Gary stands by the side of the road that killed his wife.
At least, he can imagine this is the road. Rickety tuk-tuks leave contrails of greasy exhaust. Mopeds bear down, brushing close, deliberate acts of disregard. Students. They ride in sandals or even bare feet, helmetless, alongside cars, trucks, and tuk-tuks, all competing to get to their destinations at any cost. Legions of trucks waver as they barrel forward.
He has never run in Thailand before, and here, outside Chiang Mai, it will be a challenge. He should be sleeping, but steps as if through shallows, tired but determined. Jet lag tweaks his equilibrium as he dodges scooters and dogs. He must get back to meet Mr. Kurthi.
In the months since Lillian’s died, he has tried to renegotiate reality.
Back in Maple City, the shop is quiet. Lillian used to do the books, which languish. Custom chair, table and cabinet orders had stopped coming in with those back due unfinished. Stacks of white pine boards weathered gray in the yard. But this had all happened long ago, years, not merely months.
Lillian had once encouraged Gary to take up running, which preoccupied him most days. During the weeks leading up to marathons, too pumped up to fend for himself, she used to make him a power breakfast: quinoa and strawberries, an avocado and raw egg smoothie, two slices of gluten-free toast. She timed him and set benchmarks. The rigor of his training made him healthy. Running had saved him when she moved abroad. He no longer drank himself to sleep every night. He started daily meditation.
He had sealed himself off from grief because he had never gotten over her initial leaving. Friends asked, “Why didn’t you go with her?” But he never explained. All that time he waited to get a phone call from her, to hear her excited tone that once could make him catch his breath. Or even a message in his in-box asking him to come and be with her. That they might work it out after all.
Lillian’s posthumous surprise, a last act of rebellion—in her will—requesting a ceremony in Thailand. Gary has come to Thailand to collect her. Delaying for as long as possible. He has no idea why his presence matters. He expects to push through the formalities, a few days, and then return home. Her ashes await.
In Michigan, he had responded to Mr. Kurthi, the avuncular principal with the British accent at the Friend’s school where Lillian taught English. He ignored all but the most official looking of Mr. Kurthi’s e-mails requesting Gary’s presence. He was not about to allow this stranger’s intrusion—a stranger who may know too much about them already. He made a reluctant call to clarify his plans.
Kurthi had suggested Gary come for some sort of one-hundred-day ritual. By then he should feel prepared to face these strangers and see where Lillian had spent her last days.
A date was set, and Kurthi took charge. He stressed that this protocol was unprecedented, but the Friend’s school wanted to have a ceremony while he was there, in appreciation to Lillian.
Reeling in the grief that he hadn’t allowed himself to show to anyone, in a moment of long-distance solicitude with this stranger he never expected to meet, Gary had confided to Mr. Kurthi.
“That all seems unnecessary,” Gary said, “I’ll just come and get the ashes.”
“This is necessary,” Kurthi said. “It’s what she wanted.”
Gary had booked accommodations at a hotel from a link Lillian had sent in an old email—back when he had thought about coming for a visit.
Eight hours into the long redeye he awoke from numbing dreams of blue ice floes, in drenching sweat. He had been watching a documentary about the Arctic ice melt off. It depressed him, just the kind of thing Lillian would have watched. Weary, he attempted meditation, and was conscious of passing out—trapped in that metal tube travelling 700 feet per second. Low blood pressure. Meditation couldn’t save him up here. He had lost control of his body, an effect heightened by the suspension in space and time, shot through the dark over that massive, endlessly deep body of water. Utterly at the mercy of the flight crew.
The China Airlines staff were kind and professional. He didn’t feel like a victim. Work gently, speak quietly, the motto posted above the crew area. They moved him to an exit aisle. At the first sign of light-headedness, he hit the call button.
After running over and palpating his wrist in her cool fingers, the doll faced stewardess crouched down and told him, “I used to be nurse.”
She looked at her pink watch—a child’s watch—and kept her focus on a space near Gary’s elbow, not meeting his eyes. She was young, with the inexperienced face of determination. After a minute of intense concentration, she said, “You be okay, soon.” How old did one have to be a nurse, Gary thought.
Gary begins his run. The ground crunches underfoot like back home, only Maple City is in the clutches of winter where the paths are hard-packed with tire-flattened snow. The road is oddly dry after the deluge the night before, but for small puddles. All night, the rain pounded in the gutters, and poured from them, sounding like the racket of the man who beat plastic buckets with drumsticks.
It is the first time he left the gates of the hotel. The road bumps against messy hedges. At a stone’s throw dilapidated concrete buildings squat in muddy fields. Bright laundry drapes their balconies like Buddhist prayer flags. He follows the edge of the dirt two lane, staying at the edge where he might dash onto the grass, if necessary.
The dirt road stretches to the horizon where mountains purple under vast cloud filled skies. Like Lillian’s photos from the Golden Triangle. Her Peace Corps stint in Uganda came to mind. Palmettos and banana plant leaves the size of torsos. He sometimes fantasized her fate there when she first left. A kind of revenge. The bizarre scenario in his mind was usually a terrorist attack, a bombing. The memory of this callousness troubles him.
In fact, her death was far more prosaic. Lillian was riding a moped that was hit from behind. Her helmet couldn’t save her. The driver of the car had been let off with a ticket, didn’t remember details. Gary learned about it three days after it happened.
He had been angry at her for so long and had tended their relationship like a wound that would never heal; a fire to feed.
Yet Lillian had known how to live, so he’d grudgingly acknowledged. While you are merely thinking about living, as she had said in Hawai’i, justifying her wanderlust. This, he thought, was a lesson from her books on meditation, the ones he broke the spines on. Whenever overwhelmed now, he settled into meditation. Ten minutes in and he lost track of what he was doing. He understands this might mean that the meditation is working.
Stray dogs oversee the village roadways. They seem to be a species more independent than American dogs, wearing impish smiles. No tags. Dogs in chain link pens circle frantically and yelp out. Gary picks up his pace.
He is a spectacle. Running man.
A dog stands at attention. Too late. Gary passes as the dog leans off its haunches to trot behind. Gary looks down at the dog’s bobbing head, baring teeth, eager to nip. The dog gurgles, leaning closer. Gary curses, running faster. The dog snaps at Gary’s heels, snagging a lace. Gary hop steps to shake it. A man whistles and the dog releases. Gary stops and the dog slinks away.
Kurthi’s Toyota appears. Gary steps back from the road.
“Mr. Field,” Kurthi calls out. “Just the man I want to see.”
“I was just going back,” Gary says, glancing at his watch. Eastern Standard Time. He is relieved to see him, somehow, but keeps it to himself. “I can be ready in fifteen minutes.”
Gary still does not know Kurthi’s full name.
“No worries,” he says.
Their official “tour” is to start tomorrow. Gary thinks morbidly: the site of his wife’s accident, the school she committed herself to. He is dubious, but duty bound.
That afternoon, Kurthi takes Gary on a tour of Chiang Mai. Kurthi drives in frantic circles around the city, looking for an opening, lunging the car into intersections. Chain-smoking. Gary, at his disposal, fans his face and cranks the window.
Kurthi, peeved about something, stabs out the cigarette. “I’m just not used to it,” Gary says in concession.
After the first two crystal showrooms, Gary won’t follow Kurthi into a third, tired of removing his costly running shoes and leaving them at the door—afraid of someone walking off with them. Besides, Gary can think of no earthly need for a five-figure crystal elephant.
“Lill was hoping you would come out,” Kurthi says.
“Lillian? Your wife.”
“She would have enjoyed bringing you here.”
Gary wonders how well Kurthi knew Lillian. Lill? The two had doubtless forged an expatriate bond. Gary thought of her having an affair. Kurthi? She had aroused his suspicion, but he denied it to himself to evade torment.
Gary thought the Peace Corps would have satisfied her apparent need for adventure, as she reveled in details that could only rattle him. The Americans were victims of regular thefts and late-night assaults. She egged him on with anecdotes. A rape of an American in broad daylight. Covering his distress with philosophical bromides, Gary had been dismissive to avoid her elaboration. “You make yourself vulnerable.”
In the interim, Gary exhausted himself with his training. She was once his only social outlet, one that he had never thought he needed. Gary took up more grueling marathon training. Running became solace. Without Lillian around he became motivated by the next run. At home, alone, he was at his best when running.
Gary remained stoic. Eventually she must return. Their separation was by default, and yet, thinking she would get this out of her system, he thought that the time apart was necessary for Lillian’s well-being.
They met up in Hawai’i last year on their anniversary, and Lillian told him.
“I’ve found a job in Thailand. They need English teachers.”
“You haven’t even left Uganda, yet.”
It had been over a year since she last stepped foot in their house. The future wasn’t even up for debate. In Kohala, Gary resolved to put this finally behind them. Bring her home. He wanted to preempt coming all that way for her to spring a surprise on him—embarrassing him by having taken a young lover. He couldn’t stand the possibility. Not knowing was easier.
She had once ensnared him, and he had held her back.
Gary awakes with a dull headache an hour late for the breakfast service. He wanders to the dining patio, hoping for coffee. Kurthi is picking him up for the ceremony that afternoon. Ambivalent or not, he will put on a game face for the sake of his estranged wife. The scene is unbearable to contemplate. He stares at an orange ant wandering across the lonely expanse of the tablecloth. The ant stops, cranks its head around as if deliberating the long trek toward the sugar bowl, and retreats to the lip of the table.
Pepe, the proprietor of the Golden Buddha, appears from nowhere placing a full cup of coffee in Gary’s saucer.
“Did you sleep okay, dear?” she asks.
After only one day her familiarity seems indulgent, motherly, comforting. “Yes,” Gary politely lies. “Quite well. Nice rooms here.”
In the distance, he hears a thin, echoing music over loudspeakers.
A crackling, high pitched voice drifted over the field. Warbling, vaguely unnerving.
Pepe notices his curiosity.
“Oh—that’s for the people,” she says. “For when there is news. For the village.”
He is dubious at her explanation, but nods in assent.
“Mr. Kurthi your friend?” Pepe asks.
Pepe’s words, her curiosity, the usual making conversation. She is busy at work in and out of the kitchen. Too busy to care.
“I don’t know him well,” Gary says, careful to add a few details. “My wife knew—knows—him.”
Pepe smiles, amused. Out of place in this world, lost in his own, Gary scans the grounds of the hotel.
“If you go to the country, you might visit Doi Suthep,” Pepe says, “nice temple.”
Lillian had mentioned the temples, but her descriptions were not appealing. Ornate temples built to house dead monks behind glass, sitting lotus style. Worshippers bore offerings and bowed in thanks. Icons. A postcard from Ayutthaya was a photograph of a famed stone Buddha’s head, stolen by the Burmese. Recovered, the relic was embedded in the roots of a Banyan tree, these grew like coiled snakes cascading down the ruins of a retaining wall. The Buddha’s head the same color as the roots.
“Or perhaps you shop?” Pepe offers. “Crystal for your wife?”
Gary covers his left hand. He can’t remember where he left his ring.
Gary stretches his legs for a quick couple of miles before lunch. Kurthi is to arrive at three.
The clouds bank into coiling walls of a menacing storm system concealing sky. The shadows are etched like wood carvings he’d seen at the temples. The effect is blinding, the sun a mere white-hot moon. Strangely, there are no shadows on the ground.
He puts on his running gear, warms up in his room for ten minutes and steps through the gate of the Golden Buddha. The road just beyond the gate is deserted. He won’t venture as far as yesterday, the heat is palpable, and he doesn’t want to get caught in the rain.
He notices a man—or possibly a woman—bundled head to foot in what looks like faded pajamas, topped off with a wide conical hat. Attired to hide from an invisible sun. With a broad whisked broom, sweeping the day’s rain felled leaves. When he gets closer, the sweeper’s head lifts—a pair of narrowing eyes flash.
A dog waits at the side of the road, a sly smile on its face, front paws crossed like an idle shopkeeper. He ignores the beast and picks up his pace.
Gary presses on through waves of steam that remind him of a dryer’s exhaust. He’ll be off his routine here before long, and the heat isn’t helping.
Out of sight of the dog, he jogs. Before he takes three steps, a scooter revs behind him, close enough to annoy.
An idiot just like this had taken his wife’s life.
Gary turns to glare.
The scooter slows. The rider wears a helmet. He is unnatural on the machine, with legs bowed out awkwardly. Too tall and gangly for the small scooter. A Caucasian. A farang. A tourist.
Gary allows himself an odd sense of relief.
The rider turns to block his path. Gary fixes him. “Should I know you?” he asks. Wanting not to be irritated, he tries to be accommodating. He asks the man again, “Do I know you?”
Slowly, the man reaches under his shirt, pulling it up, to reveal a gap of pink flesh grizzled with dark hairs, the welt of a solder-like scar.
“What?” Gary says, the gesture unexpected.
His accent could be German, Eastern European. He can’t tell from looking at him. His smooth shaved cheeks shine blue and his eyes are unreadable behind dark aviators. A stranger as any tourist, though their Caucasian lineage seems an excuse to impose. “You need to help me,” the man says. “I need money.”
Gary laughs aloud at the ultimatum. “Seriously? And I need to run.” To his own ears, he hears a note of despair.
The man puts the hand again under his belt, revealing the hilt of a knife grip.
There is no one on the road. The man might overpower him—he conjures the knife driven into his gut and collapsing into a puddle of blood. Gary could leap over the ditch and be in the field, except that the dogs are sure to come knocking then. Gary carries his traveler’s wallet with him, afraid it would get stolen at the hotel.
In a better frame of mind, back home, he might have run away. But here, he saw his interloper as much at sea, if not more so, than himself. The man stays on the moped.
Gary pulls out and unfolds the wallet.
The man grabs it.
The man holds it away from Gary and riffles through it, growing flustered. When he fingers a few bills, about five hundred baht, less than twenty American dollars, the man lifts his sunglasses, bloodshot eyes regard his options.
“Get me three thousand.”
“How? I can’t possibly.”
He gestures up the road, the Quik-Mart and a Bangkok Bank ATM that Gary passed on the way in from the airport.
Gary shuffles forward, willing to get this crazy off his hands, keeping fear in check. He’ll meet misfortune. One hundred dollars seems a token Gary can feel generous about. Gary points at his wallet. “I’ll need that back.”
The man slaps it onto Gary’s shoulder, and tails him as Gary jogs to the Quik-Mart. The man holds the moped with one hand and tucks the other under his belt.
Gary visualizes his air-conditioned room. Shuttered dark. Waves of sweat roll down the inside of his shirt, and he hurriedly withdraws the cash from the ATM. He hands over the pile bills, as insubstantial as Monopoly money.
To Gary’s ire, the man smiles at him.
The man straightens and folds the thick wad without counting, stuffs it in his pants and peels a patch of gravel. Gary watches him disappear, not speeding to get away, not making any evasive moves, joyfully swaying on the motor scooter in a cloud of dust.
Gary roots in the suitcase he had dropped when he arrived, pulling out and tossing items on the wicker chairs. He normally is not so disorganized. The contents spill from the sides like a casualty of airport customs. He pulls out pants, running shorts, shirts, socks, a bag of toiletries. He digs through the compartments and in a rush dumps it on the chair.
Looking up to the nightstand, he spies his itinerary folded inside of his passport.
He draws the curtains and cranks the air conditioner to cold. The curtains are heavy as blankets. Closing them conjures night. That it is one in the morning in Maple City should suffice.
He stretches out on the bed hoping to erase humiliation. The impossibility of being at peace angers him anew. Lillian’s good nature concealed duplicity. Her unwillingness to let go. No compromise. He had never wanted to give her the benefit of the doubt.
He needs to meditate.
He stares at the ceiling, discerning random crystalline patterns of spackle, the blasting air conditioner’s whistle, the cracks of light at the windows becoming undeniable. He meditates as he’s memorized from one of Lillian’s books, focusing on his breathing. Ease yourself into the ocean’s flow.
Meditation could lead to a kind of waking dream, he found. And in this one, he is running, finishing the run he meant to take. Tropical lushness and the edge of the mountain blurs past. From the corner of his eye, in a haze of smoke, too thick to see clearly through, she waves to him. Gary hesitates to take his eyes off her, as much as the meditation demands letting thoughts ping away. He stays focused on the image and stumbles.
He awakes with a jerk, breast stroking in sweat sopped sheets.
How grateful he was in the nights when she slept beside him, when he would awaken disoriented, flailing at crazed dreams, to find her gentle hands grounding him in the present. She had never known how much he had needed her.
Gary waits in the shade of the patio for Kurthi. He might talk it out, get some relief. Kurthi as surrogate therapist. Doubtful.
When Kurthi drove him back to the hotel last night, Gary recalled the annoyed look from a tourist crossing the busy street. Kurthi pulled up to a light changing from green to red and slammed the Toyota to a jolting stop as several people were already in the crosswalk. The man glowered at Kurthi, who expertly ignored him, so the stranger turned his contempt to Gary. Complicit by association. The moment rankled him—Kurthi was immune.
Kurthi pulls the car into the gate. Gary opens the door and must bend low to get in.
“Get further than last time?” Kurthi asks, with the slightest amusement at Gary’s obsession.
“No. I had an incident.”
“Worse. A tourist. It was no big deal.”
“I was relieved of some money.”
“That was kind of you.”
“It’s not what you think,” Gary says.
Deciding not to relate the tale—embarrassed to be eliciting Kurthi’s sympathy—he backpedalled. “These Thais? Well, they just seem to not notice anything.”
“It’s maybe what they choose to see,” Kurthi says.
“Or not. Don’t get me wrong,” Gary says. “You couldn’t have prevented this.”
Kurthi, puzzled, lights a cigarette from the stub of his last one.
They drive in silence, past where Gary had his run in with the scooter.
“They’re waiting for you,” Kurthi says. “You have to be ready, Mr. Field.”
Gary thinks he is speaking of the incident.
“She’ll be glad you came.”
Talking about her as if she is still alive.
“What the hell?”
“Your wife spoke well of you.”
“I have a confession,” Gary says. “You know, we weren’t really together those last few months. Years, in fact.”
Kurthi ignored this. “I can’t tell you how much I envied the man who was married to that woman.”
“Did you hear me, Mr. Kurthi?”
“I think you need to find a way to grieve, Mr. Field.” He said it as a statement, not a judgment.
Still, Gary winced. “You don’t think I am?”
“I mean,” Kurthi says, “I empathize.”
“Well, I appreciate it.”
“She was beloved,” Kurthi says. “We should never forget.”
Gary contemplates Kurthi with Lillian in a sordid embrace. But he is sure Kurthi is the last man his wife would have gone for. He consoles himself with this as he studies Kurthi, with his cigarette dependency and disregard. He frankly doesn’t want to know.
“Apparently,” Gary says, “Everyone loved her, here. How well do you know her, Mr. Kurthi?” If he is honest with himself, as much as he wanted his wife back, even more so he wanted their life together back. Maybe that was the same thing.
“This doesn’t sound like the man Lill told me about.”
“Let’s be clear,” Gary says, not certain how—or if—he should continue talking about this. “It was her desire to be here. It was her will.”
“As you wish,” Kurthi says, almost apologetic. “I know your grief.”
“With all due respect, consider being grateful. For a time, she found what she wanted,” Kurthi says.
“It’s like she was preparing me for this. She went away—really, left me—she left me, Mr. Kurthi, in case I didn’t make that clear. I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t have to train. As I’m discovering, that’s not so easy for me to do here.”
“That’s not quite what I would be thinking about, Mr. Field.”
“In response to your earlier comment,” Gary says, “that’s how I deal with my grief.”
“When one partner changes, the other must adapt,” Kurthi says.
“She could be a cruel woman.”
“It happened very fast,” Kurthi says. “She didn’t suffer long.”
“Still,” Gary says, “she suffered unnecessarily.”
“Buddhists say all life is a form of suffering.”
Not wanting to sound defensive or reactive, but acknowledging both these emotions, unavoidably, Gary tries to sound calm. “Mr. Kurthi, I’m not a Buddhist. Neither—as far as I know—was my wife.”
At the school grounds in blazing sunlight, a crowd of about thirty children and women gather in a semi-circle around a metal table. Someone rhythmically clacks a bell, over and over. A group of skinny, buzz-cut monks in orange robes sit cross-legged on the ground, chanting, creating a hum beneath the rhythm of the bell. Gary decides such ceremony should only be available for a Buddhist. Lillian is in a small, framed photograph Gary has never seen. In it she is youthful. Dare he suggest it, beautiful. The picture is garlanded with a chaos of coiled jasmine flowers and placed in the center of an assortment of small items, offerings.
Kurthi’s exhortations. She was beloved.
A container reminding him of a stainless-steel hibachi sits on the altar stabbed with sticks of incense. Beside it, what appears to be a plate of pink cakes, more flowers, and a plastic figurine of an animal. A small urn suggests a tea service in front of the photograph. The oddest combination of items he’s ever seen. Gary cradles a bouquet of flowers, waits for his signal.
The group is meditative, as if Lillian could re-materialize from their collective focus. No one betrays any emotion beyond the hint of benevolent smiles. Yet neither are they the disaffected catatonics Gary has seen waiting in line at the post office.
A woman speaks, he strains to hear. By now Thai in a woman’s voice has become a soporific, however incomprehensible, expressive. The woman’s voice hurts his teeth. The gathered smile politely at her words no one translates. Where is Kurthi when he needs him? Off to the side, conferring with a woman beyond the circle.
The woman before the group gestures at Gary to come forward. He steps up to place the flower bundle on the altar. Joss sticks in rows in a giant bowl create a stinging cloud of smoke that wafts into his face—he squints. Overcome with despair, his legs turn to stone. All eyes are on him, and he looks over to Kurthi for assistance. Kurthi deflects Gary’s eyes with a beatific smile, his own eyes closed.
He stands before the photo of his dead wife and drops the flowers from his sweaty clutch.
He doesn’t know what he can say to this uncomprehending group.
“Thank you. Thank you, everyone. I don’t…” his voice rasps from the smoke. “I don’t know if I can…”
In the photo, Lillian looks thoughtful. A hook and line pull deep in his gut. The portrait is recent, her smile radiant. The incense is so thick he turns away.
The children gather close around him at the altar, with the flowers, offerings, and the portrait, somehow trapping him. Everyone holds their palms together in raised prayer, and he thinks he should also, though it embarrasses him to contemplate. He studies the photo of his estranged wife. He catches the eyes of a stranger who spies him. She smiles and he averts his glance. The children look as if they are awaiting instructions.
Their faces urge him on, as if he might step across a threshold.
Blood pools in his legs.
Kurthi is there, somehow, bracing Gary, leading him back to his seat. Pulled from the shelter of the group, Gary hallucinates a swarm of hands patting him with gentle encouragement.
Sprawled in a chair, Gary hides his face in his hands. His tears come unhindered, his body convulsing. The little tapping hands weaken him, and he clenches his teeth hard.
Late in the night in his hotel room, Gary sits in the dark unable to sleep. It is noon in Michigan. He feels in himself a quiet, unaccountable peace, almost a buzzing. Meditation would be tenuous; he is distracted by so many unknowns. The solace of the idea of meditation makes him ease up on himself about what is past, the difficult words, finally facing up.
He places the urn on the bedside table, squaring it to the edge.
Gary lays down and his eyes adjust. The service lights outside, as bright as day on the walkways, leave strips of light at the curtained windows just as the sunlight does in the daytime.
He thinks about the run in the morning. Going out early enough he’d evade them, their pursuit, the dogs, the mugger, he’d quickly be forgotten here.
The sun burns hot on the dense, waxy greenery, so bright he flinches at the thought. At the end of that road a mountain swelled in green cover and loomed over the landscape. He thought he could easily run to the base of this mountain and find his way back to the Golden Buddha. Kurthi was coming for a farewell drink.
No idea where he is going, he drifts.
Lillian stands in the field of tall grass he runs past. Everywhere he looks, she appears. She sticks out her tongue at him and leers, playfully. He can’t resist smiling.
Gary slips into wakefulness and the sound of rain.
The rain drums far away, beyond the unending schuss of the air conditioning fan. The sensation is not unlike hurtling and bumping through the impenetrable nothing in a tube. In the dark he reaches out along the bed for the nightstand, the unfamiliar light, to remember where he is. His eyes adjust, and he surveys the dim space of a room he hasn’t paid more than scant notice. In the pixelated darkness, he can just make out the urn on the side table.