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“I gangster from hell!” he roared, just as the cook set down a plate of fried eggs on the plastic table.
He, the gangster from hell, looked at me in a menacing way. I had just gotten off an overnight bus that had left Medan, Sumatra, the previous evening and arrived here, at the Banda Aceh bus station, in northern Sumatra, at seven the next morning. I was hungry and a bit dazed from a long journey over a potholed highway. A few days before I had crossed the Malacca Strait, coming across it from Penang, Malaysia, to backpack through Indonesia, starting off in Sumatra. (The Strait had been calm, but even so, a few passengers couldn’t handle the bumping along of the high-speed ferry.)
“Where you from?” the gangster from hell growled. The yellow of a yolk dribbled from a corner of his mouth.
“You Germany?” he demanded.
“I’m American,” I said.
The gangster from hell growled approvingly and bit off a piece of roti.
“Rich country,” a man sitting beside me said.
“I want to America,” the cook said.
We were sitting at a makeshift table on plastic chairs in a corner of the parking area of the long-distance bus station. The bus I’d arrived on, a very modern and clean Mercedes, was at a platform, loading passengers for the return trip to Medan, but even a Mercedes hadn’t successfully smoothed out the potholed road.
“You want eggs, coffee?” the cook asked me.
I said I did.
The man next to me, who was drinking coffee served in a glass mug, said, “He drink whiskey,” nodding at the gangster from hell, who held up a soft drink bottle filled with a tea-coloured liquid. The gangster grinned proudly.
The gangster from hell was perhaps forty, had broad shoulders and a square face and full head of matted down, just-gotten-out-of-bed hair that was turning gray. He hadn’t shaved for a few days, and his beard was a patchwork of gray and brown stubble.
“Where are the buses to the ferry?” I asked. I was on my way to Pulau Wei, an island off the tip of Sumatra, to spend some time there in a bungalow made of bamboo and thatch, snorkelling, reading while lying in a hammock, perhaps getting laid now and then, and also writing.
“You take taxi there,” the man sitting next to me said. “My friend have taxi.”
I would learn that a lot of Indonesians had friends who had what I needed.
The cook set my plate of eggs down in front of me, then a mug of cinnamon-coloured coffee. I ate the eggs. They were, after a long bus trip of eight hours, very satisfying, the greasiness of them. As I was eating, a woman wearing a headscarf, holding the hand of a boy who was five or six years old, came up to my side.
“You give,” the man sitting beside me said.
The gangster from hell said, “Do you give?”
I stopped eating and looked at the woman. Her eyes were gray and cloudy. I pulled out some money from a shirt pocket, 1,000 rupiah, less than ten cents, and put it in one of the boy’s hands.
“You good man,” the gangster from hell said. He drank from the bottle of whiskey. “They never give!”
“I gangster from hell!” he bellowed. This seemed to be validation for everything he did.
“He work furniture factory before,” the cook said.
“Now no factory,” the man sitting beside me said. “Earthquake.”
In 2004, a 9.1 earthquake off the coast of western Sumatra had caused a tsunami to come ashore, killing more than 250,000 people along the coast of western Sumatra, up north in Phuket, and even across the Indian Ocean in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and India, when homes and villages were washed away. The earthquake was one of the most powerful in recorded history.
“He no job,” the cook said, referring to the gangster from hell.
“He do woman work,” the gangster from hell said of the man sitting beside me. He made the motion of ironing a shirt while chuckling to himself.
“His wife have business,” the man said of the gangster from hell. “She give money him.”
He and the cook laughed.
The gangster from hell looked at me. The corners of his mouth remained specked with egg yolk. “Strong, me. I five children. Him three,” he said. And then he thumped his sternum with a fist before asking me, “You married?”
“No,” I said.
The cook looked at me and smiled.
“Why?” the man sitting beside me asked.
“No reason,” I said. “Just not married.”
“A man must marry,” he said.
I ate my eggs and drank the syrupy coffee.
“Man without children not man.”
“He free,” the gangster from hell said back. “American.” He then looked at the cook and said, “He like boys.” He laughed again, a deep belly laugh.
“You pay now,” the cook said. “Pay! You always say this thing.”
The gangster from hell took some bills from his pocket and slammed them down on the table. “Money,” he said, “for your boys.”
“Go away. Go!” the cook said.
The gangster from hell once again laughed to himself as the cook reached for the money.
The man beside me said, “My wife with baby in stomach. Soon four.”
The gangster from hell stood, picked up his bottle of whiskey, pulled up his pants, which had fallen down around his thighs, tucked in his shirt, wiped the egg yolk from his mouth with a shirtsleeve, and staggered off.
The two men and I watched him as he walked across the gravel, and when he stumbled, they laughed but I didn’t.
James Roth, an English teacher who has taught in Japan, China, and, most recently, Zimbabwe as an EFL fellow in the U.S. State Department's EFL program, has published nonfiction in several online e-zines on a variety of topics. His essay "Black Lives Don't Matter in Zimbabwe" was listed as a finalist in The Missouri Review's Jeffrey E. Smith Editors' prize. "Manta Rays, a Massage Lady, and Love," a short story, was recently published in The Bombay Review. He has traveled throughout Southeast Asia. Presently he is polishing a historical mystery novel set in Meiji era Japan to submit to a New York publisher who has expressed an interest in it. He divides his time between the Eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe and Florida, where he cruises the coastal bays on a Freedom 30, cat ketch sailboat.