Preface

Udorn

The Klong

The Routine

The Monsoon Season

One More For the Ditch

A Disappointment

Samchai

The Morning After

Family

Sunday Morning

 

Hank shook off the last thin tendrils of a terrible black dream and drifted up, choking and drowning in dark, rising waters. Gradually the sound of the flood became the sound of the bathroom shower and he jerked awake. He lifted his arm and looked at his watch. The motion started a stabbing pain in his head. It was past six thirty! He leaped out of bed and steadied himself against the wall to keep from falling. As he began to recover his equilibrium and drag himself toward the bathroom door the shower stopped and he heard Jeff whistling. He knocked on the door and stood in front of the bathroom, bracing himself against the wall. "You about finished, Jeff?"

"You're still alive!" Jeff shouted joyfully.

"Yeah. I gotta get to work. Don't dawdle in there."

Jeff opened Hank's door and stood there with a huge towel around his waist, sarong fashion. "How come? It's Sunday."

"Oh no," Hank groaned. "Why are you up?"

"Got to make church."

"Oh yeah. I forgot. You do that."

"You ought to go with me. It may not be too late to save your soul."

"No wisecracks," Hank said. "I'm dying."

"All the more reason to come with me," Jeff looked past Hank into the little room. "Where's your girl?"

"Oh yeah," Hank slid slowly down the wall and sat on the floor. "I forgot about that too." He frowned and put his hands up to his face. The warm, girl smell on his palms penetrated his dulled senses. "I can't even remember her name. Who was she?"

"You really don't remember? You were a lot closer to her than I was."

"C'mon, man. Stop jabbing in the needle."

"Songsree," Jeff said. "Little Songsree. 'A sweet little thing,' to quote an authoritative source."

"Oh yeah. I remember now. We were at the Thai Inn." He squeezed his head tighter. "Oh yeah. I sent her home. It was just getting light when I let her out… Yeah! Now I remember all of it. What happened to your girl, 'Papa san?'"

"With age comes wisdom," Jeff intoned. "I sent her home before I went to bed."

Hank groaned again. "How the hell did I get a roommate like you? At six forty-five on Sunday morning."

Jeff went into his room and started dressing while Hank sat on the floor next to the bathroom, holding his head. "I've got to get going," Jeff said, "So I can have a long, delightful breakfast and a chat with Jariya. But since it's Sunday morning and you obviously need help, I'll put on some coffee before I go... if you'd like. I guess I'd feel bad if you died before I got back."

"No," Hank got up slowly. "I'm going back to bed. When you come home, try to bring your joyful soul in quietly." He started toward his bed and Jeff began whistling again. "How the hell can you be so damn cheerful? You couldn't have got any more sleep than I did."

"Mai ching," Not true, Jeff said. "When I was in bed, I was sleeping."

"I'm gonna go over today and see if I can move to a trailer with somebody who's not so fucking self-righteous on Sunday morning," Hank shut his door.

The morning was succulent with the smell of blossoms and fruit warming in the sun. Jeff whistled all the way to the officers' club and swung down a dining room aisle to one of Jariya's tables..

"Sawadee," Jariya poured Jeff some steaming coffee and gave him an order ticket and a wide smile. "Colnan sook sabai today, chaimai?" You're happy today, no?

"Chai, sooay pooying," Right, pretty woman, Jeff said. "It's a beautiful day. Almost as pretty as Jariya. Jariya's happy today too, chaimai?" right?

"Chai, pak huan," Right, sweet-mouth, she giggled. "What you eat?"

Supun came bustling by. "Falench tot," she said. "Colnan want Falench tot today. Same same ev-e-ly day."

"Sawadee," Jeff said, looking at Supun's distended abdomen. "How soon, Supun?"

"Maybe two, tlee week," Supun came to the table and put her hands on her stomach. "Mak mak big ba-bee, chaimai?"

"Chai," Right. "Little girl. Sooay mak," very pretty. "Same as Supun."

"Oohoi, Colnan Jeff ev-e-ly day same. Mak mak butterfly." She bustled off toward a table where a couple with a small boy were taking their seats.

"What you eat, Colnan Butterfly?" Jariya asked him again.

"French toast."

"Supun poot ching." Supun was right. Jariya went off with his order. Jeff sipped his coffee and in a few minutes Jariya came back with a tray. "Where Maior Hank?" she asked.

"It's Sunday. Major Hank has a day off."

"Chai. You too. Why you come?"

"Go church," Jeff said. "Same go Buddha."

"Maior Hank not go churtz?"

"Major Hank mai sabai dee" not well "this morning."

"Maior Hank sick?" Jariya asked in a solicitous tone.

"He has a big head," Jeff squeezed his head with both hands.

"Oohoi," Jariya laughed. "Maior Hank keemau" drunk "last night, chaimai?" right?

"Chai. Major Hank had a big night.

"Hab pooying" girl "too, chaimai?"

"I'm afraid Major Hank's a big butterfly. Not same Colonel Jeff."

"Mai ching!" Not true, Jariya forced a frown over her big, laughing eyes. "You big butterfly. Same Hank."

"Mai," Jeff said. "You come to my trailer this afternoon when you finish work and I'll show you."

"No can do," she giggled. "You tealock moho mak." Your sweetheart would be very angry.

"Mai me tealock," I don't have a sweetheart. "Who's my tealock?"

"Mailoo," I don't know, Jariya laughed. "You hab maybe two tealock… tree. You tealock see Jariya… Ckkk." She made a cutting motion across her throat.

"If you come to my trailer, I'll tell everybody, 'Bai lao!'" Go away! He waved his hand as if he were shooing flies.

"Mak mak gohok!" A lot of B.S., she said, laughing harder. "Colnan eat. Not talk." She pointed at his plate. "Not need si-rup. Already hab too much saweet mouth." She went away, laughing, toward a table where an elderly man and woman had just settled themselves.

Jeff ate his breakfast and sipped a second cup of coffee Jariya poured for him. When he'd finished he put a tip on the table and stood up. Jariya came back. "Not want more cof-fee, Colnan?"

"Mai khawp," No thanks. "Got to go to church now. Then I'll go see if Hank's still alive."

"Oohh… Jariya sollee Maior Hank jep." hurt. "Colnan Jeff tell Maior Hank come see Jariya. Make him spe-ci-al breakfast."

"No," Jeff said. "I don't want butterfly Hank to come see my tealock."

"Ba!" Get out of here, she laughed. "Go churtz. Lao lao." Quick quick.

He went out whistling into the glorious morning and walked to the the street next to the main gate, turned the corner, crossed the street, and went inside the dark, cool, teak-smelling chapel. He knelt in a pew near the front, and for several minutes let his body go slack, legs and feet gradually losing the feel of walking, skin ceasing to prickle from the sun.

He picked up his prayer book, opened it to a place near the back, and found the prayer, "For the Absent:" "Oh God, whose fatherly care reacheth to the uttermost parts of the earth; We humbly beseech thee graciously to behold and bless those whom we love, now absent from us…" An image of Ellen and the girls came to him and he caressed them with his mind and surrendered momentarily to the helpless pain that came along with the love that washed over him.

His eye fell farther down the page to the prayer, "For the Recovery of a Sick Person." "O Merciful God, giver of life and health; Bless, we pray thee, thy servant, Hank… That he may be restored to health of body and of mind…"

Father Thomas came in and the Mass began. The priest faced the altar and raised his arms. "Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid…" Jeff confessed the sins that lurked in his heart, and went forward with the rest of the tiny congregation to be cleansed.

He let himself into the trailer quietly and found both bathroom doors open and Hank on his bed, awake and fully dressed. "Sawadee, roomie," Jeff said. "It's a beautiful day outside. How come you're not still asleep? It's only eight thirty."

Hank groaned. "Talk softly. I couldn't get back to sleep. I keep thinking I'm gonna puke, but I don't. I wish I could."

"Had anything to eat yet?"

Hank made a gagging sound. "Don't talk about food, man."

"Coffee?"

"I couldn't stand up long enough to make it."

"I'll fix it." Jeff went to the sink and started filling a coffee pot. "You sure you're not really sick? You put away some booze last night, but not that much."

Hank waited so long to answer that Jeff turned around to see if he'd gone back to sleep. "My conscience is what's killing me, man. I keep thinking about what I did last night. It makes me sick to my stomach." Jeff finished putting coffee into the pot before Hank went on. "The worst part is, it turns me on too… Thinking about it." Jeff plugged in the coffee and sat down in Hank's chair. "How the hell do you do what you do, man? How can you go out and screw around the way you do and not sleep with them?"

"Last night I came close," Jeff admitted.

"I don't know what to do. I've been lying here, thinking about it. I can't have another morning like this. I just can't. I keep saying that, but I go out… and I get with 'em… and all of a sudden I just don't give a damn. I'd go nuts if I just stayed home and didn't go out. I know people like that. They're sick… Creepy."

"With a few exceptions," Jeff said. "Barry Tower for one. He's a straight arrow and he's not a sicko."

"Barry goes out," Hank said. "But he doesn't even sit with the girls. He just drinks. He's a lush. Maybe he'll be all right when he gets back to the real world, but right now he's a lush."

"Most of us are… temporarily. Here."

"We both drink a lot, roomie, but you're not a lush. Neither am I." He sat up and faced Jeff. "Besides, we're not talking about drinking. We're talking about who fucks and who doesn't, and how they keep from doing it if they don't. I know why some of the creeps don't. I understand how a guy can get to be a lush trying to stay away from it. But why don't you? You go around horny as hell. You go out of your way to sweep these girls off their feet. But when it comes right down to it, you put 'em in a cab and send 'em home. How the hell can you do that?"

Jeff thought for a minute before he answered. "You ever been to one of the massage parlors in town?"

"You know damn well I have. I went with you one time… to the Holiday."

"Did it turn you on when the girl got it up and asked if you wanted a hand job?"

"Come on, Jeff. What're you trying to say? You trying to tell me you don't like sex? Bullshit. I'm around you a lot. I may have been bombed last night, but I remember you with that girl. You were ready to eat her up. That's one reason you make out like you do. They can feel it."

"I never said I don't like sex."

"Okay," Hank said. "Go on. I'm listening."

"There's a difference between sexuality and sex. I like women. I like the way they feel. The way they walk. The way they look. The way they smell. The way they taste. I like the sound of their voices. On top of that, I'm vain. I really like the feeling of being attractive to women. I'm forty-two. That's a good feeling at forty-two, especially after being as shy as I was in high school and college. I didn't really come all the way out of that until I was in my thirties. I'd like to sleep with 'em all, but I don't have the kind of… I don't know. Whatever it is Harry Palmer's got. I envy him, I guess. I can't do that. I've got a conscience as big as the world. If I start… If I end up in bed with one, it's going to be a revolving door act from then on, and I'll be in worse shape than you are right now." Jeff looked out the window. "It may happen yet," he said, pensively. "I keep coming close. I can't stay home either. I'm not built that way. I don't really have a general solution, just one that's worked for me. So far."

Jeff got up and poured two cups of coffee, handed one to Hank and sat down again with the other. Hank sipped his coffee greedily. Some of the color was coming back into his face. "It didn't always," he said.

"What do you mean?"

"Arithmetic. This is your third remote — in Asia. You just said you didn't get this way until you were in your late thirties. What'd you do the first two times?"

"On my first overseas tour I was an advisor at an ROK radar site outside Seoul in Korea," Jeff went on. "I was a kid and I was married. The war had just ended. The people were… poor… ragged… filthy. It wasn't good. The country was a shambles. Bombed out. Primitive. Still, they had girls. I stayed away from places where I could get in trouble. I hid out. I didn't know enough to understand how I felt about any of this. I turned inside myself and tried to solve the problem by not living for a while. It didn't really work. I made it. I stayed straight. But I just about wrecked myself. And I just about wrecked my marriage. No woman wants the kind of man I turned myself into."

"By the second time, I knew better…" Jeff paused and his gaze drifted out the window. "But that was no solution either."

"What was no solution?"

"I'm not sure I know how to explain what I did that time," Jeff said. "Besides, it's a long story."

"I'm not going anywhere."

"You ought to go over to the Club and get some food. Jariya promised you a 'spe-ci-al' breakfast."

"Why?"

"Because I told her you were bombed last night and sleeping with a bunch of girls."

"You fink!" Hank laughed. "Ohh," he squeezed his head. "That hurts."

"I always tell the truth," Jeff said. "She said you were a big butterfly and I had to agree."

"Oh, sure! I'll bet she never mentioned your butterfly activities, Papa san. She's convinced we've got this trailer full of girls all the time. Mainly because of you and your sweet mouth."

"She'd be disappointed if she knew it wasn't true." Jeff said. He went into the bathroom and rinsed his cup. "You want more coffee?"

"Yeah." Hank stood up, walked unsteadily to the pot, and poured himself a second cup of coffee. "That helped."

"How about some breakfast?"

"Quit acting like a mother." Hank set down the coffee pot and sat on his bed. "Tell me about the second time."

Jeff sat down again in Hank's chair. "The second time I went to the radar site at Ubon. I'd already decided I wasn't going to run away again. I was ready for just about anything. In those days Ubon was even looser than it is now. Looser than this place is. We were supposed to live on base, in Bambi huts, but the base was noisy at night and it was easier to live downtown, so most of us did. You could get a bungalow — a nice one — for thirty or forty bucks a month. I moved downtown and split the rent with a buddy who had a tealock. We partied a lot. I learned a little Thai. My roomie's tealock kept trying to get me hooked up with one girl or another, and I had fun at first… until I came so close to falling off that my conscience got me."

Jeff paused for a minute, thinking. "That was a bad scene. I was scared. I retreated again. I got a motorcycle and I'd ride it around town. Sometimes on Sundays I'd ride out to one of the villages. Then I got sick."

"What kind of sick?"

"I don't think anyone ever was sure. I had a fever and I spent a week in the hospital at Korat while they tried to figure it out. When I got back to Ubon I didn't have a problem at first. I didn't have any appetites at all.

"About a month, I guess, after I got back to Ubon, I started going down to Indian Joe's again — the place where we all used to hang out. I couldn't drink much, but I'd eat dinner and have a drink or two. There was a good-looking girl who hung out there that I'd had my eye on for a long time. She'd had a tealock, but he'd left — I guess a couple of weeks after I got back from the hospital.

"One night I was in Indian Joe's with my roomie and his girl. I was starving that night, and it took a long time for the food to come, but it was Nit who brought it… The girl. She wasn't wearing a bra, and… I don't remember exactly how it happened but she arranged for me to get some good looks at everything she had." Jeff smiled as he thought about it. "Nit was some girl. She had a fantastic body. Tall and slender, with sleek, high breasts, and a pretty face. Some dancing started. She came dancing up to our table and stopped and said, 'feel.' She put my hands on her hips. She had on a short skirt. Nothing underneath. That's what she wanted me to feel. All of a sudden I was so horny I couldn't stand it. We started dancing. I started drinking. We went to the Kingstar." Jeff laughed. "It's the Sam Pan now."

"I've been there," Hank said. "What happened?"

"It was different then. It was a real Thai nightclub. Not an American hangout. We danced to Thai music and Chinese music. I got… Hell, I don't know… It was like a dream. She took me home. She lived in an apartment building that was like a flophouse. We went there on my motorcycle. Man… she was…"

"Did you sleep with her?"

"Yeah," Jeff said.. "That's what I did... sleep. I wasn't strong enough to hold my booze. I passed out. The next morning I went sneaking away… If you can call it sneaking, on a motorcycle."

Hank laughed.

"It's funnier than hell now," Jeff said. "But it wasn't funny then. I went back to hiding out, but I knew I had a real problem. I don't know what it was exactly… something about being sick for a while and then getting well. I eat like a horse when I'm getting well… lots of bread and pasta. Stuff I don't ordinarily eat. I was hornier than I've ever been in my whole life, I think. And there it was, all around me… the pasta… anything I wanted. Nit, if I wanted her. And I did. Man, I really did.

"I got orders to go to Seventh Air Force headquarters in Saigon all of a sudden and had to be there within a week. In a way that was a good deal. If I'd stayed at Ubon I'd never have made it. But the only thing good about Vietnam was that I was starting all over again. Vietnamese girls are even prettier than Thai girls… If you like 'em slender. They don't have the same — I don't know… gaiety I guess… What the Thai call sanouk — a capacity for fun. But they're pretty as hell.

"In those days Saigon made Ubon and Bangkok seem uptight. It made this place, the way it is now, seem Victorian. I was living downtown in a big apartment with five other guys. All of 'em had girls. There wasn't much privacy. There were these half-naked women running around the place, wanting to take me into the family. They'd bring home the best looking friends they had, and they weren't too fussy about… Well, just about everyone was working shifts, and if I happened to come home in the afternoon for a while, I'd get worked on by whichever girl… girls happened to be hanging around.

"So I found a solution… named Thiu. Maybe she wasn't really as beautiful as she seemed… seems, even now, but at least she was good material to build on. She was the bar girl at the little officers' club where some of us hung out. She was the most straight arrow girl I've ever seen in a place like that… or this." Jeff stopped and thought for a moment. "I found out later… After I left she started shacking with some guy… And I always think… man, it could have been me… Easy. All I had to do was ask her." Jeff leaned back in his chair and looked at his feet. "I'd have liked that. Oh lord, how I'd have liked that."

"So why didn't you?"

"Because I fell in love with her. Deliberately. On purpose. She knew what was up. She was a smart girl. If I'd pushed her… If I'd said, 'Thiu, let's go to bed,' she'd have gone. But I… never quite said that. Never quite said it that way. As long as I was sniffing around after her I was safe from the rest. None of 'em could hold a candle to her.

"You just wouldn't believe the things I did chasing that girl. But like I said, she was smart. I didn't want to catch her. She knew that a hell of a lot better than I knew it. I was high on her. I did crazy things. I was a thirty-two year old teen-ager. I'd flirt with her and she'd run away. And as soon as she was out of reach she'd come tiptoeing back and chase me a little just to let me know she was still there. And then we'd start the whole thing over again.

"I kept buying her little things. She wouldn't take anything big. But she'd let me protect her. She needed a lot of protection. She'd been ripped up by the war from some little village in the Delta and she'd moved to Saigon to find a way to support herself and her mother. She lived down in a rough section of town where it wasn't safe to go, but I'd strap on a forty five and sling an M-sixteen over my shoulder and go. It was a poor, shabby little house, but she kept it clean as hell. And neat. She had pictures of all the family ancestors — relatives — hung in the main room. A whole wall full of pictures of people. Good people. Plain, upright farmers. The kind of people I used to see on walls and pianos back in Iowa where I came from — except these people had Asian eyes.

"Her mother got sick one time. Really sick. Thiu asked me to help her, so I did. It wasn't hard because just about everybody liked Thiu. I got the Doc to go down and visit the old lady. After he got back he sent me down to take her some pills and give her a shot." Jeff's eyes filled with tears and he started laughing.

"What?" Hank asked.

"That crazy doc. He knew he was going to send me down to give her that shot of penicillin, and he knew I'd never done anything like that before, so he made this little mark on her butt with a ball pen, where the shot was supposed to go. Like this…" Jeff picked up a pen from the desk and made a tiny "x" in the air. "I can still see that poor old shriveled butt with the 'x' on it. I'd have laughed then… except it wasn't funny then."

"Did her mother get well?"

"Yeah. She was okay after that. But then Thiu's brother died. He was the last adult male in the family and he'd been sick for a long time, and I guess Thiu'd been supporting him too. He had a little boy, and when her brother died Thiu had to take care of the kid. And the brother had to have a proper funeral. Thiu had some gold necklaces. That's how Vietnamese women saved their money. They bought gold. Things they could keep on 'em. Thiu had to sell her necklaces to give her brother a funeral. It was a bad scene. Really bad. She tried not to show it but for days afterwards there were tears in her eyes when she'd bring me a beer from the bar. I was playing poker in those days and I had more money than I could spend. I'd have been glad to pay for the funeral, but she wouldn't even consider it. After a while I got her one little gold necklace. About twenty bucks' worth. Because I knew that was all she'd accept.

"I can still see the whole thing… see what happened when I gave her that necklace. She was sitting in a chair, crying again, and I came up behind her and dropped it into her hands. And she felt it, and stopped crying and looked at it. And then she looked up at me. And all of a sudden she was crying and smiling and laughing all at once. She went around flustered for days. She'd blush every time she saw me, and then smile as if… as if there weren't any war. Maybe the way she used to smile when she was still out on the farm and all her folks were still alive.

"She lost her job at the officers' club a few weeks — maybe two months — before I had to go home. I don't remember exactly why. The guys at the club used to tease hell out of her because she was such a straight arrow, and she'd try to take it, but after a while she'd get tired of it and tell 'em to lay off. And then some of the old heads left and some new guys came in who really were trying to make her. She didn't like that. And then some guy brought in a girl he was sleeping with, and she got the job and Thiu was out.

"So she got a job as a dental assistant at our G.I. dental clinic. I needed some dental work so I spent some time at the clinic and got it done. But after that I didn't have any excuse to come see her any more. So she started coming to see me… every evening after work for an hour or two, and part of the day on Sunday. She always said she was coming to see our housegirl — her friend — but she'd never done that before. We'd sit in the downstairs room and talk. I got her a Vietnamese-English, English-Vietnamese dictionary, and by the time I left we'd just about worn it out.

"When it was time for me to go home, she gave me some presents. Little things, like sandals. Not for me. For my wife! 'For Madame,' she said. And I took 'em home and gave 'em to her! Man… can you imagine that? I gave Thiu's gifts to my wife. It was crazy. I was crazy."

Hank shook his head. "What happened then?"

"What do you think happened? Ellen didn't like it. But she was even smarter than Thiu. Even more a woman. Even more a woman than I made Thiu in my mind. Because that's what I did. I created her in my mind. I can look at her picture now and she's just a fairly attractive girl. But in my head she was more than that. She saved… I don't know… I was going to say she saved my life, but that's not true. I don't know what she saved. But whatever it was, it mattered a lot to me."

Hank got up and poured himself another cup of coffee. "Did you try to stay in touch with her after that?"

"No," Jeff said. "By the time that airplane lifted out of Tan Son Nhut heading for home all I could think about was being back with my wife and my family. Just having to sit for all those hours and wait. That was a nightmare. I didn't even think about her again until a month or so later when my hold baggage got there and I saw the things she'd sent my wife."

Hank sat down again on the bed and sipped his coffee. "Why, man? I don't understand. Why did you do all that?"

"I guess… If I knew the answer to that… I guess I was trying to avoid, 'adultery.'" Jeff put a brittle emphasis on the word. "But I didn't hack it. All that screwing around in Ubon. That was adultery. When I went to bed with Nit, that was adultery for sure. The legal definition says, 'Penetration, however slight.' But that's simplistic. Ridiculous. If I hadn't passed out that night I'd have… Hell, I'd have screwed her half to death. When I put my hands on her hips that night in Indian Joe's, I'd already penetrated her, in my mind, more than slightly. And what could be more adulterous than falling in love?"

"That wasn't love. That was a crush."

"Yeah. Same difference. When you get married you promise to forsake all others… I didn't do that, man. . . any more than you did last night when you were bouncing around in bed with Songsree. The only difference is I didn't get the goodies to go with it. I paid the price and then didn't pick up the merchandise."

"Yeah. I guess that's what I don't understand. Why you don't."

"I'm not sure. One thing that really gets to me is the idea of getting a girl pregnant. I don't know what I'd do if that happened. The idea of abortion really hangs me up. If I were responsible… If I were the father… there's no way I could kill my child. And if the child were born and I had to leave it behind… Either way, it'd blow my mind. I'd never get over it… Never."

Jeff put down the pen he'd been fiddling with and stood up. "But that's only part of an answer. I don't know the rest. I do the best I can… and live with that. That's about all you can do. There isn't any way to run away. Life just wouldn't be worth living if I couldn't be around people. Around women especially. Maybe there are some people who can retreat from life into a world of pure thought. Monks. Ascetics. But I'm so far from being able to do something like that that I can't even imagine it.

"Neither can I." Hank got up and went into the bathroom to wash his cup. "Thank you, Father. I feel a hell of a lot better after having talked to you."

"Hah," Jeff said. "I'm the one who's been doing all the confessing."

"Yeah," Hank came back into the room. "But I still feel better."

"Me too. Let's go over and see if we can get Jariya to give us a 'spe-ci-al' lunch."

 

Aftermath

Massage

Sunday Morning

Housegirls

Sawadee (Hello)

The Island Paradise

The Drunk

The Christmas Season

Sawadee (Goodbye)

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