Richard Stevenson

The 38 Million Dollar Smile


“Mr. Strachey, do you believe in reincarnation?”

“I’ve never given it much thought.”

“So you won’t mind my telling you, I think the whole idea is perfectly absurd.”

“Go ahead.”

It had been Ellen Griswold’s idea to meet in the bar at the Albany airport at six thirty. She was picking her husband up from the US Airways flight from Washington that theoretically got in at seven forty but sometimes arrived around nine or ten.

So we had plenty of time for going over the mysteries of life.

“I know you’ve spent time in Southeast Asia,” she said. “So I assume you know something about Buddhist philosophy.”

She was nicely turned out in a beige linen suit, the sea green silk wrap she had been wearing against the early April chill now slung over the chair next to her. Still on the underside of fifty, I guessed, Mrs. Griswold was raven haired, with clear dark eyes, a handsome beak, and apparently had had some minimal cantilevering and other structural work done on her chin and cheeks, though nothing that would have overtaxed Le Corbusier.

I said, “I was in the war there, so I know a little. But even in Army Intelligence, my thinking was focused and practical. The larger questions relating to the Asian psyche were left to the deep thinkers at the Pentagon. How did you know I was in Vietnam?”

“Bob Chicarelli told me.”

A lawyer I knew. “I’ve done work for Bob.”

“And have played squash with him. He also says you’re gay.

That’s good, because so is my ex-husband, who is the problem here, I think.”

“Ah, the problem.”

8 Richard Stevenson

I liked that she drank beer. She had a large bottle of Indian Kingfisher she was working on, savoring each sip but without making a spectacle of it, like Timmy’s and my lesbian friends who drink beer while they inexplicably watch men play football on television.

Mrs. Griswold said, “My ex-husband, Gary, believes that in a previous life he was Thai. What do you make of that?”

“Thai, as in a person from Thailand?”

She sipped her Kingfisher, and I sipped my Sam Adams.

“Gary not only believes that he was Thai, but that he will be Thai again in his next life. This is a man I was married to for six years.”

“It sounds as though he may have been problematical for you on multiple fronts.”

This got a little half smile. “Well, yes. We were married on January seventeenth nineteen eighty-one. I should have known.

It was three days before Ronald Reagan was inaugurated.”

“An auspicious week, as a sometime-Thai like your former husband might say.”

A curt nod. “I think he would say that, yes. Not back then necessarily. But now Gary would think of it in exactly those terms. Astrology, numerology, karma, reincarnation, the whole nine yards. All that new age hooey. It’s really disappointing.

When I married Gary, he had his obsessions, which were generally harmless — bicycle racing, and so on. But he was also one of the most rational people I knew.”

I said, “East Asians don’t think of karma and reincarnation as new age hooey. They think of them as the way the universe is ordered.”

I meant this as a point of information, not a lecture, and she seemed to take it that way, unperturbed. “That’s fine if it works for the Asians. I’ve lived and worked abroad, and cultural relativism is fine with me. But for Gary, Eastern ideas turned into a kind of trap, I think.”

“How so?”

“As a way of avoiding responsibility.”


“I don’t think of myself as an overly materialistic person,” she said. “But I do believe in managing the assets you have like a grown-up. Whether you earn it or you inherited much of it, as Gary and Bill did, flushing your money down the toilet I find totally incomprehensible.”

“Who is Bill?” I asked.

“My husband, Bill Griswold. Gary’s older brother.”

This was getting complex. I said, “What did the Reagans make of all this?’

She smiled rather sweetly. “Around the time Gary’s and my marriage was unraveling — largely because of his coming to terms with his being gay — Bill’s fell apart, too. He had married a Long Island JAP of a certain type when he was nineteen — a looker, a serious shopper, and not much else — and Bill needed somebody more stimulating. We had always liked each other, and we both liked to read and travel. For fun, we took a trip to Budapest together, and that was it. It’s been as good a marriage as anybody could hope for, overall.”

“And your husband’s first wife was not Japanese?”

“Jewish American Princess. You’ve heard the term, I’m sure.”

“It could have been another Asian in the picture.”

“I would not have used Jap that way.”

Her cell phone played what Timothy Callahan might have identified as the opening strains of Gluck’s overture to Orpheus and Eurydice, but for all I knew could have been Andrew Lloyd Webber. She flipped it out of her handbag and told me with an apologetic shrug, “It’s either one or the other.”

Ellen Griswold’s end of a brief conversation included the words please don’t more often than I normally use them on the phone.

“That was Amanda,” she said, putting her phone away. I noted a diamond on one finger that, while not quite 10 Richard Stevenson ostentatious, did not hide its light under a bushel, as well as a demure ruby on a nearby digit.

“Amanda is thirteen,” Mrs. Griswold said. “Mark is fifteen.

They’re both good kids, but they are kids. They pretty much have their feet on the ground, but there are times when I have to try hard not to scream.”

“These are Bill’s children, not Gary’s?”

“That’s right. Do the math.”

“Gotcha. But we’re not here to talk about Amanda and Mark, apparently.”


“On the phone, you said you believed that a family member was in trouble, and you wanted my help in getting him out of it.

So we’re talking about your former husband and current brother-in-law?”

This was the moment when, in the olden days, Mrs.

Griswold would rummage in her handbag for a cigarette, and I would light it for her and then fire up one of my own. Now we both had to make do with a barely perceptible tightening of her facial restructuring and a swig of beer for me.

Watching me with no particular expression, she said, “Gary has vanished in Thailand with thirty-eight million dollars. I’d like you to find him, check to see if he is all right, and help him out if he isn’t. And if Gary is alive and hasn’t gone completely around the bend, help us talk some sense into him.”

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