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Death by Buddha (A short story) by Tom Tuohy

© Tom Tuohy

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(N.B. everything inside [i]...[/i] is italicized, inside [c]***[/c] are scene breaks.)

The French have a penchant for hanging or poison while the Swedes overdose or jump from tall buildings. The Brits have always been jumpers too, like the Germans, who sometimes opt for suffocation. The Americans, in true Hollywood style, are partial to a gun to the temple, while the Japanese, ignoring thousands of years of Samurai tradition, prefer drowning.

In the four years he’s lived at P&J Mansions, suicide has rarely been far from Mike Jenkins’ mind. Had it not been for his 14-year old daughter, he would’ve already gotten the deed over with; something quick and painless like jumping from a skyscraper or a bullet to the right temple. Like so many foreigners arriving in Bangkok with cash but ending up penniless and alone, he had reached a stage in his life where he no longer cared.

Of course, he hadn’t listened to those who said it would be a mistake; that he wouldn’t last long. He’d hate the food, the climate, the people, the lack of close friends. With his UK marriage over and his hardware business in terminal decline, it had only been a matter of time before the bank took everything anyway, so there was nothing to lose by selling up and taking a gamble on Thailand.

[c]***[/c]

Mike’s slumber is interrupted by the five am call; his ear now pressed to the phone.

“Oh, you’ve managed to tear yourself away from the bottle opener, have you? Congratulations. You fucking useless bastard!”

He knows better than to interrupt Sheila, the ex-Mrs. Jenkins, calling from her London flat.

“...a [i]real[/i] man wouldn’t treat his family this way. And a [i]real[/i] man would pay his child’s bloody school fees and help put food on the table! I’ve had enough. If you can’t provide for your daughter, I don’t want her talking to you anymore.”

“Sorry? What do you mean?”

“You heard. What good are you to her?”

“But...you know my situa—,” Mike says, before his ex-wife cuts him off.

“I mean it. I’m going to tell her to think of you as dead. God knows you might as well be!”

“Sheila? Sheila? Shei—?”

Breathing hard, almost panting, Mike hears the click as the line goes dead. It feels like a fire alarm has gone off, that a bell is clanging inside his head. As his shaking hand puts down the receiver, an anguished sigh seeps out of his body like the hiss of an old, punctured tyre.

[c]***[/c]

The answer to Mike’s problems is always the same - more booze.

Standing outside, his hair tousled, a few days stubble and a gaunt appearance, he rarely bothers with a shower, shave or mouthwash before venturing anywhere.

The [i]lift not work[/i] sign is still cellotaped to the wall. As he looks down, his neighbor Toy is on the stairs carrying heavy grocery bags and breathing hard. She’s late thirties with a homemaker smile that shines like tiny moonbeams. Slightly plump, she struggles with her knees.

Descending a few steps, Mike gently smiles, takes two of the bags and walks back up placing them outside the door of her apartment.

“Thaaaank you!” she says, sucking in deep breaths of air before reaching her door. Exhausted, but still smiling, she turns around. “Tonight, I cook green curry with chicken. You like eat with me?”

In a rare moment of self consciousness, Mike fidgets, unsure whether to pat down or stretch the laundry-challenged cargo shorts and grubby old t-shirt thrown on minutes earlier.

“I’m so sorry. Tonight I have to go out. Perhaps another time?”

“Mai pen rai, it’s ok,” she replies. “Yes, next time.”

Returning her smile, Mike heads for the stairs.

[c]***[/c]

Stocks replenished, and back in his 10th floor apartment in Bangkok’s Chinatown, Mike puts the beer and whisky bottles in the refrigerator. His hands are still shaking and the tremors are getting worse every day.

In the living room, beams of bright sunlight force their way through the unwashed curtains as he opens them. The room is immediately illuminated in the golden light of a Bangkok morning.

Out on the balcony, the sun is low set across the eastern horizon, and the traffic below already in full flow as buses, motorcycles and taxis beep and jostle. A hint of incense hangs in the air from the temple crematoria below.

Inside, empty beer and whisky bottles lie scattered around the room, and the smelly, hole-ridden sofa Mike sits down on resembles the car crash that has become his life.

Neither of his two relationships in Thailand ended well. His first girlfriend, Prae, from the north eastern province of [i]Isaan[/i], was flighty and tardy, yet she had an infectious laugh and was always attentive. She disappeared soon after he made a loan to her farming family to buy a new buffalo.

A few months later, feeling lonely, on a beautiful day when the sun was a golden hue, Mike went to Lumpini Park to feed the ducks. A petite secretary called Prim from [i]Had Yai[/i] caught his eye. She was talkative and tactile and they dated for a few months up until a month ago when she suddenly left for a job in America.

A letter came from his bank saying there were no longer any available funds. She’d walked away with his savings and a note under a fridge magnet was the only notice Mike had she’d gone. Her golden hello had soon become a golden handshake goodbye.

The last of the lump sum money now gone from selling his hardware business in the UK, Mike was almost penniless. It was money he was counting on to secure his Thai visa for another year and also the source of Sheila’s ire. He couldn’t send his usual monthly sum to take care of Clare.

Now, looking out at the bright morning sunlight, the same words echo in his head like a jukebox Blues song on repeat.

[i]No job, no money, no family, no life. This can’t go on.[/i]

The well-worn, monochrome photo on the coffee table is of Clare. She has calm brown eyes like his own, a round head and a largish forehead. The nose and ears are her mother’s, as is her generally pale skin tone. If he can only see her face again, just for one last time.

Irregular snatches of phone conversation are all that connect them now. But even they are in jeopardy. Mike feels the walls closing in on him as surely as if he’s been wrapped in a rubbish bag that’s been tossed into a garbage truck and is headed for the crusher.

The rhythmic four beat knock draws his attention to the door. He recognizes the voice of his landlady, and his hands clutch his face. [i]Jesus![/i]

“Mr. Mike? Are you there ka?”

Licking his hand and smoothing his hair, he opens the door.

[c]***[/c]

“Ah, Khun Supaporn, sawasdee krab. I was just coming to see you,” he lies.

“Sawasdee ka,” says the lady as she smiles, displaying a set of pearly white teeth. Thin, bespectacled, late fifties, and with a new haircut and perm, she could pass for a North Korean leader’s wife. “I just to wonder about the—”

“The rent, yes of course,” Mike cuts in. “I’m expecting a wire transfer very soon. From England. Yes. Very soon. When it comes, I’ll settle up everything with you immediately, I promise.”

Khun Supaporn continues to smile but pauses before she speaks. “Thank you Khun Mike. Is everything ok?” She leans her head to one side to catch a glimpse of the inside of the apartment.

Mike shifts his body slightly to block the view.

“Everything’s fine, just fine.”

“Well, you know Khun Mike, some neighbours, they to complain about bad smell. Say have lot of liquor smell come from room you. Please to try pay rent on time, that would be good. Husband of my say we not to allow the foreigner to get behind with the payments, ok? He say must tell to leave, but you tenant long time, I say him.”

“Of course, of course. It’s just a temporary financial difficulty, nothing at all to worry about,” Mike replies.

“Very well, Khun Mike. I tell husband you to pay money next week, chai mai?”

Mike nods. “Yes indeed. I’ll bring the money to you next week or maybe sooner. Thank you for your understanding.”

“Mai pen rai, ka.”

Mike goes back inside and closes the door.

[c]***[/c]

When Mike finally manages to pop the lid off his first [i]Beer Leo[/i], his thoughts turn to his financial situation.

Finding a pencil stub, he rips off a piece of paper from an old notebook and makes a list:

1. Teach
2. Work in a boiler room
3. Repair jobs
4. Rob a bank
5. Sell drugs
6. Prostitution (women mostly?)
7. Translation work
8. Gamble
9. Beg

Number four is out of the question as he doesn’t have the balls to pull it off nor own a gun. Once, when he was particularly depressed, he’d approached the building janitor, khun Jakkrit, to help him get one. Mike knew he had small time gangster connections, but Jakkrit, well versed in the art of Thai diplomacy, of promising what would never be delivered, wanted nothing to do with a foreigner let loose in his country with a gun.

Number eight requires initial capital so that’s out. Nobody would pay him for sex so he crosses out number six. He’s already tried number two the previous year and got fired for being too nice to the customers being fleeced and for not turning up on time. His Thai is only conversational so translating is out of the question. He taught English before to some of the kids of the Chinese merchants living in the shophouses below, but not recently, and he felt bad knowing very little about teaching.

As he unscrews the bottle top preparing to pour some of the rice whisky into the same beer glass, he starts to feel a bit better. By late afternoon, he’s finished the last of the whisky.

Locating his glasses, it‘s time to check the usual places for money. The tea and coffee jars are empty as are the pockets of his shirts that lie next to the bed. The jackets hanging up in the wardrobe yield nothing, either. A search of the back and sides of the sofa also come up empty. He finally finds some red, hundred baht notes stuck in the middle pages of his passport which have found a new home inside his toaster. It‘s more than enough for some [i]Beer Leo[/i] and a small bottle of [i]Sangsom[/i] rice whisky from the Chinese convenience store across the road.

[c]***[/c]

Outside, rain is falling in streaks down the outside of the window. Jacket donned, he skips down the stairs.

Returning, he shakes the raindrops away from his body and begins his ascent upstairs. At the top, breathing hard, his ears pick up a commotion coming from ahead.

Approaching, the noises grow louder. The well-dressed Thai man standing in the doorway of Toy’s apartment looks like a boxer or a Muay Thai fighter. His suit is too tight for his small but lean body.

Toy and the man are arguing in Thai, and the man is not happy as Mike hears the repeated phrase [i]Khon go hok[/i] which he knows means, “you are a liar” in Thai. Toy looks frightened.

As Mike tries to avert his eyes and walk around the pair, the Thai man suddenly blocks his way bringing them face to face.

“Hey you, farang. You go another way, ok? Me and lady here, we have business.”

Mike is so close, he feels the man’s breath, and his nose picks up the scent of the boxer’s cheap aftershave.

Glaring, he shouts again.

“Hey you, farang birdshit. Fucking stupid? You go now!”

But before Mike can move, the Thai man pulls back his arm and punches him in the face forcing him backwards onto a large potted plant. A loud bang followed by the sound of broken glass is heard as beer bottles crash against the outer edge of the hard ceramic pot. Yellow liquid flows onto the crimson-coloured carpet.

Looking up, Mike sees the boxer standing over him.

“You ever angry me again, farang—”

He makes the shape of a gun with his index finger and thumb and points at Mike.

The boxer straightens himself up to his full height, smoothes his hair with his hands and checks his clothes for any signs of spillage. Satisfied, he marches off in the direction of the elevator.

Toy leans down to help Mike.

“I very sorry—I mean—he bad man. He not polite.”

Mike smiles, amused at her understatement. He gets up and surveys the damage. His nose is bleeding and his jaw aches, but nothing appears to be broken.

“No harm done,” he replies. “Just a few bottles of—”

“Wait ka,” interrupts Toy, as she runs back into her apartment and returns moments later with a damp cloth. She gently wipes the blood from Mike’s nose.

“Thank you,” he says.

She reaches into her pocket and produces a crisp, purple, five hundred baht note. “Here, please, you to take, to pay for liquor.”

“No, really,” says Mike. “It’s not—”

“Please, you to take,” says Toy again, almost pleading with him.

Mike accepts the money with a Thai thank you.

“Kab koon krab”.

“You go now. I clean liquor on floor, ok?”

Mike nods then goes to his apartment and lets himself in.

That afternoon, he looks at the new, five-hundred-baht note on his coffee table. Two things keep going round in his head. The first is why he didn’t get up and swing a punch at the Thai man. After all, he hadn’t done anything wrong, so he was surprised at his own passivity.

The second is that more than two hours have now passed and he hasn’t even thought of opening a beer or going down to the shop to get more. After making an ice pack for his aching jaw, he plucked up the courage to look in the mirror, something that usually troubled him; but when he did so, he liked the bruises that he saw, padding them gingerly with his fingertips. Strange though it is, he’s enjoying this new-found feeling of pain. He is happy to feel something; to be able to feel anything at all.

[c]***[/c]

The following morning, the phone rings.

[i]Has Sheila changed her mind?[/i] is Mike’s first thought.

He runs over to answer it.

“Ah! Mr. Mike? Hello?”

“Yes, hello? This is Mike.”

“I am Mr. Yung. My friend Mr. Veerat, he tell me you can to fix electric problem very good? That right? He recommend you.”

“Oh! Yes, I can.”

“Ok, good. My friend, he have factory. Need to fix machine and other problem. Very emergency. You can to fix for him?”

“Yes, of course. Please give me the address, and we can arrange a time.”

“Sure. His place not far.”

Mike listens and scribbles down the address next to his recent list.

“Ok, oh and please also tell your Chinese friends I am available for any kind of work if they have any. I can do anything. No job too big or small, ok?”

“No problem,” replies Mr. Yung.

[c]***[/c]

When Mike arrives that afternoon, a group of workers are chattering in Mandarin. They stand in front of a stainless steel sink talking loudly. When they see Mike, they point at him and laugh, and he guesses they are sharing a joke at his expense.

The owner, Mr. Lim, approaches. He‘s short, fat and holds a cheroot cigar in his right hand.

“Ahh, you are Mr. Mike! Right?”

Mike nods.

“How you say? The cavalry arrive, chai mai? Ok, we have three very big problem. Have wedding party come tonight, no wash vegetables or meat because cannot to prepare plates. Having problem with machine here.” He points to a stainless steel dishwasher. “Mr. Chung say you know something about machines?”

”Ok. I can take a look,” Mike says.

”He say you know also something about air vent system? We have block. Get too much hot!”

“Ok. I‘ll see what I can do,” Mike adds.

Mr. Lim walks over to an adjoining, but slightly smaller kitchen area.

“We have sink here also. Blocked. You understand?”

Mike nods.

“How much to fix all things?”

“Two thousand baht,” replies Mike.

“Ok. Here’s my offer. I give you one thousand baht if you fix in two hours. If you fix in one hour, I give you one thousand five hundred baht, ok?”

Mike nods and shakes Mr. Lim’s hand.

Mike gets to work. The stainless steel dishwasher won’t switch on, so Mike takes it off and disassembles the housing. Inside he discovers the copper coil is damaged so he gets one of the workers to ask Mr. Lim to send someone out to get copper wire from a local hardware shop. With the new copper wire, Mike cuts some small strips off and adapts them to act as a conduit enabling the machine to be turned on, at least temporarily.

The air vent problem is fixable and, after tracing the wiring back to the fuse box, he discovers a cable splitter is frayed behind a set of large refrigerators. He removes a long length of wire not being used and hooks it up to the cooler then connects it to the fuse box. Air starts flowing immediately.

Next, he looks at the blocked pipe. He extracts bits of vegetables, some Styrofoam, part of a sponge and a small piece of a scouring pad and water starts flowing through it again.

After putting all the piping back together, he washes his hands in the sink and asks one of the Chinese workers to fetch Mr. Lim.

Ten minutes later, Mr. Lim turns up, cheroot in hand, and checks the work.

“Good job! Here your money.”

Mike looks at the new 500-baht note like it has just been recovered from the blocked pipe. He attempts to hand it back.

“There must be some mistake. We agreed on one thousand five hundred baht for fixing these problems quickly. That’s what I did.”

Mr. Lim smiles and looks at his watch, an expensive looking Rolex. "My time say you finish in more than two hours so keep money."

Mike feels a fiery dragon stir within. He takes a step towards Mr. Lim. Three of the workers come from behind their boss and stand next to him. They’re no longer laughing.

Mike bites his lip and grinds his teeth. He puts the 500-baht note into his pocket, picks up his tools and heads for the door.

Mr. Lim smiles and exhales smoke from his cigar. His workers cackle with laughter.

On the way home, Mike goes to a pawn shop in Chinatown and hocks his wedding ring. He feels like getting totally hammered. He buys as much beer and whisky as he can carry and gets into a tuk-tuk taxi.

[c]***[/c]

At home, he wastes no time working his way through the beers he bought, getting to a place where he can forget everything.'

He takes out an old vinyl record from the bottom of his wardrobe and gently blows dust off its shiny black surface. As long as it‘s Miles Davis, Johnny Cochrane, Van Morrison or Chet Baker, Mike listens to it. He places the record on the turntable with the stylus on top as if a surgeon performing a delicate lifesaving operation. It‘s the only possession in the apartment that really matters to him - an old 1968 Garrard 55B record player brought from his married days in London.

The evening wears on, and he gets more drunk. He dances imaginary dances, and caresses imaginary lovers. Things have gone from bad to worse. It doesn’t look like he‘s ever going to see his daughter again, he‘s behind with his rent and has no money to renew his visa. With no real friends, he can’t even protect Toy, the only person who’s always been nice to him. And now he’s being attacked by strangers and abused and cheated doing the only work he can get.

Things can’t go on. He has tried his best to fit in, to learn the language, make friends among the locals and develop a liking for the food, but he’s been unable to command respect or to make a new life for himself. So it doesn’t matter any more. He’s come to a dead end. He‘s become a spectre, merely living in the shadows; a ghost in between worlds as he stares out of the window and across the Bangkok skyline.

Sliding open the small balcony door, it‘s time to get it over with. He feels the warm air on his face, but the stainless steel handrail feels cold as he touches it. Summoning as much courage as he can, and with a firm grip, he leans over the rail and looks down. Although dizzy, he can just about make out people on the ground, but with his glasses left inside, the shapes that move appear blurred, like stick people from a Lowry painting.

He hears the usual city noises of the vehicles below: the honking of horns, the squealing of brakes and the sound of the diesel engines. He recognises the indistinct shapes of yellow and green taxis, the red buses and the three-wheeler tuk-tuk taxis. He sees the faint outline of the local temple and is thankful it‘s on the other side of the road. It won’t do to land on such a revered place.

[i]Ten, nine, eight, seven[/i]...he counts down to invoke some imaginary impetus to jump. At [i]one[/i], he takes in a lung full of moist air before attempting to lift his right leg over the balcony rail; but then a gust of wind blows across him with such force it makes him gasp. Losing his balance, he falls back against the large air-conditioning compressor with a thud.

Determined, he gets up and carefully moves his sweaty palms to a drier spot on the rail, but it isn’t long before adrenaline kicks in, and his legs start to buckle uncontrollably. If only he’d downed another glass of [i]lao khao[/i] rice whisky before taking such a bold step. Too late now.

He covers his head in his hands as tears flow down his cheeks, wanting, pleading, begging for it to be over quickly. Eulogies form in his mind - [i]He was a good man spoiled by the drink. He leaves behind a loving wife and young child.[/i] The face of the daughter he will never see again is seared into his mind. With his heart beating ferociously, he is wailing more now than he’s ever done in his life.

Then he hears a voice. At first he thinks it’s an angel. But when he looks up, Toy is standing on the other side of the balcony, her face peering over the small partition separating both apartments. He tries to wipe the tears from his eyes hoping she hasn’t seen them.

“Please don’t cry. It make me sad to see you be unhappy,” she whispers, her voice as smooth as running water.

“How long have you been there?” Mike asks.

“A few minutes. You know, I see you here before. Many times.”

Then as if standing on something, she raises herself up and crosses the partition onto Mike’s balcony. Without speaking, she sits down next to him and gently puts his head on her lap.

“It’s ok. Cry if you want to. I’m here now.”

And so Mike does. He cries for the fact he might never see his daughter again. He cries for the hopelessness of his situation. He cries for all the many insults and slights he’s endured and the path his life has unexpectedly taken.

Toy sits still smoothing his hair and humming a Thai tune under her breath. Mike can’t remember a time when he has felt so exquisitely happy.

“That man in your apartment. Why was he angry with you?”

“Shh,” Toy replies. “It’s nothing. I owe him little money, that’s all.”

Later, Toy climbs back over her balcony and looks back at Mike.

“Remember. I’m always be here if you want to talk. Ok?”

Mike nods back and smiles. “Ok. And thank you.”

Toy smiles back.

[c]***[/c]

The next morning, Mike goes to the Thai Immigration office to try to solve his visa problem but with no funds, he’ll get no visa extension. Back in the foyer of P&J Mansion in the afternoon, he can’t even force a smile when he sees the elevator has been repaired. Pressing the button, he waits and when it arrives, two giggling schoolgirls run out, and Mike gets in.

Reaching his floor, he walks towards his apartment passing Toy’s door, which he notices is ajar. A loud shriek is coming from within, and he hears Toy’s pleading cries.

Immediately, he takes a step back and looks into the apartment through the gap in the doorway. The same Thai man is there again only this time he is straddling the semi-lifeless body of Toy with both hands around her throat.

When he sees Mike, he stands up.

“You want something, farang?” he says, walking towards Mike, his fists clenched by his side.

Mike is in no mood to turn the other cheek. Not today. He punches the man hard knocking him back inside the apartment. Surprised, the man puts his hand to his lip. A red trickle is slowly wending its way down the left side of his mouth. His look is of a hyena kicked away from a fresh carcass by an angry lion, and he immediately responds.

With kicks and punches, he attacks Mike who falls back, his glasses tumbling to the floor. Mike feels the weight of Thai man on top of him punching now with his elbows while trying to head-butt him. Though a few of the punches connect, others fail to land.

As they wrestle on the floor, both men start to tire, and their breathing becomes more labored. Sensing an opportunity, Mike throws the man off and jumps on top of him. Much bigger than the Thai, it’s then that the unleashing of four years of pent up rage begins. He hits him several times with punches to his right eye and elbows to his left jaw. The man looks back, dazed and confused.

Though blurred, Mike sees an object on a side table in front of him. It looks heavy and solid. He leans over, picks it up and is about to smash it into the man’s face when a loud shriek stops him.

"AAAAAAAiiieeee!"

When he looks up, he sees Toy, both of her hands almost covering her face in terror, an imploring look on her face.

“No, no, not death by Buddha, please not Lord Buddha! Please! You not understand."

Mike looks at the statue still held high in his right hand.

“Please, no. If Buddhist die this way, not go to the heaven. Maybe...maybe come back as the rat or the dog or the snake!”

When Mike looks down, the Thai man is also pleading.

“No, please, I beg you, not this way! The lady speak truth. I give money. Ten thousand baht, ok?”

Mike offers no response.

“Please, please?”

Mike finally drops his arm, gets off the Thai man, and they both stand up.

Reaching into his wallet the man pulls out a wad of silver, one-thousand-baht banknotes. He places them on the same side table where the Buddha statue had been placed. He bows his head low and clasps two hands together giving a deep Thai wai, first to Mike, and then another wai to Toy and quickly leaves the room.

[c]***[/c]

That evening, emboldened by the day’s events, Mike takes out his address book and phones his ex-wife. Although surprised, it isn’t long before Sheila’s haranguing him.

“Shut up you cow and put Clare on the phone,” Mike demands.

In shock at her ex-husband’s demeanor, Sheila hands the phone over to Clare, and father and speak daughter speak for two hours with lots of tears on both sides.

The following morning, Mike rises early and showers. He cleans his apartment beginning with the removal of all the bottles that have cluttered his kitchen and takes them down to the garbage area at the back of the building. He disinfects the bathroom with detergent, launders the bed sheets and vacuums the carpets.

Sitting on his freshly dusted sofa, he listens to "Seven Steps to Heaven" by Miles Davis on his beloved old record player. He can’t remember the last time there was such a big smile on his face as Toy sits by his side feeding him spoonfuls of Thai green curry.

“I’m just popping out to the shop. You want anything?” Mike asks.

“I can go—“

“No need. Stay here. Listen to the music. I won’t be long.”

[c]***[/c]

Walking out of P&J Mansions, as always, the noise of diesel and 2-stroke engines is loud as he waits to cross the road. When the motorcycle pulls up in front of him, Mike takes little notice. He smiles at the two men staring at him intently.

Mike looks up at the sky marveling at how blue it appears today. Not a cloud in sight. A truly perfect day.

It’s then that the shot rings out, barely audible in the urban cacophony.

When the motorcycle pulls away, Mike is lying in the road, blood oozing from his head into cracks in the concrete of a Bangkok pavement, eyes fixed as if gazing up at his 10th floor apartment.

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