By Justin Fike and Adam Fleming
I woke up and looked in the mirror. Lines on my face from my new corduroy Arkansas Razorbacks pillow. Spiked the hair on the top of my head with gel and let it dry while I combed out the tangles hanging to my shoulders with my brand new Arkansas Razorbacks comb. “Barbed wire in front, horse’s ass in the back” my Daddy calls it. He tried to make me cut it once, but I reminded him that great-grandpappy had long hair, and he rode with Wyatt Earp. Then I grabbed my Stetson, a regular Stetson. Oh, I got a few that are bright red, with a big Razorbacks logo in the center, but I’d rather shake hands with a rattlesnake than wear one of those in public.
Look, can I just say right up front that I hate the Arkansas Razorbacks? I did not choose to be born in Texarkana. I would throw out all the Arkansas Razorbacks stuff cluttering up my trailer if it wasn’t all given to me on my birthday and holidays by members of the family. But it was, so I have to keep it. I tell my family members “Ef the Razorbacks” and they all laugh and say, “Spoken like a true Arkansian, or is it Arkansite? Arkanser?” Then they all fall to arguing about what they should call me. Oh, it’s a big joke here that I was born in Arkansas. It’s become a family tradition every Christmas to see who can give me the weirdest Razorbacks memorabilia, and yesterday was no different. Everyone else got something they wanted. I got ten Razorbacks place mats to go with my Razorbacks card table, and a shiny new Razorbacks razor, which Daddy was especially proud of finding. And remember this was 1988, long before there was Ebay or Amazon, but still they managed to find stuff like a metal sign that says “Reserved Parking, Razorbacks fans only” or a desk statue of a pig made from resin that’s supposed to look like bronze. I don’t even have a desk, and I don’t need a parking spot. I swear they spent all summer lookin’ at yard sales and auctions for stuff to get me, and they laughed when I told them I don’t need more Razorback stuff, and then they just kept on debating what you call someone from Arkansas. Arkansonian? No, that’s not what you call me.
My name is Stetson Jeff Stetson.
You know, just like Bond James Bond, Double Oh Seven. Except with a bigger hat and a bigger … heh, heh. You know. Everything’s bigger in Texas. Heck, even in Arkansas things are bigger than little old Great Britain. But let’s not go there.
I threw open the door to my trailer and admired the view. East Texas spread out from my front step; the big house, the ranch, the warehouse with trucks pulled up. Somebody loading hats for delivery to San Antonio, maybe. Went over to the big house to see what kind of leftovers were in the kitchen for breakfast, probably refried steak and eggs. I was all set and ready to have a pretty great day. Maybe watch some old boxing tapes on my Razorbacks-brand VCR because it’s Boxing Day and I got nothin’ to do, but I checked the TV Guide and there’s no boxing on TV. How can that be, y’all? It ain’t right, it’s Boxing Day. All we got is MacGyver reruns, which is sort of like boxing I guess, but with extra duck tape.
Daddy met me at the door; he was coming out to limber up. He won’t admit it, but he was doing yoga. He was getting older even back then, a little thicker around the waist, but he always wanted to stay fit in case the Sheriff called and organized a posse or some such nonsense. Daddy used to be a fighter like me. He always said he never lost a fair fight, but the truth is he got his butt whupped probably the last six or seven times he got in a jam. Now he’s more of a talker.
“Mornin’, son,” he says to me, and now I know it’s on. Once he starts in like that, he’ll be talkin’ all day. “We got a pretty big shipment of hats goin’ out, considerin’ the retail season just ended. Thing is, winter can pretty well ruin hats.” As if I didn’t know all this. He went on about the business for a while, doin’ his Downward Dog and other poses. If the poses had namby-pamby names, he gave ‘em better, Texas names. Rodeo Jack, Rattler on the Rocks, Defending the Alamo, and Wide Open Spaces just to name a few.
He talked right through it all until he got to Birthing Calf and I got embarrassed for him so I went inside to find some steak and eggs. He kept right on talkin’ at me with his head down between his knees about how well the business is doin’ and how we’re gonna start making jeans now, too.
I came back out after breakfast and he was smoking a cigar, looking much better. I guess the stretches do help, or at least the cigars do.
“So, what do you say?” he asked.
“I dunno. What do I say about what?”
“Goin’ into town to meet these guys?”
I missed something in between the yoga and the cigar, but Daddy doesn’t like it when I’m not listening, so I said, “Sure, why not?”
So much for watching the Rumble in the Jungle again. Daddy walked on over to the pickup truck and I had to toss down the last of my coffee and chase after him.
“So these guys,” I asked all casual-like as I climbed into the passenger seat, “you said they were from …”
“Bangkok,” Daddy says. “Funny name, isn’t it? That’s in Thailand.”
“And you said that they came from Bangkok because …”
“Because they want to make our jeans for us over there. Seems they’ve set up a new factory, and they want our brand to be their first big contract. I can tell they’re hungry for it, too, so I told them if they can beat a certain price to fly over here and we’ll shake on it.”
“We were gonna have them factory-made in the USA for one-twenty-two a pair, but we can order from Thailand for half that.” I whistled low. He kept talking. “I’m all for ‘made in the USA’ but that’s the name of the model we’re going to have these fellers make, so it should be just fine.”
“You mean like ‘Levi’s, 501’s’. Ours would be ‘Stetson’s, Made in the USA’s’.”
“Right. Then we put an itty-bitty tag on the inside, you know, like on the backside of ‘Machine Warsh Warm’ that says ‘Thailand’ and nobody’s the wiser.”
“Makes sense. But what if you get caught? Is it worth it, for half of one-twenty-two?”
“Half of one-twenty-two is sixty-one cents, Jeff,” he said.
“I was coming around to that,” I said. “Sixty-one cents, you can buy three generic cokes at Wal-mart for that. I got that much between my couch cushions, I reckon. I mean, Daddy, you’re the boss, but we got a brand-name to worry about. I don’t know if you should mess with that whole Made in the USA thing.”
“Jeff,” he said, “It’s not sixty-one cents, it’s sixty-one cents times 300,000 pairs, every year.”
“Wow, over a million bucks.”
“Yes, it would be, in time,” he said, real pensive-like. The look he gets whenever he’s about to make a pile of dough. “Look, just be nice to these guys. They bow instead of shakin’ hands. Let me worry about the math, you just use your street smarts. Make sure these guys are on the level. You can always figure out people from outside of Texas. It’s your Texarkana gift, dealin’ with foreigners.”
That made me think of a line from Ranger Discoveries, the second greatest book ever written, although if I’m being real honest I’ve read it way more often than the Good Book itself.
If you’ve got a gift, you’ve got to humbly accept it. The world needs what you’ve got to give.
Jeremiah P. Johnstone, Ranger Discoveries, page 271.
I thought about that in silence while we drove through town, and Daddy was quiet cause he was doing the math. Soon enough we got to the bar, parked in back, and went inside. The Tipsy Cow wasn’t the best bar in town, but it’s the spot where Daddy learned drinkin’ so he stayed loyal to it even after the time he found a fingernail in his chili. The place was always noisy, and if you stood in one place too long you had to work hard to pick up your feet to get them unstuck from the floor, but to this day the smell of old beer and boot leather makes me feel right at home.
I looked around, I didn’t see anybody from Bangkok but I saw two foreigners, maybe Chinese guys in the back pouring their own shots from a big bottle of Jack’s.
“Must be them,” Daddy said, and walked over to say hello.
I watched how they bowed, and I bowed back the same way. Daddy stuck out his hand, and they shook it.
“Welcome to Texas,” Daddy said, “You fellers been here long?”
One guy was the interpreter. His English was pretty good. He said they came early to get a head start, and Daddy said he respected that. They started talkin’ business. I tuned out of the conversation, but kept my feelers on for vibes. (You can see that I humbly accept my gift, Ranger Johnstone.)
We drank all day. The interpreter’s English got worse, then went from worse, to bad, to downright mediocre, with words from Bangkok startin’ to get mixed in.
Finally, Daddy said “I gotta take a piss,” and I said “me, too,” because that’s the signal.
“It’s a great deal,” he mumbled into the urinal.
“I smell a rat,” I said.
“It’s the goddam bathroom in a bar, son, of course you smell somethin’ unpleasant,” he said.
“No, Daddy, it’s these guys. Something’s wrong. I can’t put my finger on it.”
“Are you sayin’ I shouldn’t shake on it today?”
“No, that might piss ’em off. Shake on it, do a short-term temporary deal, tell ’em we’ll give them a try for a while. Six months. How many jeans is that?”
“150,000 pairs. It’s not a bad start, and I think they’ll agree. They might charge me a bit more per unit, but still better than a buck. But how are we gonna figure out if we want to keep workin’ with these guys, though?”
“I dunno.” I felt the feeling of being at a loss.
As we went back out I saw that our friends had meandered over to talk to some girls at the bar, and the older Bangkokian was actually making a move on this pretty blonde. She was beautiful, I mean, cheerleader foxy. Her name is May Daisy Cook. I didn’t take much notice of her growing up, cause she used to just be a little girl. She was maybe two–three years younger than me and she surely was no little girl now, in fact all my friends who didn’t have girls of their own to stick up for agreed she was the most beautiful woman in the county.
As he moved in beside her at the bar, his hand brushed her rear end. Looked intentional, I mean, he did it in the way drunks who think they are being subtle do, but what they’re doin’ is obvious to everyone else.
“Crazy idjit,” I said.
“Yup. Looks like they may be in a jam. Good thing I limbered up,” said Daddy, as we broke into a trot. Sure enough, Big Mac Wallace, who was seeing May Daisy Cook at the time, was getting red in the face and didn’t like that feller talkin’ to his girl let alone touchin’ her bottom that way. He’s dumb but he don’t miss subtle.
I went to school with Big Mac, he was in my class, and let me tell you if you want someone to write you a killer essay so that you can get into the Texas Rangers, which is my dream and that is even why I am writing essays like this right now, well, Big Mac is not much of an essayist but he’s sure as shootin’ a killer. I come up to his solar plexus, which is this little knob below the sternum, so the one time I did fight him I nearly killed him with a head-butt to the chest, cause I almost broke off his solar plexus and drove it right into his heart. As it was his heart just turned out to be bruised and it laid him up for a good while, but I wouldn’t want to fight him again because as he told me himself, next time I will not be so lucky because it will not be a fair fight. I am not afraid of him at all unless it is not a fair fight.
Big Mac took a longneck and busted it on the counter and everybody cleared away except for the Bangkokian, who didn’t seem to know better. Big Mac came a-swingin’ for him, glass shards flashing in an arc through the air. But that is when I saw something that if I didn’t see it myself I wouldn’t have believed my eyes.
The younger Thailander guy, the interpreter, came up alongside Big Mac and punched him in the ear, with only two fingers. Wow! It was such a hard punch, and it stopped Big Mac in his tracks.
Well it was a brawl now, and you may think it was racism but I tell you what, if you are a Chinaman or a Mexican or an Indian or a British Gentleman or a Fighting Irish from Notre Dame or just from Texarkana it does not matter to Big Mac, you are a foreigner and besides you are touching his girl which is the main point, and so he didn’t stay down. He got up swinging, and his brother and two cousins were off their stools faster than heat lightning in July. They got all bunched up trying to get to the Bangkokers and they clipped a few of the fellers standing nearby who started swinging back, and you can imagine how things went from there.
Now I got to say the rest of the day was a kind of a blur, because we got those boys out of the bar while everyone else was fighting so I did not get a chance to speak politely to May Daisy Cook and besides it was not a good time to talk. I wanted to talk to her again some day if she would just stop hanging around with Big Mac, not that I had anything against him personally. We always got along okay, and even helped each other out of a few scrapes down the road, but before she started seeing Big Mac semi-regular, May Daisy had danced with me one night when they had a boot-scootin’ at the county fair. I said something that made her laugh, and she kissed my cheek when the dance was over, and she said “You’re cute, Shorty,” and that was the sorta thing that was hard to forget. But she was still in her Senior Year at Texas A&M and I knew I would see her on the sidelines during the Cotton Bowl on TV in a few days, bouncing up and down with her pompoms and whatnot lifted skyward and that was a comfortin’ thought I must say. I like Texas A&M a lot more than the Razorbacks, I tell you what.
“You fellows really know how to box, over there in Bangkok,” I said, once we’d got some ice packs on our faces and things were mellowing out, as the hippies say. We were sitting on the veranda back at the ranch.
“Yes,” said the interpreter. “We practice Muay Thai.”
“Muay Thai. Thai-style boxing. My master taught me. I am not only interpreter, I am his bodyguard. He was great fighter but now he need me. He has become thick in the middle. Fat-fatty.”
His English was getting better again.
“You dudes have your own brand of boxing?” I said. I was feeling a feeling of incredulity.
“Yes, it is our national sport. We have a big tournament in Bangkok every year. Like your Series of World Super Cups, but with kicking. In summer time, I think you would call it. You should come and see sometime, Stetson Jeff Stetson.”
“I gotta take a piss,” I said.
Daddy followed me into the bathroom.
“I know what I gotta do,” I said, “I’m going to Bangkok. I’m going to tell them I want to watch their Mooey Thailand Tournament, but I’ll check out their operations while I’m over there.”
“Sounds good, son, let’s shake on it.”
“Wait until I’m done pissin’,” I said.
“No, I mean we’ll shake on it with the Big Shot out there. Whatshisname. Fat-fatty.”
“Sounds good. I’ll call Betsy P. at Texas Travels tomorrow morning and get a one-way ticket to Bangkok.”
And you know what, I did it. And that is how the story began to unfold as you will see.
“Beatdown in Bangkok: A Stetson Jeff Adventure,” is a new book from Justin Fike and Adam G. Fleming, available on Amazon. It’s the first of a planned series.
Their lighthearted story follows Stetson Jeff Stetson, a Texan from Arkansas who travels to Bangkok on a mission for his father’s company, which makes Stetsons and is looking to get in on the cheap Asian jeans market. The book doesn’t get any less absurd from there.
The book masquerades as light fluff, but lands some sneaky punches on unfair labor and trade practices. It also manages to poke fun at two serious cultures and the clash between the two while showing an underlying respect for both.
Justin Fike grew up in the Blue Ridge mountains of Virginia. He has a master’s in Creative Writing from Oxford University. He is a martial arts aficionado, a gaming nerd and a classics geek. He lives, travels, and works with his wife Mindy and dog Chino.
Adam Fleming is a novelist and life coach hailing from Goshen, Indiana. Married with four kids, he is a writer, speaker and professional executive coach. Adam is a world traveler and has spent significant amounts of time in Zaire/ DRC, France, Ivory Coast, and a dozen or more other countries.