San Diego attorney Chandler Hughes stayed the night at the Seaside Hotel, fifteen minutes from the Naha Airport where TWA had delivered him that August afternoon in 1970. He’d considered hailing a cab and heading up island immediately. But the flight had been long and with who knew what might be in store for him when—and if—he located his brother, Rob, it made sense to get some rest. A crew-cut, bespectacled, academic sort, conspicuously taller than the Okinawan people he encountered, he felt out of place in this Asian city. Outfitted in a mid-weight suit and tie, totally inappropriate in the heat, the forty-five-year-old man breathed heavily and mopped his forehead while he checked in at the front desk. Once in his room, he showered, took a nap, and then went to dinner in the hotel restaurant where apprehensive about the Okinawan fare, he opted for the “American” menu.
Chandler turned in early but sleep evaded him. Perhaps the rattling air conditioner distracted him. Perhaps it was because he found himself in a foreign country for the first time. But mostly it was because he was keyed up. He lay on his back, stared up into the darkness, and reviewed the circumstances that had propelled him across the Pacific.
During their weekly game of gin rummy, he had tried to convince his elderly mother, Martha, that his brother, Rob, absent for more than a decade, would be hard to locate and even harder to convince he should return to the United States. She simply shook her head and in her most pathetic voice said, “You know what the doctor said. I won’t be around much longer. Robby was my first-born; I want so much to see him just once more.” She clung to an ennobled image of her vanished son, little more than a thin glimmer of a memory. She’d guilted Chandler into it; a device she often used to good effect.
It was hardly a new plea although he’d always fended off her efforts to send him out on what would likely be a fruitless quest. Now he suspected she really was in decline. Chandler couldn’t help experiencing a surge of resentment. He, after all, had cared for his mother for all these years, yet she remained fixated on his unseen brother. It seemed unfair. More to the point, with their father long gone and no other living relatives, the notion of providing Rob with a large inheritance had taken up residence in his mother’s mind. In recent months, she’d mentioned the need to amend her will three or four times. But, a woman ever alert for cheats and frauds, she wanted to lay eyes on Rob before doing so. I do so hope he hasn’t changed.
Chandler mailed two letters to the only address he had, informing Rob he was coming to Okinawa; neither elicited a reply. These followed intermittent letters dispatched at his mother’s behest over the years urging his brother to come home, at least for a visit, only one of which received an answer. Can’t afford it and no reason to come anyway. Now Chandler knew only that, when last heard from, his brother either managed or worked in—it wasn’t clear which—a drinking establishment outside a small army base on Okinawa’s east coast. Chandler did not even know if Rob was alive.
Nonetheless, he reluctantly promised his mother he would undertake the quest, and here he was, thousands of miles from his California home about to head for a backwater village on a backwater island. So far as Chandler was concerned, Rob had forfeited any claim to consideration; he could stay there forever.
Chandler’s greatest grievance, simply put, stemmed from the fact that Rob had disappointed him, let him down. As a boy, Chandler idolized his devil-may-care older brother, but Rob’s abrupt departure from his life shattered Chandler’s admiration. Once an effervescent, all-around good guy, one impossible not to like, when he returned from the Korean War, Rob seemed troubled. He refused to resume his legal studies and the guaranteed position in their father’s firm that would have followed. And he began to drink. Then one day, he simply disappeared.
Where he’d gone, the family did not know, but earlier dropped remarks led them to speculate it was Hawaii. Chandler felt betrayed. Rob had abandoned them and, when their father died soon after, it fell to Chandler to assume responsibility for their mother and to respond to questions from people curious about Rob’s disappearance.
Over three or four years, they tracked Rob to Guam and the Philippines, then lost his trail altogether. Later, they learned Rob had moved on to Okinawa, a Pacific island under American administration. Save for an occasional postcard, they had no contact, and in time Chandler concluded Rob must likely be a man sunk to the lowest level; one, even a loving mother, would not want around. Perhaps afflicted with wishful thinking, Chandler envisioned Rob as marinating in unhappiness and too ashamed of his behavior to come home.
Chandler finally faded into sleep, but he slept badly and jerked awake disoriented, with no idea where he was. He felt drained, more tired than when he went to bed. The prospect of encountering his brother, should he find him, rendered him uneasy, tense. Chandler experienced a bubbling stew of emotions. On one hand, he felt sympathy for Rob’s no doubt miserable situation; from time to time memories dressed in the kind colors of nostalgia asserted themselves and, after all, Rob was still his brother. On the other hand, in addition to resentment at the act of abandonment, he felt threatened; Chandler and his wife had long counted on becoming the beneficiaries of Martha’s largesse. He sought to reject the idea they’d earned it—but he could not.
Chandler gazed out the hotel window toward the army port, crammed with ships bound for or returned from Vietnam. Cranes loomed over the docks. Here and there a motor launch chugged across the harbor. Driving to the hotel, everywhere he’d looked he saw soldiers and military trucks. The war seemed closer, less abstract, now that he was out here in the Pacific. Still, he gave it little thought; the war was for others. Unlike Rob, a World War Two Marine recalled for Korea, Chandler had never served.
After a stop at the front desk to complain about the air conditioner, Chandler ordered a late breakfast. But he barely sipped a glass of juice and nibbled a piece of toast. The prospect of meeting his brother preoccupied him. Why should he be nervous? He possessed the stronger hand. He had something to offer; Rob had nothing.
When he stepped out under the hotel portico to hail a taxi, the moist air silvered his glasses. Heat embraced him like the worst enemy. Moisture wetted his collar and underarms. And, too late, it occurred to him, wingtips had not been a good choice. Why he wondered, did anyone choose to live in such a place? He asked the driver to take him to Tengan, a village that lent its name to Camp Tengan, the Special Forces facility immediately adjacent.
When he climbed out of the cab at two o’clock in the afternoon, the village’s single graveled street appeared deserted. On one side, five or six non-descript tile-roofed shops huddled together. On the other side, six or eight cinderblock bars stood like ugly sentinels guarding the Camp’s perimeter fence. Painted in faded yellows and browns, with one or two in their original concrete gray, they featured hand-lettered signs intended to lure American GIs – Club St. Louis, Peppermint Lounge, Bar Hot Spot, and so on. These places, it seemed to Chandler, had reached a dead end. He knew from press accounts that, after more than twenty-five years of American rule, the island would be handed back to Japan in 1972 and, along with several other installations, Camp Tengan was slated to close—no more base, no more falling down drunk bar girls, no more roistering GIs come nightfall. A guttering place, dirty, poor, and dying, it already had the look of a ghost town.
Where to start? None of the bars bore a sign designating it The Tom Cattery, the place Rob supposedly worked. Chandler lingered in the street, like a lost soul in a place where, he suspected, lost souls were plentiful. He dabbed at his brow and monitored the course of a scrawny dog prancing through the heat waves that held the street in their shimmering grip. He would have to go into one of the bars and ask if anyone knew Rob.
Despite his life of dreary respectability, Chandler did not like to think of himself as straight-laced; after all, he smiled at the recollection, he’d been known to get a glow on from too much wine during dinner at the country club. And there was that time at the office party when Susan Roberts . . . But he had never crossed the threshold of a place like one of these; he brimmed with trepidation.
He pushed through the curtained entrance into the Peppermint Lounge and stood for a moment allowing his eyes to adjust to the dim light. Directly ahead he confronted a mirrored and bottle-lined bar with six or eight stools; to his right and left a scattering of tables. A jukebox, translucent in orange, green, and red stood against a wall awaiting a quarter to bring it to life. In a far corner, someone had painted the word Latrine on a beat-up door, presumably in deference to the place’s American clientele.
An Okinawan man of thirty or so wearing a short-sleeved shirt and Giants baseball cap leaned forward from behind the bar.
“Don’t think I’ve seen you in here before. What will it be?”
“Well, I really didn’t want to . . .”
“How about me?” A fat-cheeked Okinawan woman, overflowing her jeans and a tee shirt featuring a tropical sunset, materialized beside Chandler.
“How about you buy me drink?”
Chandler had read enough to know what to expect in one of those GI hangouts, but now that he was actually there, jabs of discomfort shot through him, like jolts of low-intensity electricity. The creeping dampness of the place wrapped about him and a miasma of unfamiliar food odors laced with the smell of stale beer infiltrated his nostrils. Chandler found himself in a wholly alien environment.
“I just wanted to ask about . . .”
“This place business establishment,” the bartender said. He looked sullen. “What you are drinking?”
“Perhaps, I’ll have a beer and . . .”
“How about her? You supposed to buy one for her, too.”
“You not a soldier.” The woman rested her hand on his thigh. “Why you here? Maybe you want a good time. My place five minutes.”
Flushed with embarrassment, Chandler pushed her hand away and addressed the bartender. “Do you know an American named Rob Hughes? Maybe fifty years old.”
“You pay first. Five dollars. Two dollars, you; three dollars, her.”
Chandler realized he was being hustled at two in the afternoon. He put some cash on the bar, took a swallow of beer, and asked again, “Do you know a man named Hughes?” He extracted a dog-eared, black and white photo from his shirt pocket and held it up.
The bartender shook his head. “Don’t know him. Is he GI?”
Meantime, the woman abandoned Chandler and traipsed off to a table where she sat greedily slurping noodles from a bowl.
He was getting nowhere. “Guess I’ll try someplace else?” The bartender shrugged and the girl continued to scoff up her food. Outside, Chandler blinked in the white glare of the sun and wished he’d worn dark glasses.
So, this was Rob’s world. What a dump, he thought. Were they all like that?
He soon discovered they were.
In the Bamboo Inn Chandler encountered another unhelpful bartender. The man initially ignored him while he fiddled with a small radio trying to home in on a broadcast from American Armed Forces Radio. When he finally succeeded, through crackling static Otis Redding bemoaned his fate Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay.
As Chandler questioned the barkeep, he spotted what he took to be two American men, both elderly, both sporting Hawaiian shirts and perched like immobile mannequins on adjacent stools at the far end of the counter. Shadowy and insubstantial, they were hard to make out since what light filtered into the dank room did so through smudged windows. The two stared straight ahead, each apparently engaged in a separate reverie. These must be some of the expat retirees Chandler had heard about, people like his brother who, for whatever reason, had ended up here on this island far from their native country. Chandler experienced a swirling mix of sympathy and distaste. Theirs had to be a sad fate. He assumed them to be people with nothing to share other than worn out reminiscences and extended silences.
When Chandler approached the men, he discovered neither one had a drink in his glass. They struck him as afflicted with a kind of desperate boredom; the stream of time had passed them by and left them like flotsam in its wake. Former soldiers, merchant seamen, or base employees? He couldn’t be sure. In any case, Chandler marked them as washed-out denizens, of a wretched world.
Perhaps they’d chosen to stay there, or perhaps they’d had no choice. In the eyes of these expatriates, Chandler supposed there had been pluses; the island was, in effect, an American colony. A kind of safe haven, it offered warm weather, English language signs, US currency, and road traffic on the right. Spillage and pilferage from the bases provided many of the goods they wanted. And for these people, little more than societal culls back home; as Americans, it was easy for them to at least feel superior to the local inhabitants. But what, Chandler wondered, would happen to them when the Japanese took over and the good times ended?
“Does either of you fellows know a man named Rob Hughes?” Chandler asked.
One of the men, white-haired and scraggy, turned and, after a phlegm-loosening throat clearing, said, “Who wants to know? Are you CID?”
“I’m a relative. I was hoping someone might be able to tell me where I could locate him.”
The man regarded him suspiciously. “Why do you want to find him?”
“Just need to see him. I told you, I’m a relative. Could I buy you, fellows, a drink?”
The second man, heavy-set with a few strands of combed-over hair, pivoted on his stool. “Sure can, Mister. Mine’s whiskey and water.” He signaled the bartender. “You want Rob Hughes? He doesn’t come around much anymore.”
“Make it two,” the first man said. His drink served, he gulped it down in two swallows. And, to Chandler’s distaste, he smacked his lips and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Just up the end of the street by that little vegetable store. There’s a path goes up the hill. He lives up there in a house about half a mile or so. Sort of in the trees.”
Chandler checked his watch. Nearly four o’clock. “Maybe I’ll come back tomorrow. Getting kind of late.”
“She’s pretty hot out there, anyway. A lot cooler in here,” the white-haired man said. “Any chance you could spring for another round?”
Chandler glanced at the slow-moving ceiling fan, like something he imagined existed in a colonial Singapore hotel. Where did the old coot get the idea it was any cooler in the bar? “How can I get a cab?” Chandler said. He realized he should have rented a car.
“Bartender’s got a phone back there. Everybody calls him Tommy, not his real name. He can call you one. Take a while though. There’s time for another drink.” The man looked at him hopefully.
Chandler thought of them as little better than souls in purgatory; he was a visitor from the living world.
As Chandler went out into the village, Peter, Paul, and Mary sang about Leaving on a Jet Plane. He wished he was on board.
The following afternoon Chandler wended his way up a path that led to an Okinawan style cottage with a beige exterior and brown tile roof. The heat seemed inescapable, and the moisture-laden breeze hinted at rain. Although matted vegetation bordered the trail, the stands of Okinawa pines through which it passed were sparser than he had anticipated. Clusters of bougainvillea, red and purple, draped the front of the house. A small garden, wet and green, flanked the building to one side. A modest, out of the way place, Chandler assumed it came with few amenities.
Pausing before the house, Chandler visualized his own architectural award winning home in La Jolla and was beset by an overweening sense of superiority. Surely the juxtaposition confirmed him as the successful brother. Nonetheless, nervous anticipation made his feelings dance.
When Chandler knocked, a bare-footed Okinawan woman, clad in a simple blouse and skirt, opened the door.
“He is waiting,” she said. She acted as if he had been expected.
As Chandler entered, his brother, Rob, extended his hand. “It’s been a long time, Chan. I guess I knew from all those letters that someday you’d show up.” Rob’s once assertive baritone now seemed almost gentle, a voice like that of an old-school teacher they’d once shared.
Chandler’s brother was a lanky man, with an angular, weathered face. His once dark hair had begun to gray and he now wore glasses. But his wrinkle-framed eyes, somewhere between gray and blue, still had the sparkle Chandler remembered from his boyhood. Wearing chino pants and a gabardine shirt with rolled up sleeves, instead of the dissolute appearance Chandler had conjured up for him, his brother had the look of a small-town shopkeeper—well-pressed and clean shaven.
“Mariko heard that an American civilian had been asking about me in the village. It had to be you. Well, Chandler, now that you’re here, come on in.”
The room surprised him. An air conditioner hummed in a window, sending out drafts of pleasantly cool air. Although sparsely furnished, mostly cane and rattan, the room appeared to be well ordered and not uncomfortable. There was a seating area and beyond it a dining table and beyond that a small kitchen. A multi-tiered stereo cabinet crowded with components dominated one corner of the living room. Long play records cluttered a nearby table.
Catching Chandler looking at the woman, Rob said, “Mariko’s just a local woman who looks after the house for me. I’m too old, or maybe too tired, for anything else.” Chandler remained unconvinced. She exuded a familiarity that went beyond housekeeping.
“This place is more than . . .”
“More than you expected? You name it. I’ve got indoor plumbing, dependable electricity--all the comforts,” Rob said. Seemingly at ease with his world, he waved Chandler to a cane chair and pried the cap from a bottle of beer. “Anything I need, coffee, mayonnaise, chocolate--whatever it might be--friends on the base are happy to oblige.”
Chandler declined the beer with a raised hand. “It’s been so long. How are you doing, Rob? Are you well?”
“Well, they say the ticker’s not what it should be. Doc told me to pace myself. Avoid long trips. Getting by, though.”
“Ma still worries about you a lot.”
Rob nodded. “Funny thing is I thought you were always the one closest to Ma.”
“She’s not doing too well. She wants to see you.”
Rob removed his plastic-rimmed glasses and spoke in a deliberate manner. “I guess I wasn’t always too nice. Disappointed Ma and Pa both.”
“That’s an understatement. I’ve tried to encourage her. I told Ma you were a businessman. Didn’t say what kind.”
“Well, I have been--sort of. Retired now.”
For a time, Chandler sat brooding and silent. Then his intended restraint abandoned him. “We were a reputable family? You let us down.”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“You guess? When you took off a lot of people thought you must have committed a crime. What I don’t understand, Rob, is why? Why did you walk out on us? You had everything going for you. You were a shoo-in to take over pa’s firm.”
Rob looked at him wryly. “You know me; old black sheep Rob; just living the good life. What more could a guy want? No cares, always warm, booze, easy sex--that surprise you?”
“No, I guess not.” But Chandler wasn’t buying the explanation. “There has to be more than that. We never knew. Did something happen in Korea? You never told us.” He thought he detected a look of pain in Rob’s eyes at the mention of Korea. Could his brother be as happy, as at peace with the world, as he claimed? Did Chandler believe Rob, like an artist concealing his errors, was simply painting over his unhappiness?
“I was having a hard time when I came back to the States. Things fell apart; you know that. I had to leave. Anyway, it’s a long time ago.”
“No. We really didn’t understand. You threw away a lot.”
“Maybe. Anyway, like I said, it’s a long time ago.”
“I hate to say it, but it doesn’t exactly look like you’re living the affluent life here.”
“I have enough,” Rob said. “VA disability benefits, money from the bar and, like I said, friends on the base get me stuff. I get by.”
“That’s it? People get you stuff?” Chandler’s voice came laced with sardonic disdain.
“Lots of stuff.” He delivered a quick smile. Same old unserious Rob.
Chandler shifted in his chair. “I have to tell you something.”
“I didn’t figure you came all the way out here to buy drinks for those reprobates down at the Bamboo Inn.”
“I said Ma wants to see you. But there’s more; she wants to leave you something. But she wants to see you before she decides.”
“Probably wants to see how I turned out. That’s nice, but as you can see, I’m comfortable right here. I’m not her sweet little boy anymore—if I ever was.”
A long silence fell between them as memories of their youth rushed back.
“Would you like to stay for dinner?” Rob said. “Pretty simple food, I’m afraid. Not what you’re used to I expect.”
“Thanks, but I have to get my rental car back to the hotel.” They both knew the explanation was bogus.
“I’ll give it some thought, Chan,” Rob said. “Why don’t you stop back tomorrow afternoon and we can talk again.”
Chandler agreed. He suspected Rob was humoring him, something he did when they were boys and he wanted to avoid delivering bad news. As they stood at the door, suddenly as pensive as a judge pondering a decision, Rob said, “You know, Chan, time can be pretty cruel. It magnifies even a single mistake.”
The words left Chandler puzzled. Whatever he meant, Rob had ended up in what Chandler considered a dead-end life. He now offered him a way out. Why didn’t Rob see it that way?
Instead of returning to Naha, Chandler pulled into a restaurant he’d spotted on Highway 58, Andy’s Steak House- American Owned and Operated. Then, after polishing off a steak dinner, he drove back to Tengan and the Bamboo Inn. He’d thought the inducement of money would have stirred Rob’s interest, but it hadn’t. Chandler was determined to learn more about the brother whose absence had lain so heavily upon them.
When Chandler got back to the Bamboo Inn at eight o’clock, a dozen or so American soldiers and a like number of Okinawan girls populated the place. The room was brisk with noise, and two or three couples danced to music blaring from the jukebox. Although Chandler disliked popular music he recognized some of the tunes: Diana Ross and the Supremes harmonized on Someday We’ll Be Together Again; the Archies rendered a rhythmic version of Sugar, Sugar; and Jennie C. Riley slammed The Harper Valley P.T.A.
One or two curious soldiers gave him the once over, then returned to trying to talk one of the bar girls into a short time. Chandler felt uncomfortably conspicuous. But he was in luck. The two men he’d spoken to earlier still anchored the end of the bar. They seemed oblivious to the music, laughter, and general hubbub. He wondered if they ever left.
“I’ll have a gin and tonic,” he said to the bartender. “Plenty of ice.” It was Chandler’s favorite drink at his golf club.
From the puzzled look on the man’s face, it seemed the drink didn’t rank high on the list of GI favorites.
“Hey, it’s the guy was looking for Rob,” the white-haired man said.
“My name is Chandler,” Chandler said. “Mind if I join you?”
“Pull up a stool. Careful, though. There’s one with a bad leg.” They were regulars alright.
“How long have you fellows known Rob?”
They looked at him like expectant Spaniels.
Chandler received the message loud and clear. “Sure, I’m buying.”
“I’m Carl, Carl Driscoll,” the thin man said, “and this here is Jack Fletcher. We all call him Fletch.”
Chandler’s arrival made the men happy. They’d found a new listener—and a new provider of drinks.
“I’ve been here the longest,” Carl said. “Ever since the shipping company went bust and our crew got stranded here. That was in ’51. I just stayed on. Worked at the PX, odd jobs. Latched onto a nice little josan. No reason to leave.”
“Yeah, this old fart’s been here forever. I have been here nearly fifteen years myself. Mustered outta the Army and just decided to stay. God knows why.”
Chandler let them run on for a while and then said, “How about Rob? When did he show up?”
“Must have been 1954, 1955, somewhere in there,” Carl said. “First time I ran into him was at the Seamen’s Club down in Naha. Working part time as a bartender. He had something on his mind; he drank a lot; stayed drunk. I figured he was gonna drink himself to death,” Carl said. “Funny thing, though, he always seemed to have a girlfriend.”
“Smoked a lot, too,” Fletch added. “Two pack a day man.”
“Do you know where he’d been before?”
“There were all kinds of talk – nobody knew for sure what was what with him. Some said California. Others said Honolulu,” Carl said. “I heard the Philippines. Wherever it was, though, the word was, he’d been a Marine in the Big One and in Korea. Tough guy you know, real tough guy.”
Were they really talking about the brother he’d met earlier that day? If he had ever been a tough guy, he didn’t fit that description now.
“He kind of let people believe what they wanted. Somewhere along the line, he moved up here to Tengan,” Fletch said. “And he’d changed. I hardly recognized him. Not like the old days. Cut down on the booze. Never had a cigarette I could bum.”
“Bought himself a nice little bar,” Carl added. “Made people toe the line there. No rough stuff.”
Fletcher weighed in again. “Sold insurance, too. Got along with people.”
Carl nodded. “If you ask me, it was all on account of that American school teacher. She got him to stop drinking, that’s for sure.” Chandler had heard of no teacher.
“Yeah, after she came along, he got real respectable. He was kinda like the unofficial Tengan mayor.”
Carl shook his head. “Sad though. She had some kind of sickness. Maybe died. Nobody holds up too well out here, but I guess it’s worse for the women.”
“That’s not it,” Fletcher declared. “I heard she went back to the States. Married some colonel.”
“Anyhow,” Carl went on, “he turned over a new leaf, you might say. And since then, I’d say Rob’s done a lot of good.”
“A lot of good?”
“He looks after folks, ones that can’t look after themselves.”
“I don’t understand.”
“People ended up here one way or another. Sort of left behind. Mostly old. Don’t have much. No relatives. Wouldn’t know where to go if they went back to the States. Wouldn’t fit in.”
“Been out here for years. Passing their final days here, you might say.”
The men could have been describing themselves.
“American military ain’t interested. Okinawans don’t care,” Carl said. “And now with the Japanese going to take over, these folks don’t know what’s going to happen to them. Like I said, Rob looks after them. Takes ‘em to the doctor, delivers groceries; I heard he even reads to one fellow who’s blind.”
A new awareness of the nature of his brother’s life began to circle Chandler like a fresh breeze after a damaging typhoon. Who was he really?
The following day Chandler again made his way up to Rob’s house. Surely the image he’d formed earlier of his brother now seemed imperfect. Yet, he needed to know why he’d turned his back on home.
The woman let Chandler in and once more Rob extended a welcoming hand and gestured him to a seat.
For a while they again shared memories of growing up in San Diego, familiar stories of days long gone. Recollections of those happy times temporarily erased thoughts of all that had happened since.
But the questions of what brought Rob to this island in the Ryukyus and why he stayed gnawed at Chandler. Finally, he said, “I was talking to a couple of people last night. They said they’d known you almost since you got here.”
“What else did they say? They probably said I was a drunk and one mean son of a bitch.” He said it without rancor and, indeed, with a smile.
“Well, I’d be lying if I said none of that came through. But they told me something else, Rob. They said you changed. Something about a school teacher. That you were doing a lot of good for people.”
“None of their damn business. What I do.” That, too, he said without vehemence.
“Why do you want to hide your light under a bushel?” Chandler paused. “Who are these people? The ones you help.”
“Well, I might as well tell you. It’s no big deal. There’s a couple of old merchant seaman, an old gunnery sergeant, a near senile Filipino music teacher, a fellow who worked at the PX--two or three others.”
“What do you...?”
“Oh, not much. I give them a little money when I can. Shop for them, things like that. Mainly I just drop by. See how they’re doing. Let them know they’re not forgotten.”
“That’s very generous. Very . . .”
“They’re mostly worried about what will happen when the Japanese take over. Probably a lot of people, the ones who can will leave. Things won’t be so convenient under the Japanese. Could be damn hard. Understand some business folks plan to move to the Panama Canal Zone.”
“And the others?”
“These people are old and broke. No place to go, nowhere they really belong. They’re kind of like leftovers. Just scraping by; they sort of depend on me.” Rob looked at Chandler. “Never been much for lost causes, but now . . . can’t just ditch them.”
“But you don’t owe them anything.”
“Sure do. They were the ones, or people like them, that were there for me when I was on the skids.”
“But . . ..
“Chan, it’s just something I have to do. I’ve got a lot to make up for.”
“You’re right. For the way, you behaved, your drinking, and your arguments with Pa? That’s more reason to come back.”
“Not just that,” Rob said. He appeared to be struggling to find words for what he wanted to say.
“More than that? I guess you mean the way you abandoned our family?” Chandler fixed his eyes on Rob who for a time said nothing.”
“Do you remember Audrey Meriwether?”
“Of course. I heard she took it pretty hard when you left.”
“I swear, Chan, I didn’t know. I found out a long time later. There was a child. I wanted to send something, but I was totally busted. When I did have some money, I couldn’t track them down. I felt a lot of shame. I still do.”
“So that was it. She never came to us. I’m sure Ma would have said . . .”
“Don’t be too sure. Ma told me Audrey was a tramp and . . .”
“Ma wants to see you, Rob. She’s a sick old woman and she wants to see you.”
“Like I said. I’ve got a lot to make up for. Trying to do something good with my life. And not a lot of time to do it.”
“But, I don’t . . .”
“Chan, I can’t hold back any longer. Do you know why I started drinking, blew up at Pa? All that?”
“You’ve explained about Audrey and . . .”
“Not just that. You asked about Korea. Well, you were right. I have to tell you. I have to tell somebody.”
“I’m sure it was tough. What do you call it? Battle fatigue?”
“I wish to God it was that simple.”
“Robby, what are you talking about?”
His eyes far away focused on things deep in memory, Rob said softly, “Chan, I abandoned three wounded Marines. Left them to die under Chinese bayonets, just as sure as you and I are sitting here today.”
“Terrible things happen in . . .”
“Everything was falling apart. Chicoms had already hit us twice; most of our platoon was dead or wounded. We were out of ammo and . . .”
“So, you had to retreat?”
“They were getting ready to come again, screaming, blowing bugles, beating on gongs. Do you understand? They were coming again, hundreds of them. Maybe thousands.”
Rob paused as if trying somehow to instill in his brother the intense terror of that moment almost twenty years before. Horrific memories haunted his face.
“All three of those boys were pretty shot up. One was crying, begging us to take him along. The lieutenant ordered me to load them on our jeep. I could have tried, but I was scared. Rob, you must understand, the Chinese were just over the ridge. Coming our way. I refused; said they’d slow us down.”
“But didn’t you have time to...?”
Rob ignored the question. “Damn lieutenant said it again. Pointed his sidearm at me. Just then he took a round right through the neck.”
“And I bugged out. When we retook the hill, they were all dead. I was the only survivor. Nobody ever questioned me about what happened. Nobody.”
“So that’s why you...? Even so . . .” Chandler searched for words, uncertain how to respond.
“That’s why, once I got back on track, I realized I needed to do something positive in this world before I move on. Mostly due to a fine woman who pulled me out of the pit, right here on this island. She was a good person who came into my life when I needed a good person.” He seemed as sad as the old love songs on his LP’s.
“I hate to seem insensitive, but with some of Ma’s money you could help your friends a lot more.”
Once again, if the lure of money influenced Rob it did not show. “I can’t leave these folks. I’d be bugging out again. Sure, money might help. But mostly what they need is somebody stopping by, somebody giving them a pat on the back.”
“Give it some more thought. I’m sure you’ll change your mind. At least come back for a visit; we can get you a ticket.”
“Maybe there was a time, but now . . . Chan, I already missed the boat.” Was he afraid to go back? Was it his health?
“But I’m sure Ma is ready to help you if you just . . .”
Rob delivered a saturnine smile. “For all the grief, I gave the folks—and you, Chandler, I just couldn’t in good conscience accept anything—now or later.”
Chandler leaned forward in his chair and lightly placed his hand on his brother’s shoulder; it was an understanding and forgiving touch.
There was no question, Rob was not the young man Chandler had known all those years ago growing up in La Jolla. He’d been through a lot, flawed choices forever part of his life’s landscape, but the tempered product that emerged wasn’t all that bad.
Rob seemed convinced there was nowhere else in the world he belonged. And Chandler was inclined to agree with him. Maybe he wanted to go back, but Rob believed it wouldn’t work; too much time had passed. His life was here. Whether Rob was truly committed to the task he’d set for himself or simply resigned to the life that had evolved around him, Chandler didn’t know. But when he shook hands with Rob and went out the door, overwhelmed by the hopelessness of life, Chandler was near tears.
The sun had barely cleared the horizon when the TWA flight lifted off. Chandler looked down on the ragged green islands that grew smaller and smaller and then disappeared beneath the clouds. In one sense, he felt completely defeated; he’d failed in his quest. Rob wasn’t coming home. At the same time, Chandler no longer bore the burden of resentment he’d carried with him on the flight out. And he could explain to his mother that Rob was, indeed, the decent and good man she wanted to believe he was. Perhaps, Chandler thought, even after all those years, his mother had known her older son better than she realized. And better than Chandler had known his brother. Rob was, in ways that counted, still a pretty good guy.
Lawrence F. Farrar is a former US diplomat with multiple assignments in Japan as well as postings in Germany, Norway, and Washington, DC. He also lived in Japan as a graduate student and as a naval officer. His stories have appeared more than 50 times in lit magazines, such as Flyleaf Journal, The Chaffin Journal, Zone 3, Streetlight,Curbside Splendor E-Zine, Evening Street Review, Big Muddy, Tampa Review Online, O-Dark-Thirty, Jelly Bucket, The MacGuffin, and Green Hills Literary Lantern. His stories often involve people coming up against the customs of a foreign culture.