Preface

Udorn

The Klong

The Routine

The Monsoon Season

One More For the Ditch

A Disappointment

Samchai

The Morning After

Family

Aftermath

 

Cass picked up his fork and dug into a plate of gai tung — chicken on rice with a garlicky, spicy gravy. "The Royal Thai was a great idea," he said. "The food in the club's good but this is outstanding."

"Look at her!" Alan said, staring over Cass's shoulder. Cass watched Alan's eyes moving, following someone behind him. He turned slowly and saw an elegantly beautiful Thai girl seating herself at a table near the door. "A girl that good-looking shouldn't be out on the street alone."

"Easy," Cass said. "That's no bar girl. She's got class. She probably wouldn't give an old falang like you the time of day."

"Oh yeah? What about the falang she's with?" Alan's eyes were following someone at the door again.

Cass turned around and looked. A young man had come through the door and was sliding into a chair across from the girl. He waved and Cass waved back. Cass picked up his fork and attacked the gai tung again. "That's Jim Allen. He's a top-notch controller. A captain. He works for Ben."

"You suppose she's got a sister?" Alan said.

"We're not going to ask. The last thing that kid needs right now is a visit from two middle-aged colonels."

"Easy there, papa san," Alan said. "You may be middle-aged but I'm still young at heart." He scooped up a forkful of khao phat het — fried rice with mushrooms — and stared over Cass's shoulder again. "My heart gets younger the longer I look at her… Oh oh."

"What?"

"Look who just came in."

"Next time I'm gonna sit facing the door." Cass turned around in time to see Ben and Wilson wave and sit down at Jim Allen's table

Cass and Alan had finished eating and had ordered another Amarit when Ben approached their table. "Come over and meet Jim Allen's girl," he said.

"Are you sure that's a good idea?" Cass asked.

"You won't believe this girl. You've got to meet her."

"That's what I've been telling him all along," Alan said.

"You can suck in your eyeballs," Ben said. "That girl's only got eyes for one guy and that's Jim."

Cass poured the last of the beer into his and Alan's glasses and they carried the glasses to Jim's table. "Sawadee, khap." Hello there, Cass said to the three at the table.

"Sawadee," Wilson and Jim got up. "You know Captain Allen, sir?" Wilson asked Cass.

"Sure," Cass said. "And I've heard good things about him, from this character." He jerked his thumb over his shoulder toward Ben. "Hi Jim."

"Hi, Sir." Jim moved behind Samchai and put both hands on her chair. "Samchai… I'd like you to meet Colonel Cass, our commander."

"Sawadee, Samchai," Cass said. "It's a pleasure to meet you."

"How do you do, Colonel Cass? I'm very happy to meet you. Jim has spoken highly of you."

"I'm glad what he told you was on the plus side." Cass turned to Alan. "And this is Colonel Ashford."

"Hi Colonel," Jim said.

"I am happy to meet you too, Colonel Ashford." Samchai smiled at both men and made a little bow toward Alan.

"Join us?" Jim asked.

"Just for a moment," Cass said. "Long enough to ask Samchai about her English." They moved some chairs from the next table and everyone sat down.

"Anybody want a beer?" Alan asked. "My treat." There was a murmur of dissent.

"Were you educated in the States?" Cass asked Samchai.

"No, sir," Samchai replied. "I teach English at the school on Friendship Highway. Before that I worked in the American consulate. I have studied English since I was a little girl."

"That couldn't have been long ago."

"Thank you, sir, but I am twenty-five years old."

"That's twenty-four falang years," Cass said. "By my reckoning, that's not long ago. And you don't need to call me 'sir'"

"But that is only soophap," Samchai said. "To be polite. If we were speaking Thai, I would end nearly every sentence with 'ka'," sir.

"But we're speaking English. Mostly because I can't converse in Thai."

"You are only here for a year. I do not think that you can learn much Thai in a year unless you spend all of your time studying."

"It's something none of us try hard enough to do. Besides, I was in Ubon for six months, nine years ago. I should be more fluent than I am. In any case, I think your English is remarkable."

"Thailand was very different nine years ago," Samchai said. "It must have been a shock when you returned."

"Yes. It was pretty startling. Especially when I went back to Ubon and saw the changes there. Ubon seemed a very small town when I first saw it."

"Now it is a city. Do you like it?"

Cass thought for a moment before he answered. "I'm not sure I do. Some of the new buildings are very nice. But there was a warmth between our people then that I don't feel any more."

"Perhaps it is still there. It may just be hidden beneath the rush of the war."

"I hope so," Cass said. "Your country is very beautiful and I think we've not always been kind to you or to it."

"No," Samchai replied. "Americans have been good to us. You have saved our country from the kind of trouble we see in Vietnam. We do not want to be Communists."

"I think the war is over," Cass said. "And the Americans will leave Udon Thani and Ubon before very long. Will your life become very different then?"

Samchai looked at Jim before she answered. "Yes," she said. "My life will change then, but the change will be mostly a change of pace — of intensity. I do not any more have much contact with the base or with the consulate. But I have friends who are employed at the base, and others who are employed in ways that depend on the Americans. Their lives will change a great deal, and those changes will reflect into my life." While Samchai spoke, Cass watched Jim. The young man's face was fixed, almost wooden.

"I hope it won't be too hard for the people of Udon Thani or for Ubon or for any of the other places where we have bases," Cass said. "The buildup was gradual. For the most part, people's lives weren't disrupted suddenly. But when we leave, it probably won't be gradual. The change may be very painful."

Samchai smiled softly. "The change will be painful, but we will manage. I think that it was much worse when the Japanese were here."

"You weren't even born then," Cass said.

"No, but my mother was young and she has told me some of the bad things that happened. The Japanese were not pleasant people - not like the Americans."

"It's hard to leave when someone's speaking well of you," Cass said. "But Colonel Ashford and I have to get back to the base." He stood up and the rest of the men got up with him. "It's been a great pleasure to meet you, Samchai," Cass said. "I hope we'll have another chance to talk someday."

"Thank you, sir," Samchai replied. "It has been a pleasure for me also. I, too, hope that we will meet again."

"You two coming?" Cass asked Ben and Wilson.

"We're heading for Caesar's," Ben said. "We'll walk out with you."

Outside the door Alan said, "Why the hell did you rush off like that?"

"Your eyeballs were beginning to bleed," Cass said. "Jim brought her down here for a nice, quiet, private dinner."

"What do you think, Colonel?" Ben said. "That girl's really got class."

"'Class' is a pretty weak word to describe what Samchai's got," Cass said. "Is she Jim's tealock?"

"It sure seems that way."

They walked silently toward a cluster of taxis down the street. As they reached the first cab Cass stopped and said: "He's going to have a hard time getting out of here, isn't he?"

"Yeah," Ben said. "I hadn't thought of it that way, but I guess you're right."

* * * 

"Ben," Cass said. "Does Jim Allen owe you money?"

Ben looked past Cass and shifted in his chair. Cass put his elbows on his desk and just stared. "No big thing," Ben said, shifting again.

"How big a thing?" Cass shot back. "Knock off the bullshit. You know I'm not out to zap him."

"About fifty bucks."

"No big thing?" Cass repeated. "You been cleaning up at two bit poker?"

"Well, hell… He's got a problem."

"What kind of problem?"

"Sort of a girl problem. And a kid problem."

"A kid problem? He's only been here three months longer than you and I have."

"Well… It's a long story."

"The war's over and I'm not exactly up to my eyeballs in emergencies," Cass said, leaning back in his chair. "Why don't you tell me this long story?"

"He's a good kid, Colonel."

"I know that." Cass put down the letter opener he'd been toying with. "Look. He owes some other people money too. One of the guys he owes is Jerry Verling. Jerry's ready to go home. Next week. Jim can't pay him. I'm trying to find out how bad the problem is. It looks as if he's getting in deeper and deeper. Jerry's not the only one he owes."

"How much does he owe?" Ben asked.

"I don't know," Cass said. "And I can't find out for sure without asking everyone he owes to come in and see me. I don't want to do that."

"How much does he owe Jerry?"

"Forty bucks."

"Oh oh," Ben said, quietly. "Who else?"

"At least two other guys," Cass said, looking at a pad on his desk. "Not counting you or Jerry."

Ben sat back in his chair and let the air out of his lungs. "How much all together - among the four?"

"Two hundred sixty dollars as near as I can figure, counting your fifty."

"Oh… shit… I wonder how many others."

"That's something we're going to have to find out. So… What's the story?"

"Well," Ben said. "The way he met Samchai… he saved her little boy's life. The kid got run down by a taxi and Jim picked him up and took him to a hospital and then paid to keep him there for a month. The girl didn't have any money. She was going to take the kid out of the hospital after the first couple of days. Samchai's a widow. Her husband got killed in Vietnam. Jim ran out of money early in the game and borrowed fifty bucks from me."

"How much is he trying to live on?" Cass asked.

"I don't know exactly, but it's not much. He's got trouble at home. He got passed over for major a few months ago."

"I know," Cass said. "That's bad news. He seems sharp as hell on the job."

"He is," Ben said. "He's got the same problem a lot of other guys have. He's been stuck as a controller most of his career."

"What's the problem at home?"

"His wife's seeing a shrink. He doesn't know exactly what's wrong. He doesn't talk about it much. Apparently it's pretty bad. They've got a lot of problems. Their kids are adopted. He's in debt back home. Doctors' bills… Things like that."

"How long has he been living with Samchai?"

"Maybe three months. Listen, Jim isn't the kind of guy who goes down town and shacks up for a thrill or a change of scenery. And he's not the kind who doesn't care if his debts get out of hand."

"He goes home in four months," Cass said. "Even if he turns around and starts fighting whatever it is that's chasing him there may not be enough time left."

"I'll talk to him this morning," Ben said.

"The quicker we get a handle on this the better chance he's got. To settle the money thing we're probably going to have to bring in everybody involved. Sooner or later."

Ben stood up. "I'll send him over as soon as I've talked to him."

 

It was nearly eleven when Jim knocked once, tentatively, on Cass's open door. "Come on," Cass said. Jim came in and stood at attention. "Sit down, Jim. Want some coffee?"

"No thanks sir," Jim said, sitting down stiffly.

"Relax," Cass said. "I'm not going to have you shot." Cass picked up his cup. "Hang on a minute." He went down the hall to the coffee pot, came back, closed the door and sat down. "Did Major Green tell you what this is all about?"

"Yes sir," Jim said. "We talked for a long time."

"Did you come up with any solutions."

"Not exactly. I'm not sure there are any. I owe a lot of money."

"Well," Cass said. "I guess that's the first thing I've got to know. How much do you owe?"

"Over three hundred dollars."

"How many people?"

Jim ticked off the people and the amounts on his fingers. Cass wrote them down. "Three hundred forty," Cass said, adding a column. He leaned back in his chair. "The first problem we've got to solve is Jerry's. That won't wait. How about if I lend you Jerry's forty?"

"Sir, Major Green just lent me enough to pay Jerry."

"Yeah. I should have noticed," Cass said, looking at the ninety dollars next to Ben's name. "How much are you trying to live on, Jim?"

"A hundred fifty. Actually a hundred eighty. I didn't know about family separation allowance when I set up my budget."

"The BOQ costs you thirty a month. Right?"

"Yes sir, and maid service costs me fifteen."

"So you've got a hundred thirty five to eat on."

"Yes sir."

Cass looked at the list again. "What's your situation back home?"

"It's not good, sir. I've got a lot of debts."

"Nothing you can put off?"

"No sir. Most of them are old debts. Doctor's bills. That kind of thing." He paused. "My wife… I guess we've run up some new bills since I left."

"Why?"

Jim looked at Cass, sizing him up in a sweeping glance. "She's sick, Colonel. She was starting to get sick before I left. I don't know why. I keep thinking…" Except for the muffled rush of air conditioning ducts the room was still.

"You keep thinking maybe it's your fault," Cass said.

Jim just stared at Cass.

"And now you're pretty well convinced it is your fault because of Samchai."

Jim didn't answer.

"Have you tapped your wife for extra money already?"

"Yes sir."

"Look," Cass said. "I've met Samchai. You must have a pretty good idea what I think of her — what anybody would think of her. You know I'm not making some kind of snide comment when I ask you… how much is Samchai… How much are you spending on Samchai and her little boy?"

"Everything." Jim's face was colorless. "All the rest. The three hundred… That was what it took to pay for Jo Fay. That's how I got so far behind."

"Does Samchai know you're short of money?"

"No sir," Jim said, still looking straight at Cass. "I can't tell her."

"You've got to."

Jim stared straight ahead and didn't say anything. Gradually his face became more composed. His color began to return. Finally he said: "I can't."

"Because you'll lose face?"

Jim nodded almost imperceptibly.

"How much face do you think you'll lose if she finds out from somebody else?"

Jim gave Cass a startled look. "You… You'd tell her?"

"Of course not. But you just gave me a list of seven people you owe money. A couple of those people have tealocks. Those women hear what's going on. They talk to each other. Sooner or later the word's going to get back to Samchai."

"She… Samchai doesn't know those girls. She doesn't talk to them."

"You're thinking like an American," Cass said. "Do you know what Samchai does during the day? While you're at work?"

Jim thought for a moment. "No sir. I guess… Not really. She goes to work. She's a teacher."

"But in the afternoon, before you come home she goes to the market. And she gossips with the neighbors. And the neighbors gossip with other neighbors. And some of the women in the gossip chain are housegirls from the base. Thai women don't stay home and watch TV. They love to visit and chat. That's one reason so many Thai girls who marry GI's divorce and come back to Thailand. They…" Cass stopped. "It's that serious?"

"What?"

"That you've thought about taking her home?"

Jim gave another faint nod.

"Have you said anything to her?"

"No sir."

After a pause Cass said: "The people you owe money… Ben Green would write it off. So would Major Macbeth. That would get the balance down to…" Cass did some quick figuring on the pad. "To a hundred thirty." He leaned back. "And if my luck holds at two bit poker I could kick in a hundred. That leaves thirty. We probably could find a way to kill that too… What do you think?"

Jim was silent, thinking.

"I'm not kidding," Cass said. "What you did for that little boy. That was pretty splendid."

"I couldn't do that sir."

"I didn't think so."

"I'll tell Samchai. I'll move back on base. I guess I'll have to. If I stay straight, maybe I can pay it all off before I leave."

"Before you tell her, there are a couple of things you need to do. One of them is to understand in your own mind what kind of reaction you're going to get from her. Ever think about what Samchai could be if she wanted to? If money really were important to her?"

"Sometimes," Jim said. "A little. Oh hell… Not much."

"It's a hard thought," Cass said. "She's one of the most beautiful girls I've ever seen. Thai. American. It doesn't matter. She's beautiful in anybody's language. And she speaks perfect English. Better than most of the Americans on this base. She could be one of the most successful prostitutes in this part of the country — maybe in all Thailand."

Jim lowered his head.

"That's too harsh a word," Cass said. "She could manage… She could be well off without becoming a prostitute. She could find a tealock — somebody with money, like an Air America pilot for instance — somebody who could lavish all sorts of luxuries on her. It probably wouldn't take her more than five minutes to find somebody like that. She could find a falang husband. Not a G.I. Not an officer. Somebody who's really wealthy. Single. With all sorts of potential. There are people like that all over this country. Englishmen. Americans. Businessmen. Tourists."

Jim leaned forward in his chair. A flush was rising above his collar. "I don't think she's ever thought about that. Not seriously."

"She's smarter than the average bear," Cass smiled quietly. "She's thought about it, but she's rejected it. That tells you something you need to know about Samchai. In any case, what you just told me is that you're not going to be able to go down town and say, 'Samchai I can't live with you any more,' and then grab your stuff and move back on base."

Jim tried to imagine how he'd begin to tell Samchai… Tell her what? That he was having money problems? That he'd borrowed money and couldn't pay it back? That he couldn't live with her any more?

"What's your DEROS, Jim?"

"I've got more than three months to go."

"It's not just a question of paying back the money, is it?" Cass asked.

What Cass was driving at came through Jim's pain after a minute. He could pack his things and move back on base without explaining why, or he could talk to Samchai about the situation. He tried, but couldn't imagine, living for months on base with Samchai a mile away in town. Never seeing her. If he talked to her about it, he'd be putting part of his own problem on her shoulders. But she wouldn't shrink from that. Cass had seen something in Samchai that his own biased picture of her hadn't let him see clearly. While he pondered that, another thought came to him, a thought he'd pushed away for a long time but finally had to face. In the beginning, on the day of Jo Fay's accident, Samchai's disorientation, grief, her need to hold on to another human being, had helped make her eager to accept him, just as his own excitement, loneliness, growing melancholy had been important parts of his need for her. But in the quiet weeks that followed, the situation had become transformed. He was in love with Samchai, and, undeniably, she was in love with him. It was a commitment neither of them had anticipated.

Jim was surprised at the pain in Cass's face. "If it were just the money," Cass said. "It'd be easy."

"Yes sir," Jim said.

"Jim, there's something I want you to do."

"Yes sir."

"I'd like you to stay on base tonight. I imagine Samchai's expecting you, but I'll get Major Green to send somebody down and tell her you've got to stay here one more night. She knows that's not unusual."

"Yes sir."

"Then I want you to sit down in the BOQ, or here — you can use my office if you want — and work out the best plan you can to pay off the money. Be sure you get all the loose ends. Your club bill. Things like that. Make it realistic. Take into account that between Ben Green and Jose Macbeth and myself you can put off part of it until you get home… if you have to. I want you to do that before you see Samchai. Find out where you really stand."

"Yes sir," Jim said.

"If you need help, I'll help. If I'm not home after dinner, I'll be in the club. Major Green will help too."

"I won't need help," Jim said.

"I want you to come see me tomorrow afternoon and let me know where you stand."

Jim left and Cass was getting his hat off the rack when Ben came in. "Ready for chow?" Ben asked.

"Yeah."

"I saw Jim go out. Did you talk to him?"

"I talked to him." Cass leaned back against the edge of the conference table.

"That bad?"

"That bad." Cass looked at his hat and fiddled with the eagle on it. "I've been trying to think what I'd do if I were Jim. I don't get an answer."

"About what?"

"Ever think what a strange thing love is? It isn't expendable. You don't use it up. It's possible — fortunately it doesn't happen very often — but I think it's possible to love a woman with all your heart — literally with all your heart — and then to have it happen again with somebody else. So that there are two women you love with all your heart." He got up from the table and put on his hat. "It must be one hell of an ambivalent feeling. Enough to blow your mind. If you were faced with that — if you had to make a choice… what would you do if you couldn't… find a key?"

"I don't know."

"Neither do I," Cass said, starting out the door.

 

Jim spent the night and the next day on base. On the second evening he ate dinner at the officers' club, changed into civilian clothes, caught a samblao, and went to Samchai’s bungalow. He was relieved to discover, through his budgeting, that he'd be able pay his creditors before he left, but he also knew he could look forward to four bleak months while he scrimped to pay them. The worst part was that he couldn’t afford to go on living with Samchai, at least not in the same way.

It was nearly dark when he got to the bungalow, and he climbed the stairs almost at a run, forcing himself to act as if nothing had changed. The kitchen was open and the kitchen light was on, but the door to Jo Fay’s room was closed and neither Jo Fay nor Samchai’s mother was in sight. Samchai met him at the top of the stairs, dressed in her housework sarong. “I'm glad you are here, Jim,” she said. “Last night Sergeant Blaine came and told me that you couldn’t leave the base, but he acted strangely and he wouldn’t tell me why. I was afraid you were in trouble or had been hurt.”

“No,” Jim said. “There was something I needed to do. It’s finished now.” He sat down on the bench that ran along the porch railing. “Have you had dinner?”

Samchai’s face was half hidden in the growing darkness, the outline of her hair highlighted from behind by the bare bulb in the kitchen. In the backlight she was both beautiful and mysterious. “No,” she said. “I was hoping you would come and we could have dinner together.”

“It got late, so I ate on base. You’d better have your dinner. I’ll have a drink while you eat.”

He was facing the light and his face was a chiaroscuro study in contrasts. She studied him quietly for a moment. “Jim, something is wrong. Isn’t it?”

He stared into her darkened face for a long time, trying to think of a way to postpone what he couldn’t avoid. Finally he said, “Fix your dinner now and I’ll tell you while you eat.”

He went into the kitchen with her and poured the last of the Mekong into a glass, then rummaged in the ancient refrigerator and found the remnants of a bottle of soda that had gone flat and poured it in with the whiskey. Samchai got out some cold rice and mussels and put them into bowls. She turned on the dim porch lights and put a rattan mat on the floor. They settled themselves on the mat. Samchai ate slowly, snapping mussel shells and spooning rice out of the bowl, her eyes downcast, focused on the food. Jim sipped his Mekong and watched her. Neither of them spoke. When Samchai was nearly finished she set down the rice bowl she’d been holding and looked up. “Jim, we have been together for more than three months. I can tell that you are very unhappy tonight. Have I done something that displeases you?”

“There’s nothing you could do that would displease me, Samchai”

“Then you must tell me what it is.”

He raised himself to a sitting position on the mat. “I owe some people a lot of money. I had to spend last night and most of this morning figuring out how I was going to pay them back.”

“Why do you owe money? Is it because of Jo Fay?”

“It’s because I didn’t plan ahead well enough. I spent money and bought things without thinking. It would have happened whether or not I helped Jo Fay.”

“I think that for the first time you are not being honest with me,” she said. “I know that keeping Jo Fay in the hospital for so long cost a great deal and I think Jo Fay and I are the reason you are unhappy now.”

Jim reached across the mat and took her hand. “You’ve made me happier than I’ve ever been in my whole life, Samchai. This is a problem I brought on myself and it’s a problem I’m going to have to solve by myself.”  He paused and let go her hand. “But I can’t afford to spend nights here and go back and forth every day the way I’ve been doing.” Her face was closed and her shade was down but in the dim, harsh light Jim saw tears grow in her eyes. “It’s the hardest decision I’ve ever made. I love you Samchai and I don’t want to be separated from you… even for a few days. But I have no choice”

After a minute she picked up the dishes and stood up. “But we would have had no choice anyway. You will go back to your wife and your children. You knew that and I knew that. You made me very happy, but we both knew this would not last.”

Jim rolled up the mat and put it away while Samchai washed the dishes. When they were in bed, Jim reached out for her and she came to him. They held each other, but there was no passion in either of them.

* * * 

Cass picked up the phone and punched the button for Ben’s office at Brigham radar. The line buzzed and in a minute there was a click. “Yes sir.”

 “Ben,” Cass said. “Better come over here as soon as you can.”

“What’s up, Colonel?”

“Just come as soon as you can. I’ll explain when you get here.”

Cass hung up the phone, picked up his cup and went down the hall to the coffee pot. He’d filled the cup and started back toward his office when Ben came through the outside door, out of breath. “What’s up?”

“What’d you do, run all the way?”

“Yeah. It sounded serious.”

“It is. Come on down to my office.” As they passed Sergeant Rafferty’s desk Cass said, “No calls or visitors for a while, Elton.” He closed the door behind them, picked a sheet of yellow paper off his desk and handed it to Ben. “Better read this.”

Ben dropped into a chair next to the conference table and started reading the telegram. Cass sat down behind his desk and watched Ben’s forehead crease.

“Holy shit,” Ben said.

“Yeah. I thought we’d better talk about it before I give this to him.”

Ben thought for a minute before he answered. “If his wife’s already in the hospital and there’s no one there to take care of the kids, they’re going to want him out of here ASAP. That’s a problem. He started doing some serious budgeting after you talked to him a couple months ago. I know he’s paid down some of his debts, and from what he's said I know Samchai's helped keep down the expenses, but he’s not going to be able to pay the rest of the people he owes.”

“That’s just part of the problem,” Cass said. “I’ve got a feeling his tealock’s going to be the biggest problem.”

“Yeah. That’s gotten heavy. It’s going to be hard for him to say goodbye.”

“If I’m right he’s not the only one it’s going to be hard for.” Cass picked up his pipe and tobacco pouch and stuffed the pipe. “On the other hand we’ve both met Samchai. She’s smart and she’s probably thought it through. She may be ready for it… But maybe not this soon and not without warning.” He picked up a lighter from his desk, held the flame to the bowl and drew on the pipe until smoke drifted up toward the ceiling vents. “I keep wondering if there’s any way we can help him… Or help Samchai for that matter.”

“He can forget about the ninety bucks he owes me,” Ben said. “That may help some.”

Cass tamped his pipe and drew on it again. “I can help with that too, but last time I talked to Jim he didn’t want that kind of help.”

“Things may be different now,” Ben said. “When he reads this telegram he may change his mind.

“I guess Samchai’s boy is okay now?”

“Yeah. Last time Jim talked about it it sounded as if the kid was fine and just about all healed up.”

“Where’s Jim right now?” Cass asked.

“His crew’s on duty. He’s in ops.”

“Can you pull him off?”

“Yeah. Tom Steadman’s on his crew. He can take over.”

“Anything serious going on right now?”

“I think there’s one flight over on the Laos border, but there’s a tank up there waiting for them. No emergencies that I know of. If something starts and Tom needs help I’ll go over myself and then flush somebody out of the BOQ.”

“Okay,” Cass said. “I guess there’s no point in putting it off. I can’t think of anything we can do until we know more about the situation. You want to get on the horn and get him over here?”

“I think I better go back over there and find an excuse to take him off position that doesn’t make everybody start wondering what’s up.”

“Good point. I need to call base personnel anyway and see what they’re doing to get him out of here. This telegram came through the Red Cross and I’m not sure the base people know about it yet. The chaplain’s office knows, though. Father Thomas brought it to me. Is Jim religious?”

“Not very. As far as I know he’s Presbyterian but I don’t think he goes to church.”

“Well, I hope this goes smoothly enough that we don’t need divine intervention.”

Fifteen minutes later Ben, with Jim Allen in tow, rapped once at Cass’s open door. Cass got up, motioned them in, and closed the door. When they were all seated, Cass asked Jim, “Has Major Green told you what’s going on?”

“No, sir,” Jim said.

 “I don’t know of any way to soften what I have to tell you Jim. Your wife’s had a breakdown. That’s all we know right now. She’s in the base hospital on Scott Air Force Base but she’ll be moved to a facility in St. Louis within a day or two. According to the telegram I've got here your parents aren’t in any condition to take care of the kids, so the Red Cross is asking us to release you immediately to return to the States.

 Cass handed the telegram to Jim and he could see Jim’s hands tremble slightly as he began to read it. “Base personnel is trying to find an assignment for you at Scott so you can be with your wife and family.”

Jim put the telegram on the conference table and Cass went on. “They want you to leave for Clark on the Klong tomorrow afternoon. Day after tomorrow there’s a C141 leaving Clark for Travis. They’re working on airline reservations from San Francisco to St. Louis. If everything works out you’ll be in St. Louis by Thursday.”

“I don’t think I can finish things up by tomorrow, Colonel,” Jim said.

“All you’ll have to pack is the stuff you’ll need for the trip. As soon as we know where you’re going Major Green will make sure the rest gets shipped to you as hold baggage.”

“That’s not what I mean, sir. I don’t have enough money to pay the people I owe… for one thing.”

“Well, let’s talk about that,” Cass said. “First off, Major Green has already said he’ll turn the loan he made you into a grant.”

“I don’t want to do that, Colonel. I want to pay my debts.”

“Jim, You’ve got to make contact with what’s happening,” Cass said. “Your two kids are being taken care of by strangers. Your wife’s in the hospital and no one has a prognosis for her yet. I know this whole thing is a hell of a shock, but the money’s a minor part of it. How much do you still owe?”

“A hundred eighty dollars.”

“So you owe half of it to Major Green. Right?”

“Yes sir.”

“That leaves ninety and I’ll donate the ninety. I’m not making the offer just because I want to help you. I’d like to think I contributed something to helping Samchai’s little boy. Let’s face it, the reason you’re in debt right now is because you helped that kid without worrying about how it would affect you. I have a whole lot of respect for that.”

Jim took a deep breath, hesitated, and let it out. “Even if I can pay the people I owe, I’m not sure I can be ready to leave by tomorrow.”

“What else do you need to do?” Cass asked.

Jim shook his head, picked up the telegram, and stared at it.

“Look,” Cass leaned back in his chair and picked up his cold pipe. “Let’s not beat around the bush. You’re worried about what you’re going to tell Samchai. I can’t condone your relationship with Samchai, but I can understand it.” Jim’s eyes were still on the telegram but he was looking through it instead of reading it. “I can also understand that it’s going to be awfully hard to leave her behind. But of course that was always the way it was going to end up, wasn’t it? What you’re facing right now with Samchai was going to come sooner or later. You both knew that from the beginning.”

“Yes sir,” Jim said, still staring through the telegram instead of looking at Cass.

“So you need to go down town and tell her what’s happened and then get packing so you can be ready to leave tomorrow. There’s no way to avoid it and the longer you put it off the harder it’s going to be. You know that as well as I do.”

“You want me to go downtown with you, Jim?” Ben asked.

“No, sir. I’ll do what I have to do.” He stood up.

“If there’s anything any of us can do to help, let one of us know,” Cass said.

After Jim was gone Ben said, “I hope he doesn’t do anything to screw himself up.”

“I don’t think he will,” Cass said. “He’s taken a bunch of punches lately and he’s shaken them off. This is the worst punch of all but he seems a pretty solid guy.”

“Yeah. And I’m going to have a hell of a time replacing him. He’s the best I’ve got.”

“I know,” Cass said. “We need to get working on that right away. The Wing’s already going after a replacement and I’ll keep on them. But you’re going to be short for a while.”

 

 When Jim arrived at the bungalow Samchai and Jo Fay were at school and Samchai’s mother was nowhere to be seen. He unlocked the kitchen with the key he always carried and got a bottle of Mekong out of the cupboard. There was no soda in the refrigerator but he rummaged in the cupboard and found a warm bottle. He put ice in a glass, mixed the warm drink, and took it out to the bench beneath the verandah's railing. “It's the last time I’ll ever drink Mekong whiskey,” he thought. He sat on the bench and watched the neighborhood children running and playing in the dusty yard. A woman across the way, dressed in a brassiere and sarong, was working over a washtub. On the porch next door a woman was cooking something over a large hibachi that gave off a faintly spicy odor. The air was hot and still and Jim could smell the flowers that grew wild behind the bungalow, next to the spirit house.

On a sudden impulse he put down his drink, went into the kitchen and rummaged in the cupboards until he found the package of joss sticks Samchai always kept in the house. He hunted some more until he found the matches she’d put in the back of a drawer, to keep Jo Fay from finding them he guessed. He went down the steps, out to the back yard and stood in front of the ornate spirit house. “This is silly,” he thought to himself. “I don’t believe in spirits, especially not the kind who live in spirit houses.” But he lit three joss sticks and put them into the receptacle at the front of the spirit house, put his hands together in a wai, and bowed low. “Spirits, please make my Nancy well,” he said. But instead of Nancy, Samchai’s face came to him, dark eyes smiling and burrowing into his soul.

 

Aftermath

Massage

Sunday Morning

Housegirls

Sawadee (Hello)

The Island Paradise

The Drunk

The Christmas Season

Sawadee (Goodbye)

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