’s girlfriend was the price and her body the causeway giving Bill clear passage across the nearby Tenderloin’s swampy bog to a dry enclosure South of Market with a bed, bathroom, and coin-operated washing machine in an adjacent utility room.

     

    Brando has a parallel existence as do many modern day, unencumbered, middle aged, well-to-do men of the Western climes.  His second life existed in Cambodia, and had been in full swing for several years before Bill had ever pondered a life in South East Asia. His Cambodian history was not all that unlikely, and predictably unimaginative. Perfunctory, too.  First, take your money, and buy a penthouse in a fourth world slum ward in Phnom Penh under forced eviction and planned gentrification. Then, go on a fuck-spree that reams everything on two legs and female.  Once sucked dry and left wanting of love- which is soon after- shack up with the one whore who takes your fancy and washes your shirt collars real clean. For punctuation until next time, finally leave the penthouse under the young woman’s housekeeping and board the first 737 back home to Baghdad by the Bay in order to resume an unassuming life in real estate and California-style therapeutics. Save your money over the next several months, and start the cycle all over again, though things have changed upon return now that there is a Cambodian woman there to meet you.

     

    Brando’s stories of Phnom Penh planted visions of where Bill could create a new life true to his deepest persuasions.  Brando helped fuel the fire and paid for Bill’s way to to Phnom Penh for a visit. After his return, Bill had taken on the zeal of a man on a mission from God. It was Camboj or bust.

     

    With a new life came a new country; a new country fitting the Bill- Bill being as fourth world as would satisfy a prime example of the definition.  A loser in the first world has an anatomy whose joints bend at all angles oblique to what is the pedestrian, and such a creature’s footsteps wander off the main arteries of American life- the freeways and boulevards and easements and suburban labyrinths straight into the wilderness passing on to the ether which reentered the atmosphere by landing in Phnom Penh.  The first world loser with both street and book smarts and a penchant for altered states of mind as experienced in exotic venues will convince themselves they are up for a fourth world existence.

     

    He was able to get a job as an instructional assistant at San Francisco City College.  Now that he was clean and living alone his low rent made it possible to save money.  For the first time in his adult life, Bill was on the straight and narrow.  He exemplified scrupulous self-control an was a model employee. Serving others had become his mission in life.  It was as if there was in store for Bill a saving grace hidden in the hell of being a man totally dependent on drugs that was to reveal itself with the power an electronic reset has on an electrical device.  With a mission in life Bill had found the power to rise above self-nihilism.  Coming clean is a heroic achievement and no one becomes a hero without a vested selflessness.  To listen to Bill talk about his charge as an instructional assistant and the energy he had rallied to bring such a commitment to his first truly satisfying work experience was enough to turn an atheist into a believer. 

     

    My life was at a turning point as well when I met Bill, and we became fast friends.  Our positions in life were not all that different. I was intent on leaving the United States to live in South East Asia as well.  Never having been content living in the United States, nothing had gone particularly well for me such that I had suffered through a cataclysmic divorce, and two subsequent on-the-rebound relationships the first of which nearly took my life. As soon as my two children had graduated from college I was more than ready to quit my job and embark on a Walk About; after which a year instructed me that my country of choice would be Indonesia.  In point of fact I had already lived there for nearly a year; giving it a real test run.  Depletion of funds and family crisis beckoned me back to California, but only for five months. The crisis quickly unfolded and became that universal rites of passage that middle aged children go through- the death of a parent.  In this case, it was my mother.

     

    To be blunt, for all the grieving there was the aftermath with which to contend. Mother was dead and gone and whatever the legacy, I was the black sheep and had to play a waiting game after the funeral.  By providence there was an inheritance waiting but administered by a sibling who was the favored child and who had hired an attorney whom I constantly aggrieved, boxing her ears as I attempted to force the settlement of the estate in time for my date of departure from the United States.  Concurrently, I knew that in order to become a teacher of English as a Second Language in any foreign country whose mother tongue was not English, I would have to earn a TESOL or TESL certificate, which would take several weeks to accomplish. 

     

    It was in this class that I met Bill.  It was on the University of California at Berkeley campus we spent eight hours each Saturday for six or eight weeks.  

     

    In order to attend the course, I settled into living in Berkeley on Durant Street, just a block away from Telegraph.  I knew all about Berkeley having recently spent a lot of time there as I had a girl friend who lived there.  I had also attended rock concerts and hung out in the town during the sixties a few times as well when urban communes, anti-war protests, and counter-culture expressions of every imaginable variety were in abundance, making the town world famous. 

     

    Berkeley had always been the premier camp of political correctness, and during that summer of 2006 when I took the TESOL certificate course, it proved no different. One day I strolled the streets with my daughter who was living with me temporarily when suddenly and completely out of the blue I was roundly denounced by a complete stranger on the street who upon spying the Jewish logo on my Brandeis-Hillel sweatshirt I was wearing berated me for persecuting the Palestinians on the West Bank.  It was true that I had taught at the school called Brandeis Hillel for five years as a math teacher; had attended synagogue with all the students as this was required; and had always had a lot of Jewish acquaintances having lived in many university towns along the California coast- but I was not a Jew by blood or conversion.  I did like the standard issue sweatshirt the school had given me a couple of years before, though. But to explain all that to the street vendor who called me out was certainly not a wise move.  I simply had to eat it and move on down the street.  

     

    In retrospect, spending time sitting next to Bill in class was predictable enough.  We were both brothers-in-arms. Due to my insecure sense of considering myself superior to everyone in the room, I was constantly on the hunt for the fly-in-the-ointment with every comment I heard, while Bill upped the ante by nearly losing his temper in frustration nearly every class session during the course of being called by the teacher to interact and otherwise engage in the learning process.  Some things simply didn’t make fucking any sense to him. We both had tempers, but his seemed more easily provoked in a forced setting such as a classroom where thirty strangers huddled together for eight hours.  I had been a teacher for nearly a quarter of a century and had spent eight years in college.  Even when physically and or psychologically uncomfortable I could spend hours seated like a lump of dough resting in on a pantry shelf listening to the drone of teacher-student conversation and / or the endless monologue of lecture. I was thoroughly accustomed to such environs.  For Bill, what brought his temper to the fore was probably not so much the issues as discussed but more the grating of convention on Bill’s street sensibilities; having to remain obnoxiously polite for hours on end as trapped sitting in a college classroom.

     

    Outside of class Bill and I didn’t spend much time together, and for this I was glad.  We kept our relationship focused on successfully completing the certificate program together, and as he didn’t have a computer and printer at home he would drop by my apartment before or after class and I would type up a hand-written class paper and print it out for him.  To have met recreationally and after hours would have been a mistake. The temptation to drink or smoke some ganja together would have been strong, and considering he was going clean- well, it was just better we got to know each other in other ways.  And those “other ways” had to do with our co-determination to recast and rejuvenate hope in life.  Staying clean applied to me as well. It was better I stayed away from substances of any kind.  A long time abuser of marijuana, and now a man of fifty-four, it was nigh time to put the toys of rebellion away. Having been forced to quit smoking herb while traveling in a country where possession could put you in prison for years was more than a good turn of events.

     

    I did go as far as to visit Bill at his South of Market Street apartment one time during that summer.  I took Bart from Berkeley over to the city, and met Bill close to the Bart Station closest to where he lived. As mentioned, he rented a first story converted utility space annex to the laundry room in a three-story apartment building owned by that man of questionable intent, Brando.  The landlord Brando lived in a spacious haunt on the third floor. I caught a glimpse of this self-appointed savoir who later claimed to me by email that he was in part responsible for giving Bill a second shot at life; but only as he got into the driver’s seat of his car in which he quickly drove off on some errand.  Brando had indeed provided Bill with the first place he had had to live in that wasn’t on the streets for a long time, it must be said.  The rent was $225 a month, which a decade later would have inflated at least by a factor of four.

     

    Recollection mostly fails me as I attempt to jar loose a memory from my time at the apartment. It seems I ended sitting there alone, waiting for Bill to return. Bill had received a phone call and was suddenly called out- perhaps by this doctor’s office.  The first knowledge that Bill had a compromising medical condition may well have arisen to my attention that very day.  It suddenly became clear that Bill had already bought a plane ticket and had applied for a travel visa to Cambodia, but what I had just learned was that he had problems with both his lungs and liver due to his drug and alcohol use. Having led such a lifestyle, it was not unusual to have such dire conditions, but it was shocking to me because I had no inkling.  Bill was so energetic and fast moving; so clear-headed and on top of his life that I found it perplexing to accept the fact he may be carrying a fatal infirmity.

     

    Bill had been coughing up blood for several weeks, and he had kept it hidden from me.  Fortunately, he did have MediCal. It payed to be poor in California as it made one eligible for full medical coverage by State insurance. He finally had to admit that getting his lung treated was becoming a race against time as he had already arranged for his move to Cambodia and had given notice on his job and apartment as well.  If the doctor recommended an aggressive form of invasive surgery on his lung it would completely upset all his best-meant plans and leave him without a job and even a place to live.  I felt caught up in his dilemma.  We could only pray that the doctor could simple puncture his lung with a needle and somehow alleviated his condition through such out-patient treatment.

     

    The last time I saw Bill was the last day of our TESL course.  We were in a celebratory mood as we had both received our signed certificates and could now move on to with our next life plans.  Within a few days I talked to Bill on the phone and found out that he would be treated for his lung condition but according to the doctor would most likely be able to travel abroad as planned. 

     

    To my great joy, I found out sometime later that Bill had successfully left for his new life in Cambodia, having flown out of SFO just a couple of days subsequent to my departure, which was on August 28th.

     

    Over the next eighteen months Bill and I corresponded by email. In a language reminiscent of the sixties youth culture but still uniquely personal and his own, Bill shared the trials and tribulations of his journey in becoming a paid teacher in Phnom Penh.

     

    His first emails introduced the cheerful tone and undying optimism that would characterize nearly all those that were to follow:

     

    Okay, short but sweet. Taught first class last evening (TOEFL at a school named Institute for English Learning) from 530pm-730pm; dig this, I was hired at around 330pm and asked to come in and do it in the road with no book and not knowing where the Ss were at in their program.  It was a smashing success. I brought in a newspaper: current events, let's read the front page, I want to know where you're at, let's make a vocab list of the words we don't understand and define them and then let's use them in a new sentence.

    Need to eat, it's about 825am and I have a class at 900 am (same school) and an interview at 200p, possibly for salaryyha, nice!

    My driver is here. More later.

    Much Love Many Smiles Much Happiness

    B

     

    His writing enthralled me; I was swept up in Bill’s storming the ramparts of Cambodia as an expat on a mission. It was a blessing to be witness to the lightning pace of his thought fueled by his mission’s newness and urgency; and by the alacrity of his soul- body and soul integrated while caught up with the romance of a new life.  In front of my eyes Bill arose from his words a resurrected being.  I felt my soul soar at his budding promise.  Why hadn’t I ever felt such comradery with the path to success for anyone else I had ever known in my life?  It was hard to say, but I was so busy routing for Bill Ellis that entertaining any other questions was hardly a concern.

     

    We lavished love, praise, and support on each other with one timely correspondence after another.  It was a real bromance. The shear speed of the tit-for-tat, back-and-forth rivaled the speed of a professional ping pong match where the object was not to win a point but simply keep the ball in play.  We dazzled each other with style and substance in equal measure, all the while carefully keeping track of what might be hidden from sight in between volleys; in between the textual lines.

     

    An important detail in the midst of all this was the fact that neither Bill nor I had a computer, and even if we had, neither Indonesia nor Cambodia had an internet infrastructure featuring flash disk modems or wireless WIFI hot spots.  Smart phones-probably unavailable at the time- or if they were, exorbitantly expensive- probably couldn’t have been connected wirelessly anyway.  Sending and receiving emails required visiting an internet outlet, which in Indonesia was called a Warnet, which was a room full of computers networked by server as connected to the internet by phone modem.  Now- a decade later- Warnets are nearly extinct.

     

    In those early days of living abroad on a permanent basis- the fall of 2006- I was looking to get married- or so I wrote as much- and Bill was looking for work.  We exchanged news about these seminal topics in our first few correspondences. I noted to Bill:

     

    The meaning of my trip here is not so well-defined as yours is in Cambodia. It is in search for a lovely wife I imagine a much more perilous road than the one you are on.

     

    (This, in fact, turned out to be anything but true.  But I am getting ahead of myself……….)

     

    I had just inherited money enough not to have to worry about work- at least for a while; and getting paid work in Cambodia was a lot easier than in Indonesia.  Processing work visas didn’t seem an impedance for Bill as he found work as a teacher right away.  As for me, I already knew having traveled in Indonesia in 2005 that even volunteering as a teacher required authorization from immigration that in turn wouldn’t turn in one’s favor without a bribe.  I had become gun-shy of anything that required a bureaucrat’s blessing. Yes, one could apply to a franchise ESL or international school, and if they hired you they would become sponsors and pay for the work and residential visas.  But I had no interest in teaching as I was bound and determined to write, something I had wanted to do for a long time.

     

    Our correspondences started up in earnest in September 2006.  I was married in October to an Indonesian woman, and by that time Bill had rifled through a few schools as an English teacher and had settled on one.  Things went swimmingly well through the end of the year, but come the end of January in 2007, the first bad news entered the dialogue, and it came from Bill:

     

    Not to turn this into a completely negative gig for it did have quite a few redeeming aspects. I'm not going to make a list right now; it'd be complex, time consuming,

    and probably very confusing to/for you, you are not here, you do not really know what things/stuff/life had/has been like up to that point.

     

    Brother man, it was at least four/4 (I lost count after the three men jumped out from behind a wall where the initial attacker had hit me with a piece of the street [a slab of pavement right in the back OUCH]) Cambodian men at about 1125P on Sat. the 1-31-07

    as I was walking home (sober, tired, just stargazing after writing tests all

    day)! They mostly beat me with rocks and bottles and their feet! They took my wallet, tried to take my house keys (grabbed an ankle and put a stop to that got

    a few more kicks to the head for my efforts) and left me a bleeding/broken mass in the middle of the street. All this only two streets from my house. The aftermath? A concussion, a cracked rib (bottom left), four broken bones in my right foot, numerous (too many to list) abrasions, cuts, bruises, welts. A really fucked up

    experience. It had me second guessing my existence here.

    My students (all of 'em University and High School) have been a blessing, a really big blessing. They were/are all appalled freaked out unsure.  Questions ranged from, "are you ok? are you leaving? Why did you fight back,

    you could've been hurt more? can you go to the police?" Every day they see me limping(I have a cast from knee to toe 4 broken bones man!) asking me when I won't need the walking sticks(crutches) any more, am I better yet.

     

    The medical people here say 4-6weeks in this hard cast I should walk again, "somewhat normally," but I think it'll be sooner and screw the somewhat IT WILL BE NORMAL!

     

    Bill had been mugged in the dark of a Saturday night in the heart of Phenom Phen, but had quickly returned to teach, his loyal cadre of Cambodian high school and university aged students carrying him up and down staircases as necessitated by the need to enter new classrooms with each passing period. 

     

    My reaction was to chide Bill- but only from within and in silence- upset that he had taken a chance wandering alone through the streets of a Southeast Asian city around midnight.  But Bill had always been a man of the streets, and for him to wander the streets of any city in the world, no matter the time of day, would have come perfectly natural to him. That he had been kicked like a dog, suffering a broken rib, was particularly worrying because he had just had an invasive procedure done on one of his lungs a few months previously.

     

    I was beginning to feel like Bill was entering turbulent waters in over his head, and that really, despite his obvious need to rest and heal, he had no other option other than to work because his students were the only people he knew that could come together and give him the physical help he needed.  It was better to work than stay in bed, completely alone and left to one’s own physical limitations.

     

    Bill closed the letter of bad news with no trace of self-pity but only magnanimous concern for me, and what news of ill-tiding might portend for my well-being:

     

    I need to get on home and get on with my day. Hopefully, this did not ruin your afternoon, morning, or whatever time itis that you are reading this. Know that I share this with you not for pity/sympathy nor to affect you in any negative, desultory way. I share this because I value your perspective, ideology, your maturity in the spaces of the

    heart and the space where wisdom collects and grows.

     

    It's not like this is the first time(hopefully the last) I've had my ass kicked. We both know where and what some of my past has entailed. Here in PP it's a brand new world. And it's really very uncomfortable.

     

    Please do not ever stop being the fantastic person/friend/brother that you have become

    Please do not let what's printed here turn you off to Cambo. or me- it's just life

    Please know that you (and Atty/family) always have a geographical as well as an emotional/spiritual safe haven here; what happened to me completely random!

    MUCH HAPPINESS             LOTS, LOTS BIG LOVE                PEACE!!!!!

     

    Again, in his own words, Bill in effect “had to learn how to walk all over again”.  He didn’t even report to the hospital until a week after the attack.

     

    On March 28th, 2007, Bill informed me that he was flying home to see his adoption parents, and that he could only take six days off from work in order to do so.  It was the first time I remember feeling that perhaps he had a good relationship with them. He was still working at a fever pitch and as often as he mentioned how busy he was he rarely failed to relate that he was also hungry and had to find something to eat while writing emails.  No doubt he was malnourished as well. Judging from his cringe worthy thinness, he gave one the feeling hunger wouldn’t commence to nag at him for hours beyond when sustenance was truly required.

     

    Suddenly, the emails stopped, and I was left feeling apprehensive and even empty.  I was passive for the longest time- no, actually paralyzed.  The days passed as I had increment by increment successfully turned my attention away towards Bill while fully towards a focus on writing.  I had also found myself returning to much earlier roots- that of being an electronic music composer- producing digital music vis-à-vis the oodles of file sharing software I was downloading from the internet.  Yes, I had bought a desk top computer and even had hooked up with a local ISP who didn’t know anything about providing the internet but had the equipment in his house down at the bottom of the street on which I lived in a third story apartment.

     

    Southeast Asian internet network links being what they were in 2006, the chances of writing and sending emails successfully at an Indonesian Warnet were often experienced as just another form of shooting dice.  One could dash off a beautiful missive only to have the house system freeze-up or the internet connection simply crap out.  There was no retrieving anything lost in such electrical upsets.  Such would have been the case in Cambodia as well.

     

    But Bill’s prolonged silence couldn’t be explained away by prolonged lack of internet service in a major city like Phenom Phen.  Something was clearly wrong.  I did freeze, though.  I let the matter go.  Friends had so often come and gone in my life- due to dislocation, fallings-out; and death.  I was almost inured to the thorny proposition of keeping up with anyone individual in my life outside of my children.  Bill’s physical well-being was a huge question, as was his staying clean.

     

    Finally, some three years after Bill’s disappearance, I suffered a resurgence of acute anxiety, and I came to understand just how unsettling having no closure about the disappearance of someone close is a barb that tears away at one’s soul for eternity.  Looking back at his emails- which I had fortunately saved- I checked the headers and found a list of friends’ emails to which I sent a form letter asking for help in locating him.

     

    Three responded.  Two knew nothing.  The third came from Brando, and he seemed to know most everything except for how Bill actually died.  Brando- again, Bill’s ex-landlord and amateur junkie counselor- wrote saying that Bill had only been found on the beach at Sihanoukville. Rumors had it he was found with a syringe still dangling from his arm.

     

    Over the course of three email installments, Brando imparted everything he knew.  At the end of Part I he announced Part II Coming Soon.  Actually, he told me much more than I had bargained for.  Though he had only met me in passing, he was inspired to reveal to me the whole story of his relationship with Bill- at least it felt like the complete tale- and he relished doing so.  It appeared he thought himself a writer, and this an opportunity to be dramatic, building up the suspense by turning the story into a series.

     

    I appear to be criticizing Brando for objectifying Bill into a dramatic personage- and I am- but I do appreciate being offered the whole woof and warp of the tragic fabric.  I thirsted for Bill’s life story. Brando could have merely tossed off a crumb to me and keep the rest hidden.  In truth, Bill really was a tragic figure whose life was grist for the dramatic mill, and at least I received the lead-up to Bill’s denouement.

     

    The take away was less that settling, and to this day there remains no closure.  My hopes were raised after Brando’s preface and then Part I.  I wrote to him still not knowing the truth, but fervently hoping it could be supplied:

     

    Dear Brando:

     

        Frankly, I am elated to get another letter from you.  That you gave me a little bit more information surrounding Bill's actual death as well as some intimate news concerning his parents has helped make Bill's life and death both more palpable and real.  The result is that I can take it in a bit more for all its reality and with a measure of grace find some closure and acceptance.  I only knew Bill face-to-face for a matter of two months, and I carry much more of his spirit with me than his personal history.

     

        The image of him lying dead on a beach with a syringe in his arm- however unverified that is- is simultaneously tragic and plausible. Plausible in that it could happen to any former junkie.  Plausible that it could easily happen in Cambodia.  As you know much better than I ever could, Cambodia is not for the feint of heart, nor the weak of will, body, or mind.  If in the end after all the yeoman work done to revive his life and spirit Bill succumbed to the urge for a fix, I imagine him on vacation in a place like a Sihanoukville serves as a likely backdrop and scenario.  I haven't heard much good about the place- a nexus of casinos, the mafia and their thugs who excel in extortion, drugs, prostitution, and no doubt human trafficking.  Correct me if I'm wrong.

     

        It occurs to me that Bill thrived on the excitement surrounding dangerous places and activities, and that may have become a second nature response to him after twenty years of life on the streets.  In fact, aside from being force to live underground as an addict, living fast, loose, and dangerously seemed a primary motivation in life. (I don't recall Bill saying when exactly it was he had kicked heroin.  That seems a pertinent fact, and maybe you can tell me.)  Bill talked of Cambodia like it was the Wild West, and though he usually spoke enthusiastically about everything, it was clear he relished the idea of living in such place at least partially free from modern day strictures.  Bill, too, was a wild eyed romantic who was in the midst of a torrid affair with the idea of living and working in a "fourth world country" as he often referred to Cambodia.

     

        Maybe the honey moon period of life in Cambodia was coming to an end for Bill, as inevitably does for all ex-pats, but that is not saying much.  If he did slip into the dark side once again, it could have been due to the lack of a support system surrounding him- people like you and me who really cared about him.  I have no idea how much people like Tony and Brandon meant to him.

     

        I know you lived off-and-on in Cambodia for several years.  Maybe you're not a dyed-in-the-wool ex-pat, but you surely know the species.  For an ex-pat, making true friends who can help you walk the straight and narrow aren't in ready supply.  And many ex-pats are mentally unstable; casualties of what have you.  Carrying grievous wounds is almost sine qua non to self-exile.  However much Bill was drawn to comradeship- which he was- he also seemed someone capable of withstanding the downside of the deal.  There was his love for the Cambodian children after all, and that hopefully was a powerful force in his life.  For all his weakness for cravings, he seemed quite capable of determined restraint as well.  But in the final analysis, I don't rightfully know and am left speculating in the dark.

     

        Ultimately, if the story you tell me is now more or less complete, then, yes- barring a host of surprise witnesses stepping forward and all truthfully offering up the same story of Bill's end game, then I guess you're right- we'll simply never know the real truth of what happened to Bill on that beach in Sihanoukville.

     

        Yet still- you say there are multiple accounts of Bill's body being found- just who gave these accounts, and to whom did they give them?  Who was initially notified?  Bill's school?  And what about Tony and Brandon- did they or anyone else do any investigation?  Maybe you could be so bold as to give me a contact email for someone at the school.  Then again, maybe you might think it best to leave ghosts of the pasts just that- ghosts.

     

     

    But Brando put the kibosh on ever knowing what really happened:

     

      I was in the states when he died.  He had gone with some friends to Sihanoukville (the one real beach town in Cambodia) for a weekend and was discovered dead, lying on the beach.  One story is there was a syringe in his arm; other stories mention nothing about that.  Cambodia is short on knowledge, especially medical (you do not need any medical degree or certification of any kind to set up shop, or work in a hospital, in Cambodia!), and they do not autopsy so there will never be a definitive answer to what happened that night.

            

            I was informed of his death by his parents.  This was a doubly sad occasion for me.  After achieving his success in Cambodia Bill had finally felt up to meeting his parents again (earlier visits by them to see him were always thwarted by him not showing up or something similar) and a meeting had been set up in San Francisco where Bill would fly in from Cambodia and they from the East Coast.  I got them a hotel near my place because it would be nearby and Bill would be staying at his old apartment.  They arrived a day before him and I met them and gave them a tour of San Francisco.  It was a beautiful sunny day and San Francisco shone and the Ellises were alive with hope and love. Showing off the city was great and they were good company.  During the day it became apparent that they saw me as some sort of savior of their son, almost as if I was one of those gurus from the 60s/70s who changed peoples' lives.  I tried to explain that all I was was a friend of Bill and that I had been able to offer him some opportunities.  I told his folks that he was the hero because he had seized the moment(s) and redeemed himself and he was the one who did the heavy lifting.  They appreciated my thoughts but I think they continued to think of me as having saved him and thus when they informed me of his death (they were surprised I did not know about it) I felt they were disappointed in his "savior" and I never heard from them again.

     

    But I was really wrong about Brando- he did the best he could to give me the fullest story he could.  As for Bill, I’m not sure if he gave up the ghost to become one, or whether his ravaged body simply quit on him. 

     

    At least there are a small handful of people who stubbornly hold on to the spirit of those who pass on, even if their passing is an eternal mystery.