By: Bob Kalkreuter
Roger White sat on the unscreened porch, watching the morning fog creep up the hillside like a ghost without feet. He held a can of beer and smoked a Camel cigarette.
“You drinking already?” said Judy. His sister was a small, dark-haired woman, and she peered outside through a screen door off to the right.
“Oh, you mean this?” said Roger, raising the can. “I found it on the porch when I got up. I didn’t want it going to waste.”
“Don’t be stupid,” she said.
Above, a slight, chilled breeze rattled the reddening leaves of the Black Oak that stretched across the eastern edge of the roof. He wore shorts and an olive drab shirt left over from the Army. His feet were bare. There was an ugly red scar on his right thigh.
After going almost a year without a scratch, he’d been wounded three days before the end of his tour in Vietnam. He’d been shot by a newbie who’d been in country two days, a kid from Maine who’d fired into the latrine, thinking he’d heard a VC sapper sneaking around in the dark.
“I can’t believe you’re wearing shorts. Aren’t you cold?” said Judy.
“I’ve had enough hot weather to last me a while,” he said.
“I thought you wanted to go back to Florida.”
“Eventually,” he said. “But it takes money, you know.”
“Well if you had a job…”
“I’ve been looking,” he snapped.
She frowned. “I know it’s hard to adjust. But drinking’s not going to help.”
“Not going to help what?”
“You’ll feel better if you get out and see people. Find something to keep you busy. Have you given up on finding a job?”
“I said I’m looking.” He turned toward the door. Behind the screen, her face looked waxy, like a marble bust mounted into a frame of dark hair and unlit space.
“I know I don’t understand everything you’ve been through. But you can’t just give up.”
“Everything I’ve been through? What does that mean?”
“You know. Vietnam.”
“Vietnam? What is that, a disease?”
“Roger, I…there’s more to life than sitting around drinking.”
“You sound more like Mom every day,” he said, wedging the beer between his legs. He felt the frosty can nip his skin, but didn’t flinch. Perhaps his fear of weakness died harder than his fear of fear.
“You never listened to her either,” she snorted.
The smell of burning wood caused him to look up. Smoke spun out in braids from a nearby chimney. He didn’t know who lived there, and didn’t care. This was Judy’s house and he was only visiting. They were her friends, not his.
Ever since Roger arrived, he’d tried to stay out of sight. The less anyone knew about him, the better. After all, hadn’t Al warned him to be on the lookout for trouble?
Just a few months ago, Roger had been lying on a stretcher, his leg wrapped in bloody bandages, waiting for a medevac chopper. Despite his pain, the whomp-whomp of the approaching chopper was sweeter than the Christmas morning he got his first bike.
“They’re getting close,” Al whispered, bending over him.
Roger grinned. “I hear them.”
“Not the chopper. That whore in Saigon. They’ve been asking about her.”
Roger froze. “They?”
“In two weeks, I’m outta here too. Three tours are it for me. I’m not coming back. I’m going to find me a cabin somewhere in Idaho. This is unfucking- believable, all for a Goddamn whore.”
“They?” Roger repeated, but he no longer expected an answer.
“You better watch out,” said Al. “Just remember, they can’t prove a Goddamn thing, no matter what they say. Anybody could have done it.”
“But I didn’t do anything. Why should I…”
Al’s eyes flashed. “You think that matters?”
Roger waited motionless as two men arrived to lift his stretcher.
Al whispered something else, but Roger didn’t look at him.
“I hear you’re short,” said one of the stretcher bearers.
“Yeah,” said Roger. Above him, the morning sky was mottled with patches of white clouds congealing over the eastern line of trees. The sun was already bright and hot.
A medic approached, grinning. He tapped Roger’s good foot.
“Doc,” said Roger.
“You’re going to be fine, Rog. I bet you’ll be eating stateside chow by the next week.”
“Hey,” said the stretcher bearer. “Wanna trade?”
Roger felt himself hoisted.
“Remember,” said Al. “When they come…”
Roger’s trip back to the States was long and tiring. On the way, he tried to imagine he was shedding Vietnam like a molting snake. But it didn’t work.
Sure, he wanted to go back to Florida. But that would come later, in a few years. Home was sacred and he didn’t want to soil it. Instead, he was here with Judy and he didn’t have the money to leave. When he did, Charlotte and Atlanta were closer, better options.
You can get lost in places like that, he thought.
When the time came to travel, he figured he’d hitchhike. It would save money and be fun to boot. But the longer he waited, the more he told himself that nothing would happen, that things had already blown over. Anyway, who cared about a dead whore?
If they wanted him, they’d have found him by now. Besides, he’d done nothing. Al was the one who needed to worry. And maybe he didn’t kill her either. After all, Roger didn’t see him do it. One thing was certain, though, somebody had cut her throat, and Roger knew he wasn’t that somebody.
Then Al’s words would come to him, usually at night: “You think that matters?”
“I’m going to town, if you want to come,” said Judy. “But I’m not going to take you if you’re drunk.”
“I can use a haircut,” he said, running his hand over his head.
Judy’s face disappeared into the darkness of the house, but her voice stayed in place, reminding him of the way their mother used to sound when she was irritated. “You better come in and get ready then.”
Roger finished the beer and set the empty can on the porch. Rising, he walked to the railing, showing a slight limp. Judy didn’t want him to smoke in the house, so he took a long drag on the cigarette and flicked it into the upper tendrils of fog, watching the red sparks spin until they disappeared.
“You wearing those?” said Judy, standing beside her Ford Falcon.
“Wearing what?” he said, scrunching across the pebbled path. “What are you talking about?”
“Those sneakers,” she said, pointing. “The soles are coming off.”
“They’re fine,” he said. He’d also changed his shorts for a pair of old jeans and slipped on a plaid shirt with a torn pocket.
She stared at him. “Fine? Is that how you look on job interviews?”
He smirked. “Am I supposed to interview the barber for a haircut?”
“Roger, they look awful.”
“They’re supposed to look awful. They were old when I went in the Army.”
“Why don’t you buy a new pair?”
“If I had money for shoes, would I be running low on beer and cigarettes?”
She shook her head, climbed into the car, and slammed the door.
On the way to town, they rode in silence, descending the narrow asphalt road that cut through the trees and waterless creek beds. Judy drove with slow precision, the way she’d done everything since she was a little girl.
Nothing like the way he did things. As kids, she’d always complained that he didn’t think things through. That he let his friends get him into trouble.
Now, through the prism of Vietnam, he told himself: if she only knew…
After he went into the Army, Judy wrote him every week, keeping him updated on hometown news until she moved to North Carolina to be with her boyfriend.
Once there, Judy got a part-time job as a cashier at Greene’s Grocery. She even invited Roger to stay with her when he was discharged. By then her boyfriend was in Vietnam too, somewhere in the Delta, and she was having a hard time making ends meet.
At first, Roger moved in with her because he thought he’d be able to hide, far from the world he’d known as a boy. Now, he felt isolated and alone.
It wouldn’t be long, he realized, before Judy would need more money than he could give her. Yet he didn’t know what to do about it. He hadn’t been able to find a job.
At least that’s what he told her. In reality, he hadn’t looked. He’d been having a hard time adjusting to civilian life. After spending two years cursing the Army and wishing he were back home, he’d been strangely confused and angry when he returned, as if he’d landed on some distant planet, unable to cope with the new language and customs.
So far, he’d noticed that a lot of people treated him the same way, as if he had come from another planet. But how could he explain any of that to Judy without sounding paranoid?
During his tour in Vietnam, he’d saved some money. Not much, because he didn’t have many places to spend it in the jungle. Every week he gave her something toward groceries and rent. But even that would be gone by the end of the month. And then…?
He didn’t know. She certainly couldn’t afford to support him.
Before going into the Army, he’d briefly dated a girl named Susan. He’d kept her picture in his wallet for good luck, using it like a trail of breadcrumbs, marking a path back to the world he’d expected to find when he returned.
Then he met Al Pfeiffer, and everything changed. Forever.
So when Roger finally did return to the States, he found the world he’d remembered with such innocence no longer existed. In fact, he was stunned to realize that it may never have existed at all.
Although he had no idea where Susan was living now, he still kept her picture in his wallet. You never know when luck might decide to kick in.
“I’m going to get my hair done and pick up a few groceries,” said Judy, stopping the car in front of the barber shop. “You want anything?” She stared at him, as if she hoped to ferret out his intentions.
“I could use some beer,” he said, glancing at her sideways.
“If you want beer, you better find a way to buy it yourself.”
“I’ve still got a few bucks left,” he said, fishing several bills from his pocket and handing them to her. “And get me some cigarettes too.”
At end of the street, the sun was breaking through a nick in the rippled, gray clouds, panning across the rooftop of an abandoned hardware store and the three dangling balls of a pawn shop. The fog was beginning to stir in the street, warming toward oblivion.
“Just pick me up when you’re through,” he said. “I’ll be here somewhere.”
He lit a cigarette before he opened the door to the barber shop. The barber and several customers stopped talking and glanced up together. The barber nodded and said “Howdy”. The others just looked at him.
By the time Roger stepped outside, sunlight had already rousted the surviving pockets of fog. He lit his last cigarette and stood at the curb, breathing the warming air. He glanced up and down the street. An old Hudson cruised past, burning oil.
“A place like this, you’d think they’d have a bar somewhere,” he said to himself, frowning.
Moving slowly to keep the loose soles of his shoes from slapping, he shuffled along the edge of the curb, inspecting the gutter as if he were looking for lost coins.
His leg was starting to hurt, so he stopped at the pawn shop. In the window was a guitar, a set of wrenches splayed like a fan, an old eggbeater drill, somewhat rusted, and a stack of green army fatigue pants.
He entered. A bell tinkled above the door. The room smelled like oiled machinery. Along the back wall was a line of lawn mowers and large pieces of equipment Roger didn’t recognize. Farm gear of some kind, he guessed.
Behind the counter sat a man with a scruffy beard. His left sleeve hung loose from the shoulder. His right hand was large and meaty and he raised it in greeting. “Morning,” he said, smiling.
“Morning,” said Roger, glancing around.
Behind the man was a rack of shotguns and rifles. Under the glass counter were several rows of pistols and knives.
“Looking for anything in particular?” said the man.
Roger’s leg still hurt and he stopped at a bookcase filled with magazines of all shapes, sizes, and colors. “Just looking,” he said, scanning the titles.
“Been back long?” asked the man.
Roger turned. “Back?”
“’Nam. You were there, right?”
“You’re Judy White’s brother, aren’t you?”
The man laughed, waving his huge hand. “This is a small town, remember. My cousin stocks shelves at Greene’s.” He reached across his body and flipped the empty sleeve. “You get any souvenirs? This is mine.”
“We’ve all got souvenirs,” said Roger, after hesitating.
The man nodded. “I guess that’s right.”
Then Roger grinned. “I got mine sitting on the shitter.”
The man’s laugh was spontaneous, deep and hearty. “You what?”
“One night some idiot thought he heard something and fired right through the wall. Hit me in the leg.”
Still laughing, the man said: “Well, I never heard that before.”
“I never told it before,” said Roger, moving close to the counter so he could see under the glass.
“Next time, say you were surrounded by an NVA division.”
“No use. It’ll come out. Always does,” said Roger.
“Ain’t that the truth,” said the man, extending his hand. “My name’s Joe.”
Roger took the huge hand, and was surprised at how small his own seemed. “Roger,” he said.
A door behind the counter scraped open and a Vietnamese woman appeared, carrying a Coke. She wore the dress of her country, an Ao Dai, with a red tunic and black, silk trousers. She had a narrow face, high cheekbones, and long black hair, combed very straight. Glancing at Roger, she looked away.
Roger blinked. Seeing anyone from Vietnam here in North Carolina was completely unexpected. Seeing her dressed like that gave him a start. For a moment he thought she had a white scar above her left eye.
But of course, she didn’t.
“This is Thuy,” said Joe, watching Roger carefully. “My wife.”
Roger nodded. She set the Coke on the counter.
“Cảm ơn bạn,” said Joe, smiling at her.
Her eyes lit up. “You well come,” she said slowly.
Roger shrugged and moved toward the door, trying not to limp. “Guess I need to be going,” he said. He didn’t know when Judy would return, but he was sure she wouldn’t find him in here.
“Come again, if you need anything,” said Joe, raising his hand. Then he added: “Or have anything to trade or sell.”
Roger stopped and turned. Thuy was sitting on a stool, flipping through the pages of a movie magazine. Her small fingers moved with nimble grace.
“What do you buy?” asked Roger.
“Anything I can sell,” said Joe. “If you have something, bring it in and let me look.”
That night Roger sorted through his belongings. The only thing of value he could find was a Montagnard knife Al had given him not long after they’d returned from Saigon. Roger sat on the edge of the bed and stared at the blade, wondering if this was the knife…
No, he thought. That was a hunting knife, American. With a metal handle. The one Al took from Corporal Munn.
Funny, he hadn’t thought about Munn in a long time, or the hunting knife either. Thinking about it now, Roger couldn’t remember seeing that hunting knife again, after he and Al returned from Saigon.
For a moment, Roger could see the whore lying in that dirty alley, her throat slit and bloody, her head canted sideways, as if unzipped. Above her left eye was a tiny, whitened scar.
The whore, Roger repeated to himself. Yes, he still thought of her that way. And he felt himself falling into line with Al once again.
It was an unsettled feeling, yet strangely comforting.
Not that he approved of her death. He wouldn’t have killed her himself. But he couldn’t bring himself to judge either. Judging didn’t do you any good in Vietnam.
Roger knew Al had killed her, even though he hadn’t seen him do it. After all, hadn’t she tried to steal Al’s money the night before? The scene was still fresh in his mind.
The scene with Al coming up to him that morning, wearing Munn’s old metal-handled knife. “Where’d she go?” he asked.
Although Roger had seen her leave moments before, he didn’t say anything. He knew Al was volatile, that he could explode into action, sometimes over nothing. But Roger had gotten up with a toothache, and he didn’t want to deal with a ruckus. Besides, what if MPs showed up?
“She’s not there?” asked Roger, shrugging. The odor of fish soup, known as nuoc mam, drifted in from the alley, making his queasy stomach churn, after a long night of drinking.
Light bubbled into Al’s eyes, the light of frenzied anger Roger remembered so well. “That Goddamn Mama-san, she knows,” said Al, whirling around. “She’ll tell me, or I’ll break her Goddamn neck.”
“Hold on,” said Roger. From a side pocket in his fatigues, he pulled the bottle of Jack Daniels he’d already been using as pain medicine. He tried handing it to Al.
But Al shook his head. “Mama-san knows, and she’s going to tell me.”
So Roger took a drink himself. Damn, he thought. But things happened in Vietnam sometimes, things that spawned new rules. After all, wasn’t she a whore and a thief? Anyway, Al’s business was Al’s business. “I think she went outside,” he said, nodding the way.
Spinning around, Al ran into the alley. A few minutes later he returned, breathing hard. “Let’s go,” he’d said.
In Vietnam, Roger learned to shun his feelings, to bury them deep. During his year there, he’d seen so much death he’d become practically cauterized to the sight. Some he’d killed himself, up close, others were casualties of long-range bombs and artillery, mutilated beyond recognition. And their deaths weren’t just allowed, they were expected.
So why was this whore unique? And bothersome.
Perhaps, if he called her ‘the girl’ instead of ‘the whore’, he’d feel differently about her. But did he really want to feel different? Or could he?
After all, he didn’t owe her anything. He’d done nothing to her.
Ever since that morning, he’d been telling himself that life wasn’t the same in a war zone, that even sins were different. He wasn’t responsible for anybody else, not even Al.
Yet if that was so, why did her memory send out so many ripples?
The next morning, Roger smelled bacon frying when he got out of bed, so he went into the kitchen. Judy was getting ready for work.
“When are you coming back?” he asked. “I’ve got something to sell at the pawnshop. I should get a few bucks for it.”
“What is it?” she said, looking back as she opened the screen door.
“A Montagnard knife.”
“A what?” She opened the front door and said: “Oh damn. It’s starting to rain.”
Raindrops began to clatter against the window like train wheels on a loose track.
An hour later, when he’d finished showering, he heard someone at the front door, knocking rapidly.
On the porch were two soldiers, one wearing dress greens, the other stiff-starched fatigues. The one wearing greens was a Captain with JAG insignia, the other a stocky MP with boots so spit-shined they sparkled. He wore a .45 pistol strapped to his side.
“Goddamn,” was all Roger could think to say.
The rain had stopped, but their uniforms were still damp.
The Captain was a small man with one green eye and one blue. He was at least a foot shorter than the MP. “Corporal White?” he said.
“I’m not in the Goddamn Army,” said Roger.
The captain’s eyes got bigger, then narrowed. “Are you Corporal White, recently discharged?”
“What do you want?” asked Roger. His thoughts flashed back to his last conversation with Al before he was loaded aboard the medevac chopper. They can’t prove a Goddamn thing…
“Please answer my question,” said the Captain. “Are you Roger White, recently discharged corporal…”
“Yeah. So what?”
“Mind if we come in?” said the Captain. The MP stood a little off to the side, looking large and solid. Beyond them, Roger could see the shadow of the sun against the roof line.
“Yeah, I do mind.”
Pause. “I have some questions. You can make it easy and answer them, or…”
“Why don’t you just tell me what you want?” said Roger.
The MP shifted slightly, glancing along the porch, both ways.
“You served with Private Pfeiffer didn’t you?” said the Captain.
“And you both had passes to Saigon…”
“What’s wrong,” said Roger. “Didn’t we sign out?”
The Captain leaned forward and squinted. The MP tensed. “Look, Corporal. We can get the sheriff up here if we have to. We have full authority.”
Roger felt the need for a cigarette, so he reached into his pocket and pulled out a crumpled pack. He opened the screen door. “My sister doesn’t want me smoking inside,” he said, stepping out.
The Captain moved to the right, the MP to the left. At first, Roger stood between them, then went to the railing and turned to face them.
“Al? Yeah, I knew him,” said Roger.
“Did you go to Saigon?”
“Is that illegal?”
“Yeah, we went. You know we did or you wouldn’t be here.”
The Captain nodded. “Did you meet Phan Thi Binh?”
“Huh? What the hell are you talking about?”
The Captain’s face tightened. “She was murdered while you and Private Pfieffer were in Saigon.”
“Is it unusual for somebody to be killed in Vietnam?”
The Captain exchanged a quick look with the MP. “She was murdered. She wasn’t a soldier.”
“What was she then?”
“She was a civilian.”
Roger pushed himself away from the railing and glanced down the hill, where a wind kicked through the trees like air pulled through the branches by an invisible chain. From somewhere, he could smell breakfast cooking.
“You’ve come a long way to ask me about… a civilian.”
“I assume you know about Lieutenant Calley,”said the Captain. “The Army is concerned about civilians in wartime. They aren’t combatants.”
Roger finished his cigarette while he tried to put his thoughts in order. “So why are you talking to me? Did you ask Al?”
The Captain pursed his lips. “Private Pfieffer is dead,” he said.
The Captain nodded.
“I’m not at liberty to say. That’s not why I’m here.”
“Then why are you here?”
“I came to find out about Phan Thi Binh.”
“Well, I don’t know who that is,” said Roger, trying to keep his voice steady. “Saigon’s full of whores. Why would I kill her?”
“Are you saying she was a prostitute?”
Roger hesitated. “I’m not saying a Goddamn thing,” he said.
“Look,” said the captain. “I don’t think you killed her, but if you know anything…”
“I don’t know anything.”
“Corporal, if we wanted to arrest you, we’d have done it already,” said the Captain.
“Then what do you want?”
“Information? Well, here’s some information for you: go to Hell.”
For a moment they looked at each other, then the Captain stepped back. “We’ll be at the Mountain Arms Motel tonight. Think about it.” He hesitated. “Otherwise, we’ll be back tomorrow, with the sheriff.”
Roger brushed past them and slammed the door. He stared at the floor.
“Dead? Al?” Roger muttered, feeling light-headed. “Jesus H Christ.”
Once Judy returned, Roger slipped the Montagnard knife into a paper bag.
“I need to borrow your car,” he said.
“Okay, but remember, supper’s at six. I picked up pork chops.”
The sun was squatting among the trees that sheltered the ride into town, and he drove through sunlight flashing like a kaleidoscope between the fluttering leaves.
In the pawn shop, Thuy sat alone at the counter wearing a yellow, western style blouse.
Before he realized what he was doing, he’d checked her left eye for the scar that wasn’t there. She smiled.
Joe entered through the rear door and raised his hand. “Good to see you again,” he said.
“Ever see one of these?” asked Roger, pushing the bag across the counter.
“Once,” said Joe, peering inside. He pulled out the knife.
While Thuy held the wooden scabbard, Joe used his single hand to slide out the blade. “Nice,” he said, hoisting it to eye level. “What do you want for it?”
“I thought about trading for one of those pistols,” said Roger.
Joe frowned. “Not much market for things like this around here. Nice, but… in Charlotte, maybe you’ve got a chance.” He edged the knife back toward Roger.
“It ought to be worth something,” said Roger.
“It is. Sure. But most of these pistols…”
“What about that one?” said Roger, pointing to a small derringer with a cracked handle held together by tape.
“That one?” Joe looked from the derringer to the knife, then back to the derringer.
“Does it fire?” said Roger.
“Sure. Already shot it. I picked it up in an estate sale. Couldn’t get that clock over there unless I took everything else,” said Joe, motioning toward a corner of the room, where a grandfather clock stood tall and elegant, the wood recently polished.
“What about it?” said Roger.
Joe looked at the knife again. “For the derringer?”
Joe studied him then reached under the counter. “Well, we’re vets and we’ve got to stick together, right?”
“Why do you want this one?”
“The derringer? Judy wants something small, to carry in her purse.”
“In her purse?”
Roger shrugged. “Women… you know. By the way, can you throw in a bullet?”
“What the hell is she going to do with one bullet?”
“There’s been a bear hanging around the house lately,” said Roger, laughing.
As he reached the door, Roger turned. “Say, have you heard of Lieutenant Calley?”
“Isn’t he the one who massacred those civilians in Vietnam last year? Why?”
“Oh nothing. Somebody just mentioned him, that’s all. I didn’t remember his name.”
“Well, come back when you get a chance. Thuy and I want to have you over for supper one night, you and Judy.”
It was almost sundown when Roger reached the lake. He’d come here a couple of times before, when he told Judy he was looking for jobs. He stopped the car and pushed back the front seat. His leg was hurting again and he bent to rub his thigh.
A cool breeze drifted between the open car windows, carrying the menthol scent of pines needles and the tilting afternoon sunlight that trickled toward winter like inevitable grains in some universal hourglass. As a boy, he’d been calmed by pines like these, growing along the edge of the lake near his house.
He loved to lie on that bank, looking into the branches.
Raising himself up, he peered outside, half expecting to see Judy crossing the palmetto-stubbled field, carrying sandwiches they’d eat together in the cooling autumn twilight, while she listened to his dreams of adventure and the distance he’d someday run from home.
A distance he now wished away.
Al, he thought. I can’t believe…
But Roger didn’t know quite how to complete the thought. Had Al been killed on patrol? Was that how it happened? Perhaps, but Al was the savviest soldier in the platoon. Still, luck was always the trump card. You didn’t spent a year in ‘Nam without coming to that truth. Or maybe the compound was shelled. That happened on a regular basis.
Then another thought crossed his mind, but he put it away, almost in fear. Impossible, he thought.
He didn’t suppose it mattered anyway, how Al died, just that his death left Roger as the only witness to a murder that Roger hadn’t witnessed.
So what could he do? Clearly, they were on his trail.
The facts were that he’d pointed Al in her direction, even when he figured there would be trouble, and he’d kept quiet when he realized what had happened. Sure, a good lawyer would be able to raise a sound defense.
But in the end, did it really matter? This wasn’t a legal issue.
Guilt was a tar baby beyond the ken of law, and he didn’t know how to parse it into smaller pieces, ones he could manage. He couldn’t work his way out of it with logic or excuses.
Yes, he’d killed too. Several times. But they were the enemy, and he was only defending himself or his buddies.
In this case, a young girl was dead and he… what exactly did he do?
Nothing. But he knew that nothing could also be something.
Looking back, he saw a patchwork of emotions, all pulled to the breaking point, each one ending in failure.
He picked up the derringer and loaded the bullet. Getting out of the car, he went to the edge of the lake. Random sunlight winked on the water lapping against the plants growing along the bank, but he didn’t notice any of that.
Lifting the derringer, he took a deep breath and studied the short barrel.
Then, in a moment of impulse, he heaved the derringer far into the lake where it caught the water at an angle and sent a splash back toward him, as if waving him away.
Waving him away from what? He didn’t know. But sending him off nevertheless, perhaps unhitching him from Al’s lead. Shaking him loose. Or maybe, just sending him to prison.
Damn, he thought. What have I done?
By the time he reached the porch, a quarter moon was hanging above the trees, coloring the tight noose of clouds a faint gray.
“Roger?” she hollered from the kitchen.
“Sorry,” said Roger, coming through the front door. “I’m late.”
Judy came to the kitchen doorway and stood there, arms akimbo.
“I said supper was at six,” she said, her voice strident with irritation. “I already ate, so yours…” She stopped and stared at the front door.
Behind him stood two soldiers, a Captain in dress greens, and an MP wearing a holstered .45.
“Sorry,” said Roger again.
“What…?” she said.
“I have to leave for a day or two, so I brought back your car.” Saying this, he didn’t feel as bad as he thought he would, rehearsing the explanation all the way from town. Still, he didn’t feel good either.
“What’s going on?” she asked.
“A misunderstanding. Everything’s okay.”
“Who are these…?”
“A girl, a Vietnamese girl was killed in Saigon while I was there. The man who killed her…” He hesitated. “He’s dead.”
Her eyes flicked to the soldiers and back to Roger. “Who’s dead? I don’t understand. Who are these men?”
“Ma’am, my name is Captain Tolbert,” said the Captain. “And this is Sergeant Solis. Sorry to barge in like this.”
Judy stared at them, as if they were there to foreclose on the house and throw her into the street.
“Your brother is helping us with an investigation,” said the Captain.
“He’s not under arrest,” said the Captain.
“Arrest? Why should he be under arrest?”
Roger turned toward the Captain. “I told you everything I know.”
“I understand,” said the Captain. “You’ll be back by Friday. We just need to complete some paperwork.”
“Roger,” said Judy. “What’s this about?”
“Nothing, it’s nothing.”
“What did you do?” she asked.
“I fell in with somebody who… well, who couldn’t control his temper.”
“Where are you going?” she asked.
Roger hesitated, looking at the Captain again. “Can’t we finish this here, tonight?”
When the Captain spoke, his voice was barely audible. “The Army doesn’t want another front page story, like Lieutenant Calley. Private Pfeiffer’s dead. We just need your official testimony, properly documented.”
“To cover your asses,” said Roger.
The Captain stared at him.
“And if I do what you want?” said Roger.
“Then you’re done. You can get on with your life.”
“I’m done?” said Roger. He snorted.
“Absolutely,” said the Captain.
“What life is it you think I’m getting on with?”
The Captain gave him a puzzled look.
“No, the Army will be done. This is only a job to you. I’ll never be done.”
Stepping forward, Roger gave Judy a hug. “When I get back,” he said. “I’m going home.”
“Florida?” she asked.
“Yeah,” he said, wondering which home he would find when he got there, the one he remembered, or something new, where he’d have to forge another fresh set of rules for himself, just to survive.
Either way, he’d have to accommodate a young girl he found in a Saigon alley, her throat cut. That would never change. Those choices were made long ago, and she would be with him forever. He didn’t have to justify Al’s actions, he had to live with his own.
Pulling out his wallet, he took out the picture of Susan he’d been carrying for years. He ripped it in half and handed the pieces to Judy.
“What’s this?” she asked.
“Breadcrumbs,” he said. “I don’t need them anymore.”
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