I meet Max at a bar called Loco Elvis.
A Thai guy in blue John Lennon sunglasses is singing ‘Last Nite’ like he’s Julian Casablancas and Max walks in, heads right for me, smiles and says “Yo, chocolate!” like he heard it from my mother.
Then he challenges me to a wrestling match.
He slams his elbow down on the table and says if he wins I have to give him a 100 Baht and if he loses I have to buy two of the malik garlands he’s selling at 20 Baht each which brings the cost of the whole thing down to a real rip-off.
Max is ten years old.
It’s about 23:30 in Chiang Mai and he and his buddy Burn are selling roses and Arabian Jasmine to the patrons slowly slipping off their bar stools.
Though I know it’s none of my business, I look around for some kind of Fagan.
A shady Dickensian character hovering around to make sure the kids don’t try any funny flower business but I don’t see anyone who looks like they’re a pimp for a gang of children selling potpourri.
Still, Max and Burn are alone in bar at night. Max has a lazy eye that must be a real boon in the pity trade and both their young brown eyes look a little shinier than I find normal but no one bats an eyelid so I play along.
I ask them a few questions about where they’re selling that night and get my arm wrestled to the ground before buying them each a piece of chocolate cake which they fling into their mouths as they run out into the street. High on sugar, the night and who knows what else.
A few minutes later I meet their friend Pozo who has just missed them. I ask him if he’s friends with Burn and Max and he nods, places his flowers on the counter and sits down next to me at the bar when I tell him they’ve just left.
The soccer’s on.
Germany is playing Portugal and Pozo says he hopes they win before sizing me up out of the corner of his eye and deciding that I look like the kind of sucker who will buy a whole bunch of roses and garlands.
Even though I already have two strands on my neck, ten strands hanging in my bathroom and two roses in a glass on the bar top.
Pozo is right. I cough up for three malik garlands and drape them over my growing flower arrangement on the counter and he grins at me and runs his hands over his buzz cut before watching the game for about fifteen minutes.
While he does, I smell the flowers. The Arabian jasmine smells like lily of the valley and the roses don’t smell like anything at all. They’re bright, beautiful and everything a rose should be but I get the feeling they’d be a big disappointment to Shakespeare.
The next night, I meet a musician who knows Max well and tells me his going to be the greatest little con artist the world has ever seen. He says he’s run into the kid by day and that his mum is a fit looking Thai woman with a boyfriend and that Max lives in the area with his grandmother.
He says it matter of factly and answers my questions about their safety and it being a school night, with a looks that implies: “Honey, your life has been a cakewalk and a bag of chips, hasn’t it?” and in words he says: “It’s safe, it’s school holidays and they need the money.”
I can’t argue with that and neither can I drink 100 baht cocktails and not spend 20 baht on their flowers so I buy some every night I see them amidst cheers of “Hey, chocolate. Thanks, chocolate. Chocolate, can you buy me some chocolate?”
The three of them are the cutest things you have ever seen. They are males with flowers and they are impossible to resist and I’m romanticizing the whole thing to a friend at a superbar called Zoe in Yellow after Pozo has spotted me and I’ve given him twenty Baht for a garland.
“You know he’s drunk as fuck, right?”
I don’t associate the sentence with the little kid who has just walked off so I look around at the many drunks I can choose from in Sodom and Gomorrah and ask who?
“Your little friend.”
“Yeah, they use that money to buy rum and drink it at the back of the bars and sometimes they even get paid in it.”
I stare after Pozo and as if feeling my eyes on his back, he turns around, walks back to me and asks me to buy him a burger. I take in the glassiness of his eyes and ask him how much it is and he says 55 baht.
I’m starting to doubt him but I think it best he sobers up so I give him the money to go to the street food sellers outside the club and tell him he has to come and show me the burger. He nods.
About 30 minutes later, I’m giving up on him and trying not to look at my friend’s smug face when a burger gets shoved in my face and is made to a little burger dance that says: “I told you so.”
He has ketchup in the corners of his mouth and he grins at me, says ‘Thank you’ and runs off into the night.
I head home.
I open the door to my little apartment and I pause in the doorway because I smell something. Something strong and sweet and familiar.
It’s the Arabian Jasmine in my bathroom. Its scent seems strengthened by the night and it’s like a presence in the dark room.
A presence that says “thank you.”
And smells like children at midnight.