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About the author:
Derrick Credito is a Baltimore-area college English professor. His teaching career began in the early 2000s, when he worked in the Asia-Pacific region as an English language instructor. Also a multi-instrumental musician, he is the bassist in Let Go Echo, an EDM band. The Year of the Tsunami is his first novel. He lives in Columbia, Maryland.
What inspired you to write your book?
The initial inspiration for this book was Amsterdam's Red Light District. I wanted to recreate that magical, mysterious place in fiction. While I'd travelled repeatedly to Amsterdam, there were other places I'd frequented over the years that provided plenty of inspiring memories, including New Zealand, California, and Thailand.
Here is a short sample from the book:
On the first day of class, Wes Levine, an American English teacher in Bangkok, had asked the group of twenty Thai students to write a paragraph about themselves. Between pages of his sketchbook, Wes set aside Sao’s response, hoping to later review it with Arthur, the retail language center’s dyspeptic head teacher and former cattle hand from Australia who always looked shitfaced.
Sao didn’t belong in that class. She wrote flowing, developed sentences while her classmates marveled at Wes spelling out the word “elephant” on the whiteboard. When Arthur returned to work after a bad case of food poisoning had laid him up in misery for a week, he was swamped and flustered. Much to Wes’s dismay, Arthur was quick to brush off Wes’s valid concerns of Sao’s erroneous placement in the lower intermediate speaking course. “I hardly see how it matters,” Arthur said, waving a dismissive hand in Wes’s direction. “They all come and go, anyway. You got paid, didn’t you?”
Every Sunday afternoon in the classroom, Sao sat solitaire at a corner desk. Sometimes she rolled her eyes at the other students who jabbered in provincial, singsong tones. Most of them showed up for class wearing department store markdowns, while fashion-forward Sao comported with elegant, self-possessed poise. She never wore the same thing twice, and all her clothing choices commanded attention: the knee-high Louboutin boots, the velvet cashmere berets, the silky scarves looped in Parisian double knots around her bare collarbone.
Studying Sao became a dirty little habit as Wes picked up Sao’s paragraph on lonely nights in his studio apartment. With each word so carefully curated, the English class icebreaker read more like a dating ad:
I love adventure. I’m twenty-five and single, no brothers or sisters. My dad is Thai and lives in England with his new wife. My mom is a Jewish New Zealander, and we keep a kosher home in the heart of downtown Bangkok. I attended university in Paris and traveled all over Europe by train. My dream is to see all seven continents. Only two more to go.
As the class flitted into the lobby for break time, Wes snuck a peek at Sao’s words, wondering how she got lumped together with a room full of Thai village people. Wes concealed the paragraph, firmly clapping his sketchbook shut as he noticed Sao sauntering to the podium in slow, fluid steps that turned the heads of a few interlopers speaking among themselves in rapid-fire hand gestures. As she approached, Wes watched as Sao slipped on a pair of dark sunglasses, turning her back on the busybodies cackling away in the corridor.
“Do you have a moment for a personal question?” Sao asked in a near-whisper.
Wes wet the whiteboard with a spray bottle. “Sure. What’s on your mind?”
She backed away, shyly fingering wisps of her raven black hair. “Why Bangkok?”
Exhausted from a year of soupy, polluted air, Wes paused and sighed in resignation before responding. “My dad came here before I did. Now he’s in New Zealand.”
Sao smiled warmly at the mention of her mother’s homeland. “Is he a teacher, too?”
“Isn’t every foreigner in Thailand?” Wes quipped, cracking open his sketchbook to a page with “shalom” etched into a puffy cloud. “When I was a kid, he taught me how to scribe in Hebrew.”
Sao leaned closely enough to turn the pages herself. “How come you never shared this with the class?”
“Better to keep a low profile,” Wes replied bluntly, clapping the book shut as Sao’s intro paragraph nearly slipped from the pages. “Some hateful people work here.”
“That’s what I’ve heard,” Sao said, her voice dripping with suspicion. “I want to quit this so-called school. Students here spend way too much money just to practice their English with teachers who aren’t even qualified.”
Wes shrugged. “Well, my degree isn’t in education. But I like what I do.”
“I didn’t mean you, Wes,” Sao swiftly backpedaled. “You’re the only good one here. And you can do much better.”
“I appreciate that. But I just signed on for another year.”
“Think about it, Wes.” Sao let the sunglasses slip down her nose. “Live a little. You can do so much more than teaching English with bitter, old men.”
“What are you saying I should do?”
Sao looked calm and radiant, speaking straight into his eyes. “I think you should visit New Zealand. It’s the most beautiful place in the world.”
“You’ve been there before?” Wes played coy, not wanting his student to know he’d committed to memory the personal details of her first-day paragraph.
“My mom grew up in Auckland. We go back to visit every year.”
“My friend Dave lives there,” Wes said. “You know, the former head teacher? He’s always inviting me to stay at his house in Herne Bay.”
“Whatever,” Sao said, waving her hand in a graceful, sweeping motion. “See the world when you have the chance.”
“While you have the chance,” Wes replied with a wink. “As a teacher, I feel lucky that I can hold on to a traditional job.”
Sao gazed at him as a sly smile tugged at the corners of her mouth. “Wes, it’s 2004. Nothing is traditional anymore.”
“I don’t know,” Wes added. “What if I leave and your next teacher’s a jerk?”
“Look around you. This place is a revolving door. You can suspend your contract and come back whenever you want. It’s what my last two teachers did.”
“Maybe we can quit together,” Wes said offhandedly.
Sao held an assured grin, stepping sideways to her desk as the other students shuffled back to their seats. “Now that, Teacher Wes? That’s the spirit.”
The very next day, Wes hopped a bus for Siam Square to revise the terms of his employment at the Head Office. There, a hurried receptionist handed off stapled pages with dotted lines awaiting signatures before turning her back to continue a conversation about “that fight.” Shrugging, Wes exited, paying no mind to the gossip.
Back in the elevator, Wes bumped into another educator, Colin, who turned away and leaned over the handrail. His wrinkled shirt was tinged with drops of blood. Big bruises ringed both of his eyes.
“What happened to you?” Wes asked. “Are you okay?”
Colin scoffed, unveiling filmy, dried blood on his front teeth. “I’m banned from the company for two weeks.”
“I heard the receptionists going on about a fight at the branch.”
“There was a fight, all right.”
“Was it with Arthur?”
“He wasn’t there. It was Heinrich. I confronted him about the young girl I saw him with, and he went off.”
“I can tell.” Wes eyed the scratches on Colin’s nose and forehead. Colin was a little guy, five foot seven with no definition in his arms or chest. “I just hope that you hit him back.”
“Once I got out of the headlock, I bashed his head with a chair. He went to the emergency room and I didn’t, so the company’s blaming me.”
“New topic, then. So, my dad’s in New Zealand,” Wes said as they walked off the elevator and into scorching central Bangkok. “I decided to suspend my contract to go look for him.”
“For how long?”
“We’ll see. Dave Sterling’s setting me up with a room in Auckland. Sorry for always being too busy to jam with you.”
Colin crinkled his battered eyes. “What are you saying?”
“If you’re feeling up to it, let’s play some music tonight.”
Colin’s practice space was a storage capsule planted into dusty ruins. On the fringes of a dark, dusty highway, Colin had staked out a dry piece of land between a patchwork of tin-roofed shanties and a sprawling outdoor market overlooking a muddy klong.
Before coming to Thailand to teach English, Colin had ended a three-year run in the world’s financial hub. Everything he owned went into a shipping container on a big boat in the Port of Tilbury, thence floating an eastbound path around the world’s continents from the Thames River to the Chao Phraya. Colin brought his entire rehearsal space from the UK and was forever going on about gigs he had lined up.
Tempting as it was to put another band together, Wes didn’t relate to Colin all that well. He found it odd that the affluent Londoner had relocated on a permanent basis to Thailand for a teaching gig that paid peanuts. Besides, they were from different sides of the tracks. Colin was third generation in his family to graduate from Oxford, while Wes went to a state university on full scholarship.
So that his mom could rent out his bedroom and catch up with the mortgage, Wes moved out after college and stayed at the home of Boone Somphan, his best friend since high school, and whose dad, Lek, was born and raised in Thailand. Bangkok jobs would pay better than anything out in the provinces, Lek advised, when Wes decided to set out to find his own father. Stanley Levine disappeared from Playa del Carmen “like a ghost in the night,” as one neighbor had phrased it on the phone. After ten years on the Caribbean shoreline, Stanley pulled a midnight runner to Bangkok.
Colin turned open the padlocked door, leading Wes into the full rehearsal studio he imported into a developing country where flood waters knew not how to discriminate in the annual rainy seasons.
“Nice setup,” Wes said, looking over a slotted rack of Fender Stratocasters. “Now that we’re in a private place, can you tell me what’s really been going on?”
Hiding his battered face behind the drum throne, Colin looked downcast, idly twirling a pair of sticks until one slipped from his fingers. “Maybe. Sure. What’s on your mind?”
“Some of the teachers at the branch have been acting really strange lately.” Wes strapped on one of Colin’s electric guitars and, without plugging it in, strummed absent-minded chords.
“It’s not only our co-workers,” Colin replied as he stepped away from the drums. “Take a look out the door for a minute.”
“Okay.” Wes returned the guitar to its stand. “What am I looking at?”
“You see that girl by the Coke machine?”
Wes bit down on his lip. “She looks very young.”
Colin leaned closer. “That’s the kid I saw with Heinrich the other night.”
“So why don’t we get her some help?” Wes suggested, feeling for the Nokia in his pants pockets.
“Don’t do that.” Colin laid a firm hand on the cell phone. “Heinrich has connections.”
“Would you consider leaving the country?” Wes asked. “Dave might even be able to hook you up with a room at his house Down Under.”
Colin shook his head. “I’ve got too much tied up here in Bangkok.”
Wes peeked through the crack in the door as Colin flipped a switch, bringing instant darkness to the rehearsal space. A wayward white man too tall and stout to stand upright wobbled out of the shadows and into incandescent red light shining from the Coke machine. As the looming giant deposited some coins, he helped himself to spaghetti straps on the girl’s loose tank top. Faster than the can tumbled to the dispenser, the man and the child disappeared into the murky field of shipping cubes.
“I’ve got to take care of some unfinished business,” Wes said, patting Colin on the shoulder. “Let’s jam another time.”
It was time. Wes had to let Tely know about his plans to leave Thailand.
Ever since Wes moved into his seaside apartment by an industrial park, the forty-five-year-old concierge receptionist had acted like a second mom. In her younger years, Tely had arrived in Thailand by way of the Philippines. She had chin-length hair, a red rose tattoo that wrapped around her wrist, and two adult children from whom she was estranged. Wes, expecting that his decision to break the lease would incur a financial loss, approached the counter, picking at his fingernails. But Tely amended pages of his written rental agreement with a red rubber stamp, and with a maternal, sad smile, she handed over the security deposit in full. Wes returned her smile with a quiet one of his own. He did care about this woman a great deal. When Tely’s mother died on Christmas Eve, Wes left a bouquet and a sympathy card on her desk, and Tely had never forgotten it.
Sitting on the studio floor with a packed trunk suitcase at his back, Wes scratched a dull pencil into an unfinished Hebrew chai. An old birthday greeting from his dad slipped from the sketchbook. Wes stared into the faded snapshot of the Playa Del Carmen shore. The same year on Mom’s birthday, Dad sent another postcard that she ripped to shreds straight out of the mailbox. Wes taped the pieces together to find that Stanley Levine now lived in an overwater bungalow, and he was inviting his family to join him.
Mom said, “No way!” as Wes asked, “Why not?”
The postcard picture looked like a paradise deserted, too remote for Stanley’s myriad creditors to find him. Since the twelfth grade, Wes usually kept the birthday message taped to his bedroom mirror. Over the years, the once sun-soaked photo faded to dusty gray.
Hi, Son. Can’t believe my Bar Mitzvah boy is already seventeen. Say hello to Mom. I miss you both all the time. Happy birthday.
Wes dropped the room key on Tely’s desk, remotely aware of the tears beginning to pool in his eyes. Tely made him promise he wouldn’t look at the postcard in lonely times. Going out the double glass doors, she clasped his hand on the marbled front steps, wrapping him in a warm hug that sent his blood coursing. Tely, twenty years his senior, seemed more in touch with her sexual side than the shy university girls he’d notice at the mall, tucked carefully in skin-tight uniforms, giggling whenever they saw a man. And despite her motherly role, Tely’s maturity turned him on. Sometimes, Wes imagined what she looked like under those sleek business blazers. In the tight embrace, Tely cradled Wes around the shoulders, holding him close enough that he could feel the firmness of her breasts. As she saw him out, Wes took uncomfortable steps through the door and into the public. Everyone on the street could see that Wes was hard, a Pinocchio’s nose showing through the crotch of his khaki trousers.
He wheeled his clunky suitcase through the soi and turned around to wave to Tely as mournful harmonics rang out spacey, organic sounds. A tiny woman sat on a curbside straw mat beside a smoking charcoal grill. She blew into a row of bamboo pipes resting between unevenly amputated limbs. Wes spared eighteen baht, dropping tiny coins into her tip cup, and he climbed the steps of the skybridge with his head down, as if ashamed that he hadn’t given more. But earlier that day, he’d exchanged nearly all his baht for traveler’s checks, keeping just enough Thai currency for a taxi ride to Don Muang Airport, where a nominal international departure tax also awaited at the final checkpoint.
As he walked, Wes happened upon a merchant table outside of the mall. A man in a purple Indian pagari shuffled his cards. Wrapped upon the mystic’s forehead, an embedded red ruby gem shone like a third eye. A straggling salt-and-pepper beard of biblical proportions forked into two trails down his chest.
“Hello, please come see me!” solicited the mystic, splitting the Tarot deck into three. “I can look into your future. I’m the chosen one.”
“Now, how can I be sure of that?”
“For two hundred baht I’ll give you a palm reading. If you pay a little more, we can use my crystal ball.”
“Just palm,” Wes returned, pulling the exact amount from his pocket.
“Yes, yes, that’s fine,” Chosen One said brusquely. He snapped the money into his hand, and Wes whiffed a peculiar, sour odor of nuts on the man’s breath.
“Soon,” Chosen One traced a thick fingertip across the long line on Wes’s palm, “you will hear good news from two people. This line is about communication, Wes.”
Wes sharpened an eyebrow. “How do you know my name?”
Chosen One cracked a toothy, cocksure smile. “Tell me, what’s my name, brother?”
“Um, Chosen One?”
“Now tell me who loves you the most?”
Stanley came to mind. That Stanley, the one who fled Maryland for Mexico, disappearing from his family to shield them from harm. He did it from a place of love, Wes told himself for the thousandth time.
“Love’s a complicated thing,” Wes replied. “Besides, you’re the psychic. Maybe you can answer that question.”
“I’m seeing a man and a woman in your life,” Chosen One returned, his eyes widening with excitement.
“Really?” Wes asked, intrigued. “What do you know about them?”
Chosen One reached under his table. “We can look with my crystal ball.”
“Sorry.” Wes shook his head. “I only have enough for the palm reading. I’m about to catch a taxi. Is there anything else you can do for the two hundred?”
Chosen One nodded as he passed Wes a tiny slip of a blank paper. “Hold this and think of a number from one to twenty.”
“Okay. Got it.”
Chosen One rolled his eyes heavenward. “Now open your hands.”
Wes unfolded the paper. Bewildered, he looked at the one and eight penciled fancily in freehand. Eighteen and the chai were his most favored number and letter, symbols of life and luck since Abraham.
“H-How did you do that?” Wes stammered, staring into the unfolded parchment. “It was blank when you gave it to me.”
Chosen One smiled beatifically as sunlight beamed across his big-bearded face. “I didn’t write on it, my brother,” he whispered solemnly. “You did.”
“No, I didn’t,” Wes snapped, as though offended by a serious accusation.
Recoiling from the table, Wes felt foolish for blowing his money on a palm reading. During Senior Week at Ocean City, Wes had stumbled into the boardwalk shop of a Latina beauty in a long, gilded dress who calmly told Wes that he’d go on to travel the world and write the greatest book of all time. Chosen One reminded Wes more of his dad’s card reader, so hot-tempered and alarmist. Despite gambling debts spiraling out of control, Stanley managed to rack up thousands in phone bills so that he could spill his guts to a husky-voiced drama king who saw Mexico in the cards. On his last call, Stanley had been issued a warning: the closer he stayed to his wife and son, the graver the dangers they’d all face.
“Please come back,” Chosen One cried to Wes, who had already sprinted across the street and was handing his suitcase to a taxi driver. “You’re breaking my heart!”
As Wes slipped into the backseat, he rolled his eyes before flicking a peace sign. “I foresee that you’ll get over it,” he added, bidding the mystic farewell.