FICTION: Last Rites by Inderjeet Mani

The sun was in their faces all the way back from the hospital. Ellen was driving, her eyes a pair of blue craters rimmed with red veins. She was biting her lip, as if trying hard not to scream – for Kris, who was lying in the ward in Bangkok on a ventilator.

The doctor on duty was a young man with gray hair. He offered the usual Thai smile of sympathy. They were about to operate.

“A small procedure, nit noi. To help the heart.”

“But I thought the medicine was working? Naxa-something.”

“Nalaxone,” the doctor said patiently. “But he now has pulmonary edema.”

“We’ll wait here,” Ellen said.

“No please, he needs to be alone tonight.”

“Is he in pain?” Ash asked.

The doctor shook his head. “He doesn’t feel anything.”

They parted, the nurse murmuring something to Ellen on the way out.

They passed through open country, flanked by a green sea and rectangular rice paddies crisscrossed by coconut trees. People were trudging through the fields bearing farm implements on their shoulders. A truck came skittering past, loaded with migrants in straw hats. In the evening light, the creamy thanaka paste on the women’s faces gave them a ghostly allure.

“I hope the doctor meant what he said about the pain,” Ash said.

“The nurse asked us to pray to Buddha.”

“Short for all bets are off,” Ash said.

“Do you want our boy to die, Ash?” She turned to glare at him.

“Three days in a coma,” Ash said, turning up the air-conditioning. “I don’t know what to expect any more.”

“I would do anything, if only please God would give him one more chance!”

“He’s had so many already.”

“Whose fault is that?”

They argued about Kris’s overdose, and then Ellen made a sharp left, the SUV’s tires squealing as they entered the village. Rows of shacks appeared, cobbled out of boards and strips of bamboo, and soon they were driving down a quiet lane, with vendors’ stalls on either side, their dried squid suspended bat-like from hooks. He noticed a stall selling horseshoe crabs with their roe, one of Kris’s favorites.

Ellen was sobbing as they pulled into the parking lot. They got out of the car and walked to their condo tower, where they took the lift to the twenty-sixth floor, the carriage creaking as it rose. Neither of them was in a mood for dinner, so they sat out on the balcony looking out at the Gulf of Thailand frothing below. The moon was at eye level, its luminous presence scarred by the dark basaltic plains once mistaken for seas. Ash clicked sporadically at his phone, his fingers dragging up the old pictures.

“Remember Daffy, the rubber ducky?”

Kris was sitting in the tub holding up an orange duck against the green tiles that the two of them had laid together one weekend in Philadelphia. He had arrived quite by accident, fishy and resplendent as the nurse lifted him up, his head crowned with dark curls and his long limbs revealing patches of waxy vernix that rubbed off on his mother’s breast as she gathered him close. The young father had leaned down and given the lad his first kiss, smelling his divine new-born skin.

The boy had grown to be taller than his dad, with Ellen’s sharp nose but with Ash’s eyes, able to see without disclosing their feelings. In Ash’s case, the feelings always seemed to lose their way into the tangled thickets of thought, and now he found it hard to recognize what he felt, though the sadness was weighing on his chest.

Ellen walked up to the railing. He got up and stood next to her, his arm resting on her shoulder. Her skin felt warm, and a tear fell on his hand. The tide had come in, a widening cone of moonlight illuminating the crests of small waves that coursed eagerly through the shimmering light to the shore, only to fling themselves on the beach where they collapsed with shrieks and hisses.

He wanted to say that Kris would be OK, but couldn’t. He was helpless, fixated on what was to come. When their friend Roshan had died, the Thais had arranged a quiet and dignified cremation followed by a nice catered lunch that the old girl would have appreciated. But Ash didn’t want Kris to be cremated. He wanted him returned to earth, in the traditional way Ash’s Hindu parents and ancestors had been in India.

“Darling, it shouldn’t make a difference to him.” He gave a sad half-laugh. “Once they’re gone, they’re gone forever.”

She gave him one of her looks, her still-lovely lower lip curled, her eyes shining with hate.

“You horrible sicko, talking about my baby like that. I curse the day I set eyes on you!”

She went inside, slamming the mosquito door. It was going to be one of those four-letter nights, and all because he had mentioned death.

Speaking of curses, he couldn’t imagine a worse one than their thirty-five years of marriage. The first time she had appeared before him was on a Saturday afternoon, when they were standing in the awning of a Rittenhouse Square bookshop waiting for the rain to stop. Ellen Riley’s hair was blond in those days and she wore a museum T-shirt with the silhouette of a diver. When she asked, in her husky voice, if anyone had a light, Ash, then an amiable and athletic foreign student, was the first to respond. That quick flame had kindled a fierce passion that swelled and flickered through decades of surliness and partial adjustment, leaving them clinging to shreds of hope until they resolved to start over and relocate to a faraway and affordable destination, accompanied by the charming and by now fully-grown Kris.

The boy would have been no more than twelve when he first got to see his mother slumped over the toilet. Ash still had his briefcase in hand, having just come home from a hellish Friday at his Center City office, but he cleaned her quickly. Carrying a leg under each arm, he dragged her across the floor to the master bedroom, where she woke up, her lips mouthing a curse which yielded to a stream of bubbles.  Kris went back to his room and slammed the door. Ash left her naked on the bed and stayed up all night trying to decide how to respond.  The next morning, Ellen had the usual look of denial.  After she left for her therapist’s appointment, he went for a smoke in the back garden, walking beside the wilted ribbons of coreopsis and leopard’s bane that Ellen had once carefully tended, until he came to the wall, where the last of the summer’s day lilies ran wild, preening their necks in every direction.  There his foot slipped, and bending down, he discovered a small pit, dug by a dog or raccoon. He imagined shoving his wife inside, plastering her eyes with tomatoes and beans, filling the mouth with berries, like they did in those Santeria cults.

Kris arrived, armed with his lacrosse stick, and then Ash remembered there was a match that morning. On the drive there, his anger subsided, and he launched into an impromptu lecture about Ellen’s drinking, explaining that addiction was like a disease, except that it was up to the sufferer to cure it. But his words sounded hollow, and he soon stopped talking. Kris rolled the window down, his curls fluttering in the breeze, gazing out at the suburbs in silence. Those silences grew like weeds over the years, strangling any intimacies that arose between them.

A warm breeze blew in from the Gulf, carrying frog songs and the toukay lizard’s unforgettable call. The sea air smelled of decay, from a slew of marine creatures that had decomposed into briny offal. At the fishing pier, three young men were drinking beer on the back of their pickup, their radio playing a plaintive Thai melody. On the sand beside them, an animal was wriggling on its back, kicking its legs as it tried to rid itself of fleas.

After Kris was caught with syringes at the Bangkok school where he taught, he had been suspended and sent to Roger Ungpakorn, a long-haired Thai philosopher and therapist. He met them individually, and in pairs.

“It sounds like things were rough at home,” Roger said.

Ash looked at Ellen, who rolled her eyes.

“His dad wasn’t there for him,” Roger went on. “You had checked out.”

“I was always by his side,” Ash began, but Roger cut him off.

“I’m sorry, Ash. What got him started was hearing you go on about his mother’s drinking. He figured you lacked the guts to handle it.”

Ash couldn’t believe his ears.

Ellen chipped in. “Kris was twelve, Ash. He needed a father figure. Someone who could really take charge while his mother was going through hell.”

The therapy did not help Ash, but he learned a lot about Kris. The father’s checking out had given the son the leeway to play by his own rules. Which he got away with, Roger added, because his parents were clueless. Remember the day he called to say he had been mugged at gunpoint in a park on the way to his dorm? Ellen and Ash immediately rushed to his college, to move him to safer accommodation. Well, that was a drug deal gone bad. But it didn’t scare him. Because Kris saw himself as the master of subterfuge, able to outwit his parents, teachers, and eventually, his students.  His polite deference, his solicitous checking in by phone, the selfies that had him smiling in dark glasses with his two-fingered Thai salute, his apparent confiding in Ellen about his girlfriend Tap and other personal issues, were carefully scripted actions by a high-functioning junkie who believed that only other people overdosed, because Kris had it under control and could stop anytime.

Night had arrived, along with a flotilla of boats on the horizon, their green lights designed to lure hapless squids to their deaths. The moon was now high above, its yellow face cold with a leering mouth acquired from a passing cloud. Below, the lights of the coast winked quietly, as if the world was at peace.

But the world was never well-behaved. Take Tap. She seemed such a typical village girl, plastering her face with skin lightener and singing karaoke, happiest when wandering the country markets hand-in-hand with Kris. The poor thing got all teary-eyed telling them how shocked she was when Kris’s cache was discovered by the school Principal. It later transpired that she had enabled his habit for eight long years. But it did not surprise him, because their relationship was based on an equation. Like other Thai women of her class, Tap would have kept mum out of fear of losing her lover’s monthly disbursement, that in turn kept her parents from starving.

Or take himself, for that matter. In a meeting brokered by Roger and Ellen, he had made a pro-forma apology to Kris, even though he had done no wrong, and they asked each other for forgiveness.  Their hug had felt forced, and Kris had drawn away. The trust between them was gone, and hereafter the choices Kris would make were his own, and Ash would neither advise nor judge. The best a father could do, especially one whose family considered him a coward, was to let go, waiting for events to unfold.

He heard a beeping from a household device, and went inside. Ellen was seated on the sofa, staring at the blank TV, her face half-hidden by the leaves of a waving ficus, one of the many plants that grew luxuriously among the art books and Buddhas of their living room. The plants reminded him of the old days at home in Philly, when she would call from the surrounding foliage offering him finger-foods on a tray, while friends and well-wishers looked on pleasantly. The guests always livened her up, made her break out in peals of laughter, but afterwards, when they were putting things away, she would become more serious, and tiredness would creep into her voice.

“I grilled some shrimp for you,” Ellen said, pointing to the kitchen. “With chilli lime.”

“I’m not in the mood.”

“Otherwise you’ll be hungry in the middle of the night,” Ellen said, getting up and fetching him the plate. “And then I’ll have to hear about your stomach pains.”

As he nibbled on the shrimp, he knew that he had always loved his wife, through all the years of hate. He remembered how, after their very first meeting, they had gone for coffee, and then, a week later, when the weather was sunny, to a green slope in Fairmount Park. That was when they fell hard for each other, with the light spangled through the leaves, her eyes crinkled as she lay in his lap while he tickled her ears with blades of tender grass. By the banks of the glistening Schuylkill, amid spring crocuses and murmuring birds, they embraced, and then, basking in their innocence, they strolled along an abandoned waterworks, passing rusty pumps and turbines and a half-finished swimming pool, their thoughts intertwined, weaving together a future of boundless promise. Who would have imagined that they would end up in Thailand, waiting for their only child to die?

He couldn’t sleep that night. The air became still, and his stomach ached. Trying to lessen his discomfort, he stretched his legs out. His body seemed flat and metallic in the moonlight. He wondered what Kris was feeling, if he felt anything, lying in his bed of weedy silence in the ICU.  As his eyes closed, he imagined crawling to Kris and snatching out all the tubes and inserting them into his own body. He could see Kris out of bed and running free, flying down a grassy tunnel into a hill of mud.

Ash started to drift off, until the pain made him cough.

“Ellen.”

She stirred, then turned her head towards him, still asleep, her lovely eyelashes moist, her mascara spread across her temple. Her hair was askew, a line of sweat drops gathering by her ear like pearls. He leaned over and kissed her, and she smiled as if in a dream and turned her face to the other side.

He sank back on his pillow, wondering if Kris was waiting for one of them to hold his hand before he could say good-bye. There were so many ways of parting, and it made him think of the time of his father’s death, when Kris was still small. The old man, who had been a schoolteacher and poet, had been ailing for more than a year, living in his village in India in the household of an impoverished cousin, Ash’s mother having passed away a decade earlier. His father was seated in a posture of meditation with his palms placed right over left on his lap and his neck attached to the back of the chair with red twine. He gazed calmly at Ash, his eyes yellowed by his long battle with cancer, as the son kneeled down and kissed his feet, wondering about the human capacity for forgiveness. Then it was time to lift his father up and mount him on a bullock-cart, pulled by oxen with bells and festive ribbons around their necks.  The procession marched down the country road, led by the priest, with a dozen villagers singing their hymns and beating their drums, followed by a pack of yelping dogs.

They arrived at a field with a temple, where a small pit had been carved out of the hard earth. He helped lower his father, still seated but tinier than he remembered, directly into his grave while the priest threw flowers and recited a short mantra to Shiva, seeking the soul’s ultimate liberation. A crow cawed thrice, and as the dry red soil fell over the old man’s head, Ash was grateful that his father had been granted the dignity he had been denied while alive.

Someone was leaning hard on him, and Ash reached across the bed, assuming it was Ellen poaching on his space. But Ellen was in the far corner, and then he felt it pressing down on his chest. He could not see but it felt like a dentist’s polishing wheel, except that it was large and had sparks flying from it. It began with gentle depilations, an initial tickling feeling giving way to a grating sound as it cut deeper and scraped away at his diaphragm. His screams were muffled by metal as shreds of bone fell away like grated coconut, the wheel whirring faster as it dug into his heart and scooped out the darkness within, until he was completely eviscerated.

Ellen’s phone rang, once, twice, and then on and on.

The sun was already high in the sky, and he had to shield his eyes.

“Darling, pick the bloody thing up.”

Ellen’s hand was shaking with swollen blue veins as she reached for it on her bedside table.

“Who is that? Oh, Sawadee kha, Tap!”

She was too sleepy to speak Thai properly. Ash leaned across her body, trying to pry the phone away from her, and after a brief struggle, succeeded.

“Tap, how is he?”

Sawadee Kha, Paw Ash!”

He hated being called Father, by someone who wasn’t his own. “What happened?”

“Kris he open eye, Paw Ash!”

“Is he conscious?” He put the phone on speaker, as Ellen seemed about to collapse with anxiety.

“He not talk because throat pain, Paw Ash.”

“They’ve taken out the tube?”

Kha. He write small letter, nit noi. Say very sorry, kha. Lord Buddha teach him lesson.”

Ellen grabbed the phone. “We love you, Tap. Kap khun ka for your prayers!”

She squeezed his hand. Ash buried his face in the pillow and fell into a blissful and exhausted sleep. When he awoke, the blinds had been drawn.

His stomach ache was still there. Ellen was right, he should have eaten more shrimp. He went to the bathroom and looked at himself in the mirror. So Kris was going to make it after all! His relief made him pee for a long time, a dark yellow stream that felt as if all the wretchedness of his life was being washed away.

He could stomach no more than a coffee for breakfast, before going to his computer. He was catching up on world affairs when his phone rang.

“It’s Dr. Pong. I need you to come in right away.”

“What’s up?” It was Ash’s GI man.

“Do you really want to discuss it over the phone?”

“Yes.”

“How are you feeling?”

“Let’s cut to the chase, Doctor.”

“Your test results are back, Ash.”

“And?”

“I’m sorry, but it’s a T4. A stage 4 adenocarcinoma.”

He sat back after the call, his heart still pounding. He stared away from the computer, out to sea. The ocean seemed to have shrunk, though the waves were still playing out their infernal symphony.

Ellen came in, and slung her arms around his neck.  “Darling, I feel like a new life has started for us! I told you that prayers work!”

He looked up, and her eyes were now the color of the Gulf at noon, their expression almost merry. She kissed him on the earlobe, her long strands of gray falling on his cheek.

“I can’t wait to see Kris,” she said.

glasses

Inderjeet Mani

Based in Thailand, Inderjeet Mani is a writer and scientist, and the author of several books, including a work on time called ‘The Imagined Moment’. His stories and essays have been published in 3:AM Magazine, Aeon, Apple Valley Review, Drunken Boat, Eclectica, New World Writing, Nimrod, PANK, Short Fiction Journal, Slow Trains, Storgy, Unsung Stories, and other venues.

Visit Inderjeet…

https://sites.google.com/site/inderjeetmani/

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Feature image by soveryhappyart.

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