An Excerpt from a Story in The Bigness of the World
Originally published in The Kenyon Review.
In 1996, my partner and I moved to Malaysia, where we taught business communications at a school very much like this one. We did not actually live in Nine-Story Building, but our friend Raja did, and so we became familiar with the building, which was the tallest building in town at that time and, thus, a place attractive to jumpers.
Like the couple in the story, we stayed in a seedy hotel where the smoke alarms beeped every few minutes because no one had figured out yet that the beeping meant that the batteries were low. After trying to explain this, to no avail, we spent an afternoon trying to buy replacement batteries—also to no avail. Finally, we were moved to the only beep-free room—and yes, there was a wounded, moaning man outside our door.
We never learned what had happened to him, which is ultimately for the best when it comes to writing fiction.
We met Mr. Mani because we paused on the footbridge that spanned Jalan Munchi Abdullah, a busy street near our hotel, for it was only from up there that the sign for his school, the unobtrusively named English Institute, could be seen. The school, which occupied the second floor of the decrepit building just below us, did not look promising, and when we trotted back down the steps to the street and went inside, it seemed even less so. Still, we presented our resumes to the young woman at the front desk, and she, not knowing what to do with them or us, summoned Mr. Mani from class.
Mr. Mani was a small Indian man in his sixties, no taller than either Julia or I, which put us immediately at ease, and when he smiled, he seemed at once boyish and ancient because he was missing his top front teeth. He did not speak Malaysian English, which we were still struggling to understand, but sounded in every way British, to the point that when he heard our American accents, he winced, which could have annoyed us but instead made us laugh. He studied our resumes at length before explaining, apologetically, that the school provided only enough work for him, though when we met him for dinner that evening, we learned that he rarely spent fewer than twelve hours a day at the school, teaching mornings and afternoons and then, at night, checking homework and attending to paperwork. We discovered also that the empty space created by his missing teeth accommodated perfectly the neck of a whiskey bottle, which spent more and more time there as the night wore on, and after he had consumed a fair amount, he revealed that he stayed late at the school also as a way of hiding from his wife, whom he referred to as "my Queen."
I do not think that it occurred to him, ever, that Julia and I were a couple, yet he spoke to us without the usual nonsense or innuendo that so often marks discourse between the sexes. He talked mainly about his marriage, which had been arranged, stating repeatedly that he did not question the matchmaker's thinking in putting together a poor but educated man from Kuala Lumpur and an illiterate woman from the rubber plantation. "After all, we have produced eleven children," he pointed out proudly, confessing that, given his long hours, he saw them only when they brought his meals or attended their weekly English lessons. His favorite was the fifth child, a girl by the name of Suseelah who loved Orwell as much as he did and loathed Dickens almost as much. In fact, he spoke of Dickens often, always with contempt, and I could not help but view it as a classic example of a man railing against his maker, for Mani was a character straight from Dickens, an affable, penniless fellow who bordered on being a caricature of himself.
When he had consumed the entire bottle of whiskey, he declared the evening complete and insisted on the minor gallantry of walking us back to our hotel, a seedy place that he promptly deemed "unsuitable for two ladies." At the door, he shook our hands sadly and said, as though the evening had been nothing more than an extended job interview, "My ladies, I am afraid that I cannot hire you."