The old inventor of the duck neck hook and the metal fruit scoop fingered the worn edges of a business card as he pushed his cart toward the first bend on Thonglor.
There, in front of where Khun Sai’s hardware store used to be, was the spot where he parked and sold the things he made. He used to find inspiration in Sai’s haphazard piles of dusty tools: soot-black bradawls and bevels, spokeshares, gimlets, chalklines and chisels. Some of these tools he employed to make his own inventions at home, which he hung on the walls of his workshop: sharp things, things made from leaves of plants, from skin, bone, organ or tusk. Things that use the power of air, or things that mimic the abilities of animals—pincers, for instance, that open pistachios and betel nuts, depositing them whole into a palm like a meticulous beak. Things that bring our desired objects closer to us and things that keep our aversions at bay.
He fashioned a concave blade, the better for cutting a cob of corn; a basket for steaming softer buns; a dried chili shaker that dispenses the perfect ratio of seeds to the shredded red skin; an aphrodisiac from husks of durian and tamarind; and a gecko trap that catches only tails.
Other inventions were more impressive: a little wooden frog that hops when a baby claps its hands, a bicycle that requires for its forward movement nothing more than the occasional lilt of its bell, an umbrella so light it makes one’s arm feel like it is being pulled up to the sky. A mirror that remembers one’s face and a scale that tells time from the weight of one’s tears.
All these things and many more he’d crafted, but only a few of them had found a home and caught on. The rest he kept in his shop. Eventually, and with only the occasional exception, he sold from his cart those items that people were comfortable with, such as brooms and baskets, heavy mallets and chopping blocks. Every night but the first of the week, regardless of weather and without fail, he stood alert at his spot until it was time to head back to his narrow soi where the row of brown houses curved under creeping plants that hung from the wet, black bark of trees, from second story banisters and roofs with roots dug deep into their moss-padded shingles.
Every year it took more time to push his cart through the swelling city, but lately he found it easier to slip away in his mind while he did it. Now, he hardly noticed the yellow-hued arrival of the streetlights at dusk or the gathering intensity of evening traffic.
The old man didn’t think he worked harder than most to make his objects. He had nothing to compare his efforts to. He had taught himself to solder, carve and weave. From the time he first moved into his house as a young man, he cooked his own meals, washed his own clothes, and spent his morning hours in his workshop moving some small new thing forward piece by piece, thread by thread. If he made a mistake there was no one to chastise him; he simply drew more time from what felt like the deep well of years ahead.
To be taken for granted but indispensable—that was the ultimate achievement for a newly made thing. But just as he refused to despair when an invention fell short of his vision, for many years he did not worry when the circumstances of his life as he had once imagined them—a wife, children, a steady stream of customers—proved elusive as well. In the early years many acquaintances would come directly to his shop. More than one with a sister or a daughter asked him if he planned to settle down. Rarely could he hide the odd combination of impatience and regret that these questions aroused in him, or the look on his face that said, “Can’t you see all I’ve made, stacked neatly and hanging in rows? Does the weight of it not appear settled?” Other things he could not control, but he knew he would be of no use in his life if he did not master his trade, and so he focused on making ever more unusual, more graceful things. With pride he watched his shop accumulate the evidence of his perseverance and skill. Customers would inevitably follow, he believed in those days. In that way as in others, things would take care of themselves.
But even into his middle years, the stream of passersby who were the daily audience to his industriousness remained largely unmoved by the unfamiliar objects on his cart. “You need the right friends,” Sai used to say, always the first to inspect the inventor’s latest creation. “Someone who can help you get your things into important hands.” The inventor would nod politely, pleased with Sai’s appreciation.
Reaching an intersection now, he began the process of pushing his cart across the busy thoroughfare, edging out slowly and scanning the gaps for weaving motorcycles.
“Important hands” seemed to grow at once more ubiquitous in the neighborhood and more scarce to him. By the time Sai’s hardware store was replaced by the new restaurant, the inventor had to admit that he had grown old. He began to feel within himself a creeping unease, an uncomfortable urge to change at last the course his life had taken. Selling on the street had only become more difficult, the faces less frequently familiar and more likely to look harried. He wondered if his usual spot was no longer right, or right for him. Almost no one stopped to say hello out of neighborly kindness or idle curiosity anymore; he often felt more like an obstruction than a welcome service. And so he resolved to make, before it was too late, something so beautiful and necessary that it could not be ignored.
One night, several months after Sai and his shop had gone from that bend on Thonglor—not far now, as he doubled back with the flow of traffic—the old man set up in his usual place by the curb. He was tired, as he had been for some time. He was also hopeful, however, for on a little stand in the center of his cart he displayed his latest creation: a smooth, flat, rectangular box, about six inches long. In a world where everyone seemed to have the things they needed, the old inventor had decided he would give them the perfect container for some of those things. The surface of supple rosewood was oiled and polished to a shine. The lid sprung gently open, though no mechanism was visible. Most marvelous of all was the substance that lined the box: velvety but cool to the touch, a breathing, mesmerizing softness. Under the path of a finger’s caress its background of deep purples and greens blossomed into to a bright phosphorescence of warmer colors that faded only slowly, like a footprint in wet sand. Moreover, this interior surface expressed hues and ranges of temperature, varied registers of physical tenderness, for each new person who touched it. Amidst the busy rhythms of the metropolis, the inventor had finally created something that was sure to make his audience slow down and take notice.
The old man recalled vividly how a few more pedestrians than usual had stopped at his cart that night, and for a moment he had recognized the telltale signs of a crowd beginning to gather—the critical mass of a few enthusiastic browsers pulling others toward his wares. He gave an alert nod to those still unsure about approaching, even while carrying on a conversation with more animated parties in front. Keen, self-composed, immersed in his trade, he had felt something more significant than hope. For the first time in years he felt—though he would not have said it this way himself—a sense of harmony, as if his dream-life and his waking actions were once again in full alignment.
That same night, when a gleaming sedan pulled up with a flick of its headlights to indicate that the old man should move his cart, everyone in the inventor’s orbit stepped back, unsure of who might be behind its darkened windows. For the briefest of moments the inventor considered ignoring the signal, but shortly he, too, thought better of it and complied. He heaved his cart a few feet out of the way to make room for the passengers of the sedan to exit onto his spot at the sidewalk.
A woman in an elegant dress stepped out, followed by a shorter, pale man with a cleanly shaved head and wearing a black collared shirt. The woman steadied her companion as he stumbled conspicuously over the curb and laughed a sloppy laugh. They were about to go into the restaurant when the bald man, ruddy and facedamp, turned back and, lurching, said, “Sorry to take your spot, uncle.” On his wrist was a watch finer than any instrument the old man had ever seen.
One or two of the passersby who had paused to browse the inventor’s wares still milled about. Clearly embarrassed by the scene, a young office worker looked down at the sidewalk while her boyfriend stared awkwardly across the street at people eating from bowls. “Come on,” the elegant woman from the sedan said, taking the bald man’s arm. “Don’t bother him.”
“Excuse me,” the inventor said as they turned away. His voice caught on a ball of phlegm; he cleared his throat. “Do you like beautiful things?”
The bald man hesitated for a moment and regarded the inventor’s cart. He approached, picked up the new box and opened it. For a moment he stood transfixed, gently running the tip of his finger along the velvety inside as it bloomed from bright yellow to shades of crimson and cinnamon. The inventor and the woman stood still. “It knows your fingers as you know them,” the old man said.
The bald man ran a forearm over the beads of sweat on his pinkish brow. “What’s it for?” he asked the woman in English without taking his eyes off the box, ignoring the inventor. The woman looked at the inventor for an answer.
“It’s . . . a container,” he said in their own language. “Or”—more confidently now—“it exists as we all do: to be beautiful, to be coveted. To be an end in itself.”
After a long breath the bald man looked up and more closely took in the old man and his things. He fumbled the box and almost dropped it.
“Here, take my card,” the bald man said, tossing the box back on the cart, his body swaying unsteadily, his watch catching fluorescent lamplight. “We should work together some time,” he said, but he was already turning back to the restaurant. Then, he stopped again.
“Tell him I can make him famous,” he said to the elegant woman. She stood by the door, clearly ready to leave the scene behind. “Tell him,” he insisted. “Tell him I can make him rich.”
She did it, quietly and with a note of pity. Fortunately for the inventor and his pride, there was no longer anyone around to hear her say the words. The bald man, too, had already gone; he hadn’t even stopped to listen to his own message being delivered. The inventor could be alone with his confusion and shame for as long as he wished.
The next day, the inventor gave the card to Nong Som to read. Under the name, it said, “Marketeer, Imagineer.” No one knew what that last word meant, not Ek who had finished university, not the librarian who came every month to buy brooms. Not one acquaintance in that shifting, amnesiac city could offer a guess.
Khun Sai used to kick junk from the threshold of his hardware shop as a way of making him feel welcome. “Take it,” he’d say of some rusted scrap, “you’ll find a use for it.” Now, reaching the eastern side of the bend in Thonglor, the inventor checked the time and found himself uncharacteristically late. The new restaurant’s storefront glass was already a dark pool reflecting the colors of the street at night. The people inside were dressed in a way that made the old man feel like he could almost smell their scent from behind that glass. There must be something special about the place, he conceded to himself. They must have some marvelous inventions he had never seen.
Despite the familiar effort he had once again invested in getting to his spot, he wondered, for the first time in as long as he could remember, if rather than stop where he always had he would be better served by continuing on to some other part of the city. Or should he first, he wondered, return home and take stock? Should he reconsider what to bring and what to leave behind? For it seemed possible to him now—why he hadn’t considered it before, he couldn’t say—that the question was not whether his usual spot was still right for him, and not, even, whether some would say that it was no longer his. It had never belonged to him in the first place, this much he knew. Until now, however—or recently, or at some point in the past that he could not define—he had failed to consider the ways that he may have ceased to belong to it.
Without stopping, with nothing more than a sideways glance, he continued past that familiar bend in Thonglor. A passerby himself now, he had nothing but his cart and that card and his own familiar musing, and even that seemed smaller somehow, less clear, drowned out by the hoarse belch of the hauling trucks and the hollow whistle of bright pink taxis cutting through the air at his side.
Richard Hermes is a Ph.D. candidate in the creative writing program at the University of Tennessee, where he was the editor-in-chief of Grist: A Journal of the Literary Arts. He has an M.F.A. from the University of Minnesota, and his awards include Minnesota Monthly’s Tamarack Award, a Minnesota State Arts Board grant, and a Henry Luce Scholars fellowship to Thailand, where he lived and worked for eight years. He has written for a number of magazines and newspapers, including Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia, Utne, and The Bangkok Post.