A man is sitting on a beach. An island in the Indian Ocean. The sun is setting. He is drinking a beer. The bottle has a picture of a lion on it. A cow walks by. He never saw a cow on a beach before. It is brown. In between the crashing of the waves and where he sits, the cow stops and looks at him. A stream begins to run from its backside. The cow walks away as a wave carries the puddle of piss it left behind into the ocean. The man smiles.
The man spent the past two years saving almost everything he earned to be here. He is an American. He worked with his hands - rare these days. He is happy to be away from the house he shared with six other men. The house was dirty and his roommates were drunks, but it was cheap. He didn’t need much, and he spent most of his days alone with his thoughts. He saved thirteen thousand dollars. He figured that would be enough for him to live for a year or two somewhere in Asia. One-way ticket. He told himself he would buy the return flight when he was down to his last couple thousand bucks. This was the first real day of his escape. He took another sip of his beer and looked at the bottle. “Lion” was all that was written on it.
He hired a car from the airport earlier that day. Outside the airport it was humid, and the air smelled like smoke and car exhaust. Somehow the humidity made it feel like the acrid air settled deeper into his lungs. It was crowded outside. Cars and people everywhere, and the ground was filthy. All the men had jet-black hair and wore loose-fitting button-down shirts. Except the old men. Their hair was gray.
“Where do you want to go?” the young Asian man in the cab had asked him.
“To the ocean,” he said. “Somewhere cheap. How much to get there?”
“Up to you,” the young Asian man said.
During the drive, the young Asian man tried to make conversation, but the American just looked out the window.
“Guesthouse,” the young Asian man said to him when they finally arrived. “Clean. Cheap.”
“How much do you want?” the American asked.
“Up to you,” the young Asian said.
The American gave him a one hundred dollar bill. It was crisp.
The Asian man nodded his head and took the money. The American knew he gave the young Asian man too much, but he didn’t care.
“Tell them Dean sent you. Stay upstairs.”
The American nodded and walked toward the house on the beach. It was painted white and surrounded by palm trees bearing coconuts. The sun was getting lower on the horizon, and it was warm out. He heard a train rolling slowly along in the distance. He decided he would find that train the next morning and ride it to wherever it took him.
“You stay here?” asked a dark, old Asian man.
“Rupees or dollars?”
“Up to you,” the American said.
“Dollars,” the Asian said.
“Ten dollars for nice room, fifteen dollars for very nice room. Big window. Big ocean.”
“I’ll take the nice room upstairs. Dean sent me.”
“Okay. How long will you stay?” asked the dark, old Asian man.
“One night. I want to ride the train tomorrow. Maybe I’ll come back.”
“Okay. I show you your room now.”
Back on the beach, the American is looking at his bottle again. The lion is on a big rock, and the big rock is on top of a small mountain. In the sky there are clouds, and on the ground there are rivers and trees. The lion looks proud as he looks out into the distance. The American takes another sip. The sand underneath him feels good, but the American isn’t comfortable. In his pocket is an envelope, and in the envelope there is twelve thousand nine hundred dollars.
The dark, old Asian man comes out to the beach and sits down next to the American.
“It’s a nice sunset,” the old Asian man says.
“You’re lucky,” the American says. “You get to see this every day.”
“They are nice sunsets,” the old Asian man says. “Where will you take the train tomorrow?”
“I don’t know,” says the American. “To anywhere.”
“You don’t have anywhere to go?” the old man asks.
“No,” says the American.
“Good,” says the dark, old Asian man. “Then the train will take you there.”
The two men look at each other and smile. The American takes a final sip from the bottle.
“Come have dinner. The girls made shrimp. And chicken.”
“Great,” says the American.
“Great,” says the Asian.
The two men laugh. They eat their dinner. The old Asian man introduces the American to his wife and three daughters. Two of his nephews also live at the guesthouse. One is older and married with two children. The other is a young man. They all work at the guesthouse, he says. They all enjoy the nice sunsets. They all want to get off the island and work overseas, but the American doesn’t know why. They can’t afford to leave or stay, they say.
It’s nighttime now, and the American is on the beach. The stars are out, and his neck is sore from looking up. He’s never been on a beach and looked up at the stars like this. He’s happy, and he wants to go to sleep. Back home, he would always go to bed in a bad mood, but he didn’t know why.
In his room, which doesn’t have a lock on the door, the American gets ready for bed. He takes a shower and brushes his teeth. He gets into bed, naked. He tosses and turns for a minute and remembers the envelope in his pants that are on the floor. He gets out of bed and puts the envelope under his pillow. He falls asleep.
In the morning, the American brushes his teeth and takes another shower. He knows he is just going to get dirty again, but the hot water feels good in the morning. He takes his bag downstairs and sees the dark, old Asian man behind a desk. A newspaper lies flat on the desk and the Asian is reading.
“I’m going now,” the American says.
“Will you come back?” the dark, old Asian man says.
“I don’t know,” the American says. “Maybe.”
The old man smiles. He calls his nephews over from the kitchen. He tells the younger one to clean up the American’s room, and he tells the older one to show the American how to get to the train station.
“Thank you,” the American says to the old man.
“Welcome,” the dark, old Asian man says.
The American finds the line for tickets at the station. He decides that pulling out his envelope of cash in this crowded place is not a good idea. It’s rude and distasteful, he thinks. It’s more money than most of these people have ever seen. He also doesn’t want to get robbed.
The American finds a bathroom. It stinks like nothing he has ever smelled before, but he’s not planning on being in there long. He reaches into his pocket, but the envelope isn’t there. He must have put it in his bag. He checks. Nothing. It’s under the pillow at the guesthouse. He remembers. The guesthouse, with the poor people who enjoy the sunsets but want to get off the island. His stomach sinks. He wants to vomit, or cry, or scream. The stench in the bathroom is horrible. He makes his way out of the station and starts to run back to the guesthouse on the beach.
The dark, old Asian man is still reading his paper. He looks up and sees the American.
“I forgot something,” the American says as he runs up the stairs.
Inside the room, the bed is made and the bathroom is clean. There is no envelope under the pillow.
The American can’t stand up anymore. He sits on the bed. Should he accuse the dark, old Asian man and his nephews of stealing his money? Should he go to the police? He knows how things probably work here. If the dark, old Asian man denies ever seeing the money, the police won’t do anything. The American walks down the stairs and sits down on the chair in front of the old man’s desk.
“What’s wrong?” the old man asks.
“I forgot my passport in the room,” the American says.
“Your passport?” the old man asks. The nephews are nowhere to be seen. The girls are on the beach.
“Yes,” the American says. “My passport.”
“Are you sure you left your passport in the room?” the old man asks.
The American goes quiet. He shakes his head.
“I left my money in the room. I forgot it under the pillow, but it’s not there anymore.”
“Under the pillow? That’s a strange place to leave your money! How much was there?”
“A lot. About thirteen thousand dollars,” the American says.
“Thirteen thousand dollars! My God. That is a lot of money! What are you going to do now?” asks the dark, old Asian man.
“I don’t know. Do you have it?” the American asks.
The old man looks at him for a moment. He opens a drawer at his desk, takes out the envelope, and places it in front of the American.
“My nephew brought it down to me after you left.”
The American man begins to sob. The old Asian man offers him a tissue.
“That money is everything I have. Thank you. Oh, God! Thank you.”
The American takes the envelope and starts to take a few hundred dollar bills out.
“I want you to give this to your nephew,” the American says, handing over the money.
“No. He would be insulted.”
“Please. It’s the least I can do.”
“How can I show my appreciation? You’ve saved my life. This could have been a very bad start to a long nightmare,” the American says.
“If you want,” the dark, old Asian man says, “You can give me twenty dollars and I will have a party for my nephew.”
“That’s it?” the American asks.
“That’s it,” the old man says. “It’s more than enough.”
“Thank you,” the American says.
“Welcome,” the Asian man says.
As the American walks away, he looks back at the dark, old Asian man. He is looking out onto the ocean, but he doesn’t look proud, not like the lion.