At the Café Lovely, by Rattawut Lapcharoensap
The Fall Issue of Zoetrope: All Story leads off with Rattawut Lapcharoensap’s haunting story At the Café Lovely, the tale of two Bangkok brothers whose father has died (and they lose mother as well. While she is physically present, she is mired in grief and unable to act or see or hear in a way they need her to). Indeed, they are all entombed in their apartment which always has the windows shut in the sweltering heat because the city dump is burning nearby (except on Saturdays).
The big scene is when the older brother, Anek, brings the younger brother (who is also the narrator) to a whore house where he is going to hang out with his group of friends. Even though the boy is clearly too young to be there, one gets the sense that Anek is trying to be like his father (who brought him when he was 15), but he lacks the skills.
There is glue sniffing, and young women winking. There are remembrances of how the younger brother follows in Anek’s footsteps and there is a sad ending of history repeating itself over and over. The most haunting scene is when the narrator recalls himself at a later age, hanging in a gang like Anek’s and sniffing glue like they do, except the moment ends in tragedy when one of the boys accidentally sets himself alight:
He never made a sound, just ran around that alley with his face on fire, the flames catching in his hair and his clothes, looking like some giant ignited match in the shape of a man. For a second, we couldn’t quite comprehend what was happening–some of us laughed, most of us were just stunned–before I managed to chase the boy down, tackle him to the ground, and beat out the flames from his face with my T-shirt. His eyes were wild with terror and we just stared at each other for a moment before he started to weep hysterically, his body shaking under mine, the terrible scent of burnt flesh and singed hair filling the alley. His lashes and eyebrows had been burned cleanly off his face. His eyelids were raw, pink. His face began to swell immediately, large white welts blooming here and there. And he just kept on crying beneath me, calling for his mother and father, blubbering incoherently in the high, desperate voice of a child.
Finally, the brothers live out an ugly cycle of loss and rejection. After Anek leaves, the narrator steals from and then is kicked out by his mother (who suddenly comes back to life for this one act). In the end, though, what they have is what they had in the beginning: each other.
I found this story gripping and well worth the read.