My father thought bedtime stories would be more fun if he put Mother Goose away, and taught me about the eight levels of Buddhist hell instead. That’s where the hungry ghosts lived. He read dozens of them to me, his favorite called “A Pot of Shit,” in which a ghost with a tiny mouth and swollen stomach was tormented with unbearable cravings and desire. But he could only eat shit, and even that was hard for him to stuff through his pin-hole lips and throat. These were morality tales, the shit eater being cursed for having given a bowl of excrement to a beggar.
When I was older, I realized that my father was himself like a hungry ghost. He had a voracious appetite for being with women other than my mother. She stared blankly at his detailed excuses for why he came home late every night, why the credit card balances were exploding, why he took so many trips out of town. I saw Mom in the laundry room, burying her nose in his undershirts, sweeping her finger inside the front of his soiled underwear.
So I confronted him. Asked him if he knew how much he was hurting Mom. He stiffened up, eyes bulging, and said it was none of my fucking business.
He died of a heart attack when I was twenty. After the funeral, after they lowered his casket into the ground and covered it with new sod, I went back to the cemetery, so I could sleep on his grave. Told Mom it was because I missed him. But what I really wanted was to see him as a hungry ghost. To witness his descent into Buddhist hell. What would his karmic punishment be, a bulge in his pants grotesquely too large? Or maybe too puny to be useful?
I kicked the dead leaves onto his tombstone.
I awoke in darkness, and saw my father’s ghost under a magnolia tree. He was youthful, handsome and lean, full head of black hair greased and parted in the middle. Glowing in his white vest and tie.
And the women began floating up from their graves, lining up under the tree. One by one, he danced with them. The Foxtrot, the Viennese Waltz, the Cha Cha. Hands clasped, his flat palm on their backs, the inside of their knees touching with each step.
The Asian girl wrapped in a pink yukata, the dark woman with braids under her fedora, the elder matriarch in flowing white chiffon.
He was a smooth lead, the women at ease, gliding across the cemetery lawn. He whispered in their ears, as they tipped their heads back with delight.
I felt like throwing up. Where was karma? His punishment for making Mom suffer?
My father’s face was full of pleasure. So at peace, with each new partner. Swinging, twirling. Laughing and laughing. The girl in crimson, the girl in peach.
Eliot Li lives in California. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Pithead Chapel, The Pinch, Flash Frog, and Cleaver.