Nathan Bellamy hunched over a cardboard box on the floor of his bedroom closet. He sorted through a stack of yellowed papers: insurance policies for cars long sold; records of mortgage payments that Loraine filed away during their first years of marriage. They’d lived in the house on a quiet street in Pacific Grove for more than four decades. Nathan felt her spirit in every room that he’d cleaned out, even in the musty closet with its dark corners filled with old shoes and empty suitcases.
He took a long pull from his bottle of Jack Daniels and scanned a dozen pages before feeding them into the paper shredder. The folks from Catholic Charities had taken almost everything away. This was the last of it. From the bottom of the box he grabbed an accordion file labeled “Nam.” Nathan smiled and leaned back against the wall. From inside the folder he pulled letters that Loraine had sent him while he was stationed at Long Binh; faded snapshots of Army buddies brandishing their M-16s and trying to look macho; his orders from USARV sending him home.
He unfolded a single sheet of stationery and stared, openmouthed. He’d forgotten about the damn thing in his rush to get on with his life. But the letter’s words looked as legible as when he’d hammered them out on the Royal typewriter in 1968. He fumbled for the whisky bottle and thought about Private Amos Stricklan.
Nathan had been with the 412th Trans Company for a month when Stricklan banged on his mailroom door after hours. The private lowered his head and explained that he’d received a letter from home, wanted Nathan to read it to him, then write a reply. Nathan almost laughed when he heard the request, but choked it back. Stricklan didn’t seem stupid. He spoke with a soft Gulf Coast accent and pretty much kept to himself, unlike the other truckers who got drunk at the EM Club most nights or stoned on the hill beneath the rubber trees.
“You sure you want me to do this?” Nathan asked. “This is your personal shit, man.”
“Yeah, I know. But I gotta trust somebody, and I hope you’ll keep your yap shut.”
“No sweat, man. But how’d this happen?”
“My family moved around a lot and I quit school in the third grade – to help Pop with his car detailing. Later I worked the crab boats out of Seadrift, Texas, made good money, got married. My wife does all our paperwork. We do all right.”
“But how the hell did you pass the Army entrance exam?”
“I didn’t. But they’re hard up for draftees and took me anyway, told me I could only work in mess halls, laundries, or drive trucks.
“At least they didn’t stick you in the infantry.”
“I guess ya need to read and write to kill somebody.”
“Yeah, somethin’ like that.”
After that night, Nathan met with Stricklan every few days. He’d read letters from the private’s wife, Lucy, from an aunt and uncle, and from a cousin living in Houston. The ones from the wife were romantic, steamy. They hadn’t been married long and she still fantasized about her husband, about their lovemaking, about their life together. When reading, Nathan tried to keep his voice even and not emphasize particular words, just translate the scrawled sentences into a monologue. Then he’d roll a sheet of stationery into the Royal and listen as Stricklan struggled to dictate a reply.
They never talked during the sessions. Nathan felt like a Catholic priest listening to a sinner’s confession, to words not meant for his ears or mind but just passing through. As the months passed, the dictation got easier for Stricklan, with Nathan correcting grammar and forming complete sentences as he typed. He became a speaking and recording machine and it helped the private relax. Outside of their meetings, Stricklan steered clear of him, as if sharing intimate life details would be more difficult with a friend, someone who might judge him, try to change him.
The monsoons came early that year, turning the company compound into brown lakes with mud islands. Nathan sat in the mailroom with feet up on the desk and watched the downpour. He day-dreamed about flying the Freedom Bird home in two months, a night of making love with Loraine, going back to college, and coloring in the last spaces of his short-timer’s calendar and leaving it pasted to the inside of his locker for the next company clerk to find. Someone banged on the door. He struggled out of his chair, shuffled across the concrete, and opened up.
“Hey, Stricklan, what’s happenin’?”
“Did I get anything? I’m late driving back from Saigon. Sorry I missed mail call.”
“You’ve got something. It’s from your wife.”
The soldier’s haggard face brightened. “How c’n you be sure?”
“Here, take a whiff.” Nathan held the airmail envelope under Stricklan’s nose.
“I c’n smell her perfume. Bought it for her before I shipped out.”
“You’ll smell it again soon enough,” Nathan said.
“Yeah, twelve days till DEROS, baby. I’m so fuckin’ short I could sleep in a matchbox.” Stricklan grinned and slumped into a chair.
Nathan opened the envelope with a quick swipe of his pocketknife. It held only a single sheet, strange for Lucy since she liked to chatter about life with her mother and stepfather in Corpus Christi and her new job with Prudential. She had stopped writing the steamy parts and Nathan figured their marriage couldn’t help but cool a bit, what with Amos being ten thousand miles away.
Stricklan stared out at the rain, wearing a quiet smile. Nathan unfolded the sheet and did a quick scan. The back of his neck turned numb. Words seemed to pop off the page – found someone…leaving…so sorry. His throat closed up. Reaching into a desk drawer he retrieved a half pint of Southern Comfort and took a drink.
Stricklan stared at him wide-eyed. “What’s goin’ on?”
Nathan handed him the bottle, then read:
There’s no good way to say this. I’ve found someone and have fallen in love, been that way for weeks and it feels like the real thing, feels like it’ll last. I wanted to tell you before you came home. I’m leaving with him and probably won’t be around when you get stateside. I’m so sorry. You’re a nice man, Amos. You’ll find someone soon, it just can’t be me anymore. I’ll handle the divorce and send the papers to your uncle in Dallas.
Stricklan hunched forward in his chair and stared at the floor, then raised his head and drained the bottle.
“That’s rough, man,” Nathan said.
The private glared at him and heaved the bottle against the mailroom’s far wall. It fell to the concrete and shattered. He sat trembling, clenching his fists, breathing hard. Tears streaked his five-o’clock-shadowed face.
“Hey, take it easy, man. Do you want me to call somebody, like maybe the chaplain, a priest?”
“What the fuck are those idiots gonna do?” Stricklan shot back, spitting out the words. He bolted from the chair and paced the room.
“Maybe you could–”
“Shut up. Just lemme think.”
The private mumbled to himself as he paced. Broken glass crunched beneath his boots. His fists opened and closed. Nathan wished he had another bottle to give the wounded soldier. He and Loraine had come close to breaking up a couple of times and he’d handled it badly. Now he felt at sea again, helpless, with no answers, with nothing but platitudes – like the stuff you say at funerals to fill in the awkward silence.
Stricklan slumped into the chair. His body shuddered then calmed. “All right, let’s do it.”
“Do…do what?” Nathan asked.
“Send the bitch a letter.”
“You should wait a few days, man. You’re probably not thinking–”
“If I don’t do it now, I never will. So get ready.”
Nathan scrambled to roll a sheet of stationery into the Royal and set the margins. He waited for Amos to dictate.
The private sucked in a deep breath and began:
You really hurt me. I’ve got twelve days left in Nam and I get this…this piss-poor excuse for dumping me. You’d better run, run far, run fast. Because when I catch you and your…your boyfriend, it ain’t gonna be pretty. War is hell…and I’m bringing it to your fucking doorstep.
Nathan leaned back in his chair and stared at the words on the page. “Hey, man. You sure you want to send this? You could get in a lot of trouble if–”
“Who do ya think you’re talkin’ to? You’re not my friend…you’re just a…a what did you call it… a ghost. You read and write. You don’t live my life.”
“Yeah, but you just–”
“Send it out with tomorrow’s mail. I’ve gotta hit the club before it closes.”
Stricklan staggered from the mailroom and down the muddy road to the bar, joining the ranks of drunken truckers dulling their pain until they rotated back to the world. Nathan studied the letter. The hours crept past until the morning crew came in at reveille. He took the letter back to his hooch and lay on his bunk, stared into the shadows, and tried to decide.
If he mailed the letter, Stricklan would be on record as threatening lives. Lucy would probably call the cops and they’d be waiting for Amos when he got off the plane.
If he didn’t mail the letter, Lucy and her boyfriend might be sitting ducks for Stricklan’s rage. But the private would probably change his mind in a few days and wish he hadn’t sent it.
If he tried telling the CO, the lieutenant would just blow him off, saying that it was a family matter. He’d seen him do it before. Or Stricklan might be thrown in Long Binh Jail and spend days behind bars while things got sorted out. The thought of spending even one more day in Vietnam beyond his one-year hitch sent a chill down Nathan’s spine. He wouldn’t wish that on anybody.
That night was the last time he talked with the private. Nathan folded the letter carefully and buried it in the stack of his own papers that he stashed in his footlocker. Stricklan caught his Freedom Bird out of Nam on schedule. Nathan followed 51 days and 10 hours later.
Nathan pushed himself up from the closet floor, groaning, and clicked off the light. The pain in his arthritic back and knees took his breath away. But all the household drugs had been packed, awaiting his move to the downtown hotel, or “residential senior community,” its owners called it. The place was filled with old people but had good food service and his room had a wonderful view of Monterey Bay.
The movers would be there in a few hours to transport the few things he’d kept. Nathan walked through the house and remembered Loraine and their good days before the cancer took her. Nam images filled his head: the sprawling Long Binh Army Base, pretty taxi girls in downtown Saigon bars, rice paddies along Charlie Road tended by coolie-hatted mama-sans, and the private’s tear-streaked face. He dropped into a chair, flipped open his laptop, and googled Amos Stricklan, but got nothing useful. He googled Lucy Stricklan and got a raft of pages about some young babe in Rhode Island who sold homemade cosmetics.
But on the 25th page, he got a hit: A listing of cold cases posted by the Seattle Police. A Lucy Stricklan and an unnamed male companion had been found in a First Avenue fleabag, murdered in bed with multiple gunshot wounds. The crime happened in May of ’68, a month after Amos had left Vietnam. The listing included the Police’s address and an e-mail link to a detective who’d been assigned the old case. Nathan rested his fingertips on the keyboard, his eyes on the incriminating letter. Forty-six years later and he had a chance to do something…different? But what would it change? If Amos still lived, he’d probably have a family with grandkids. Besides Lucy was right, he was a nice man.
Nathan fed the letter into the paper shredder, sipped from his bottle, and dreamed about sweet Loraine and other ghosts.
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