I’ve got my arms wrapped around the back of the driver’s seat, one hand resting flat against Kevin’s back. The other his holding our phone, which is set to a map to bring us back to the opposite end of Bangkok still hours away. The car is dark, outside is darker, and each face is illuminated by the individual phone screens (and the dashboard for Kevin) keeping us occupied. Golden Age legend Karuhat is in the passenger seat. He looks up for a moment and points to the right, telling Kevin to go that way. My map says to go the other way, so there’s this moment of contention between the two of us as I say to go the other way. I don’t want to counter Karuhat, not only because he’s my senior and I respect him, but because he usually knows what he’s talking about. But I give authority to the phone’s map and he gives this kind of wave of his hand while saying, “sure I guess go the other way,” (in Thai). That brings us down a narrow, pot-hole riddled road into the endless black of fields on either side.
Karuhat makes this noise of dismay as we go deeper into the Abyss, and Kevin starts laughing at the same joke he was laughing at earlier in the day on our way out to the venue, when it was still light out, that westerners with Google Maps smart phones must just seem like odd-balls or morons for taking these tiny roads when there are highways not far away. Karuhat kind of picks up on his laughter, even without explanation. “Sin,” he says (his nickname for me), turning his head just enough to show he’s talking to me but not really looking at me – he’s looking at the nothingness all around us, “if the car breaks down on these roads there’s nobody to help,” he explains. That’s why he indicated going right, which stayed on a main highway even though it was a slower, more out of the way route. “I promise we won’t die,” I say and Karuhat kind of smiles into his phone again. I wait a few beats, Kevin having to slow every 100 feet or so to go around a hole in the road. “Glua pee mai?” I tease Karuhat, (“are you afraid of ghosts?”) knowing that the objection to this kind of rural road at night holds an additional factor to a huge number of Thais.
He lets this question, rhetorical as it was, sit in the air for a minute. A full minute. Perhaps coincidentally, right as the road becomes a bit smoother and bends around some banana tree groves, Karuhat pipes in again, “Sin, I’m not afraid of ghosts… but I don’t want to see any.” I start laughing, it’s such a brilliant answer, and he repeats it once or twice for emphasis, addressing me each time he says it, “Sin, Sin, I’m not scared of ghosts but I don’t want to see any.” I translate it for Kevin and Ryan (sitting next to me in the back with Jaidee between us) and Kevin starts laughing. It is an awesomely complex joke with sincerity all over it. And it’s oddly expressive of Karuhat’s disposition, which I liken to a gunslinger in old westerns. This kind of rugged, quiet, honorable man who is somewhat haunted by the forces of his own masculinity. He becomes a traveler out of the pain of who he is, which is also usually the result of an amoral talent that forces his hand – like, you know, killing bad guys and stuff. The cowboy is always trying to escape this part of himself, or that life he leads, but he can never escape it because the circumstances of a simple life are never simple. Shane rolls into this tiny valley and wants to work on a farm, an honest and simple man just doing hard labor for a morally robust family. But the bad guys roll in and the town, it its simplicity and humbleness, can only be saved by the gunslinger’s accessibility to his amoral talents. His hand is forced back into this thing he suffers from, even though it’s for moral reasons, and then he has to save the day and move along. Shane the cowboy, Zatoichi the swordsman… it’s the same.
Karuhat has been delightfully talkative on this long drive. Maybe it’s sitting in the dark of the car, facing forward but speaking freely in this disjointed way. I’m like that. Speaking to a camera for my vlogs makes me unusually open, knowing that I’m talking to people and being keen on that connection, but more free because I don’t have to look someone in the face. Karuhat was a trainer in Chiang Mai for about 7 years, also a promoter at Thapae Stadium, where I fight when I go back up north, and I like to ask him about it. He’s told me pieces here and there, but tonight, staring out the windshield and his animated hands dancing in the light of the dashboard as he speaks, he tells me that after he and his wife split up he moved to Chiang Mai. Just to get away. He has a few other instances like this, of just walking away from painful situations or bad bosses. Like the gunslinger; but like the gunslinger, that suffering always follows. He’s always forced to face the kind of man he is, like a gift of god or curse, or both. It’s not like the “alter-ego,” like the Hulk or Jekyll and Hyde, where there’s incoherence between the scholar and the beast. The romance of the gunslinger, of the cowboy or the swordsman, is that there is an inseparability between the man who kills and the man who just wants to disappear into homestead simplicity. And that’s why Karuhat’s joke about the ghost was both funny and profound. I’m not afraid of this piece of me/ I’m not afraid of the monster, but I don’t want to see it.
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