“The Americans” was originally published on the Chicago Tribune, where it was a 2010 Nelson Algren Short Story Awards finalist.
If it wasn’t for his daughter and his wife, James Carver would never have ventured into Cambodia, a country about which he knew next to nothing except what it looked like at forty thousand feet. But Michiko had insisted on visiting after Claire invited them, her e-mail addressed to Mom and Dad but really meant for her mother. Michiko wanted to see Viet Nam as well, hearing from relatives who had toured there that it reminded them of Japan’s bucolic past, before General MacArthur wielded the postwar hand of reconstruction to daub western makeup on Japanese features. Carver, however, cared little for pastoral fantasies, his childhood passed in a rural Alabama hamlet siphoned clean of hope long before his birth. He had refused to go until Michiko compromised, proposing Thailand’s beaches and temples as the postscript to a brief Cambodian sojourn.
This was how Carver found himself in September in Phnom Penh, walking slowly through the compound of the Royal Palace with Michiko, Claire, and her boyfriend, Chanthou Vanneth. Carver had broken his hip three years ago, falling down the stairway of his own house, the one he’d navigated without using the handrail for over two decades. Now he was sixty-eight and limping, determined not to be outpaced by Vanneth, young and slender in khakis and a burnt orange polo shirt. Vanneth was leading them through the tourist-thronged grounds, where the golden hull of Throne Hall rested past the main entrance like a beached ship once sailed by gods. Carver had seen Buckingham Palace and Versailles during layovers on the European routes he had piloted for Pan Am, but even so, the palace’s meticulously maintained pagodas and pavilions impressed him, the yellow paint spotless, the gilt on the spires and eaves luminous.
“I might go back and finish my doctorate,” Vanneth said in response to a question from Michiko. Except for his bronze skin, he resembled the college students at Bowdoin who Carver spotted loitering on the sidewalks whenever he drove to town. “But maybe not. I suppose after a while the pure research was not enough. I wanted to apply the research.”
“I’d love to see your robot in action.” Michiko brushed her hand against the leafy flank of the elephantine topiary they were passing by. “And the mongoose.”
“How about the day after tomorrow?” Vanneth said. “I can set up a demonstration.”
“What do you think, Dad?” Carver saw once again the crow’s feet around Claire’s eyes, newly engraved since her departure for Cambodia two years ago. She was only twenty-six. “It’ll be educational.”
“Angkor Wat was pretty educational.” Carver didn’t like being educated on his vacations. “And we visited that mine museum.”
“You’ll see the future of demining,” Claire said. “Not people crawling on their knees digging out mines by hand.”
“Won’t this robot put those people out of work?”
“That is not the kind of work people should do,” Vanneth said. “Robots were invented to free people from danger and slavery.”
Carver’s ears twitched. “You said the Department of Defense was funding your advisor’s research at MIT. Why exactly do you think the DOD is interested in these robots?”
“Dad,” Claire said.
“We must take the money where we find it.” Vanneth shrugged. “The world is not a pure place.”
“Famous last words.”
“Jimmy,” said Michiko.
“All I’m saying is not to underestimate the military-industrial complex.”
“I suppose you’d know,” Claire said.
“Look.” Vanneth pointed. “Norodom, the first king of Cambodia.”
Astride a white horse in mid-canter sat Norodom, a bronze statue in a double-breasted western general’s uniform of the 19th century. King and stallion were frozen atop a pedestal, shaded by a cupola with a golden roof tiered like a gigantic wedding cake, tapering to a spire aimed skywards. Despite the cupola, white droppings crowned Norodom’s bare head, the rivulets running into his eyes.
“I never did care much for these kinds of statues,” Michiko said.
The conversation turned to the kinds of statues Michiko did like, the Buddhas of many sizes omnipresent throughout the country. Still pondering how his daughter had chosen a do-gooder like Vanneth, Carver had nothing to say about statues, human or divine. Becoming stupider was a consequence of age for which he was unprepared. With age was supposed to come wisdom, but he wasn’t certain what wisdom felt like, whereas intelligence he knew to be a constant firing of the synapses, the brain a six-barreled Gatling gun of activity. Now his mind was only shooting thoughts through one or two barrels. He hadn’t been this slow since Claire and William were newborns, their nighttime neediness calling him from his sleep. Now his son was twenty-eight, and Carver dated the beginning of his decline to William’s graduation from the Air Force Academy six years ago, one of the proudest moments in Carver’s life. William had also become a pilot, but he was unhappy flying a KC-135, refueling bombers and fighters patrolling the skies of Iraq and Afghanistan. “It’s boring, Dad,” William had said over the phone during their last conversation. “I’m a truck driver.”
“Truck driving is good,” Carver said. “Truck driving is honorable.”
Most of all, flying a tanker was safe, unlike Carver’s own military years when he flew a B-52, an ungainly blue whale of a plane that he loved with an intensity still felt as a lingering hunger. During different tours in the late sixties and early seventies, he launched from Guam, Okinawa and Thailand, never finding himself freer than in the cockpit’s tight squeeze, entrusted with a majestic machine carrying within its womb thirty tons of iron bombs, and yet for all that vulnerable as a Greek demi-god. Two bombers of his wing had collided with each other over the South China Sea, the bodies of the crews lost forever, while another B-52 in his cell was transformed into a flaming cross as it fell in the night sky, tail clipped by a surface-to-air missile, the two survivors spending the next four years in the Hanoi Hilton. Better to be safe, Carver wanted to tell William, but he refrained. William would hear the lie. As an airman, William knew that if his father could live life all over again, Carver wouldn’t hesitate to crawl once more through the narrow breech in the paunch of the B-52’s fuselage, the entry never failing to make him quiver with anticipation.
When Claire opened the door to her studio apartment the next morning, Carver was relieved to see only a twin-sized bed, shrouded behind a mosquito net. A window and narrow horizontal slits at the top of the high walls provided ventilation, the air pushed about by a ceiling fan that rotated as slowly as a chicken on a spit. The kitchen consisted of a heat-scarred, two-burner portable gas stove on a countertop with black veins in the grouting, while the bathroom had no separate shower stall, only a drain in the floor next to the toilet, the showerhead on a hose. Posters of rock bands papered the walls above the cinder blocks and wood boards where Claire shelved her clothing – Bill’s Dirty Laundry, Whoa, Dengue Fever.
“Couldn’t you find a better place, dear?” Michiko fanned herself with her sun hat. “You don’t even have an air-conditioner.”
“This is better than what most people have. Even if people could afford this place, there’d be an entire family in here.”
“You’re not a native,” Carver said. “You’re an American.”
“That’s a problem I’m trying to correct.”
Recalling a lesson from the couples therapy Michiko had Shanghaied him into, Carver counted down from ten. Claire watched with her arms crossed, face as impassive as it was when he spanked her in childhood, or shouted at her in teenage years when she repeatedly crossed whatever line he’d drawn.
“Enough, you two,” Michiko said. “Everybody’s a little cranky without their coffee, aren’t they?”
Claire’s apartment was situated above a cafe. Carver drank his weak coffee at their sidewalk table, squatting on a plastic stool and watching Michiko spend five dollars buying postcards and lighters from four barefoot children, dark as dust, who bounded up the moment they sat down. After their sales, the quartet retreated a few feet and stood with their backs to a row of parked motorbikes, giggling and staring.
“Haven’t they seen tourists before?” Carver said.
“Not like us.” Claire unsealed a pack of Alain Delon cigarettes and lit one. “We’re a mixed bag.”
“They don’t know what to make of us?” Michiko said.
“I’m used to it, but you’re not.”
“Try being a Japanese wife at a Michigan air base in 1973.”
“Touche,” Claire said.
“Try being me in Japan,” Carver said. “Or Thailand.”
“But you could always go home,” Claire said. “There was always a place for you somewhere. But there’s never been a place for me.”
She said it matter-of-factly, without any of the melodrama of her adolescence, when she would come home from school sobbing at a slight from a peer or a stranger, some variation along the line of What are you? Her tears agonized Carver, making him feel guilty for delivering her into a world determined to put everybody in her proper place. He wanted to find the culprit who had hurt his daughter and beat some sense into the kid’s head, but he restrained himself, as he had whenever he encountered the look in people’s eyes that saidWhat are you doing here? At the one-room library of the small town five miles down the road from his hamlet, at Penn State, which he attended on an ROTC scholarship, in flight school at Randolph AFB, in an airman’s uniform, in his B-52 and later his Boeing airliner, he was never where he was supposed to be. He had survived by focusing on his goal, ascending ever higher, refusing to see the sneers and doubt in his peripheral vision.
But now retired, limping out of his sixties, he no longer knew what his goal should be. He envied Claire her sense of mission, teaching English to people as poor as the dirt farmers and sharecroppers of his childhood, their skin as brown and cracked as the soil they tilled, the earth desiccated during summer’s simmering months. She exhibited a confidence that pleased him as he watched her hail a taxi, give directions in Khmer to the English school, and greet the students clustered in the courtyard under the shade of flame trees. When Claire gestured at Carver and Michiko and said something in Khmer, the students greeted them in pitch-perfect English. “Hello!” “How are you!” “Good morning, Mr. and Mrs. Carver!” Carver smiled at them and waved back. Smiling at your relatives never got you very far, but smiling at strangers and acquaintances did.
A few doors down the colonnade from the courtyard was Claire’s classroom, her wooden desk confronting several rows of short tables and benches. Acne scars of white plaster were visible, the yellow paint of the walls having peeled away in a multitude of places. On the blackboard behind Claire’s desk, someone – it must have been her – had written “The Passive Voice” in big, bold letters. Underneath was written “my bicycle was stolen” and “mistakes were made.”
“How many students do you have, dear?” Michiko said.
“Four classes of thirty each.”
“That’s too much,” Carver said. “You’re not paid enough to do that.”
“They really want to learn. And I really want to teach.”
“So you’ve been here two years.” Carver toed a slab of tile flaking loose from the floor. “How much longer are you planning to stay.”
“What do you mean, indefinitely?”
“I like it here, Dad.”
“You like it here,” Carver said. “Look at this place.”
Claire deliberately swept her gaze over her classroom. “I’m looking.”
“What your father means is that we want you back home because we love you.”
“That’s what I mean.”
“I am home, Mom. It sounds strange, I don’t know how to put it, but I feel like this is where I’m supposed to be. I have a Cambodian soul.”
“That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard,” Carver shouted.
“It’s not stupid,” Claire hissed. “Don’t say that. You always say that.”
“Name three times I’ve said that.”
“When I left Maine for school.” Claire held up three fingers of her right hand and slowly curled each one into her palm as she counted the times, ending up with a balled fist. “When I majored in women’s studies. When I told you I was going to Cambodia to teach. And those are just the most recent ones to come to mind.”
“But those things are stupid.”
“Oh, God, God, God.” Claire beat her fist on her forehead. “Why do I ever think things will be different with you?”
“For Chrissakes,” Carver muttered. Whispering drew his attention to the door, where a handful of the students had clustered. Claire wiped tears from her eyes. “Look! Now you’ve made me lose face with them.”
“Losing face?” Carver said. “You really do think you’re turning into one of them.”
“Shut up, James.” Michiko pushed by him to offer Claire a tissue. “I think we’ve had just about enough family time together, don’t you?”
While Claire escorted Michiko on a shopping expedition for local textiles, Carver was forced to entertain himself, a problem because he had already visited the sites he was supposed to, Wat Phnom and the Royal Palace, the Independence Monument and the National Museum, the Russian Market and the Central Market. What remained was an atrocity museum in the city and the killing fields outside the city, but since he didn’t feel like being knee-capped by other people’s pain, he passed the time sitting at a bar’s sidewalk patio and watching local boys play soccer on the sandy square in front of the museum’s red walls.
By the time the monsoon arrived in the afternoon, he had drunk San Miguel and Tiger from the Philippines, Singha from Thailand, Angkor from Cambodia, and a 333 from Viet Nam, insipid as it was nearly forty years ago. As curtains of rain swept over the road, he ordered a Hue from the same country. Watching the water flooding through the gutters, Carver longed for his clapboard cottage on the shore of Basin Cove, autumn waving its metamorphosing wand over the forest’s greenery. That new world of crimson and gold receded even further when the lady who ran the market next to the bar turned up the volume of her radio. Above the relentless hammering of the rain, a high-pitched woman’s voice whined in accompaniment with what sounded like a xylophone, the music pregnant with sorrow, although perhaps it was only Carver who heard a lamentation where there was none.
The demining site was half an hour from the hotel the next afternoon, far beyond the outskirts of Phnom Penh. Vanneth drove them in a white Toyota Landcruiser speckled with measles of rust, its counter reading over 300,000 kilometers. Michiko and Claire sat in the backseat, Carver in the front. Homes perched on stilts lined the road outside of Phnom Penh, many of them one or two-story affairs of faded wood and corrugated tin, some of them freshly painted and plastered mini-mansions towering over their primitive neighbors, all of them long and narrow. Occasionally a Wat came into view, spectacularly encrusted with dragonesque architectural filigree, as well as a couple of mosques, their ascetic walls plain and whitewashed.
The flat fields behind the homes were mostly vacant of trees and shade, some of the plots growing rice and the others devoted to crops Carter did not recognize, their color the dull, muted green of an algae bloom, the countryside nowhere near as lush and verdant as the Thai landscape visible from Carver’s cockpit window as his B-52 ascended over the waters of Thale Sap Songkhla, destined for the enemy cities of the north or the Plain of Jars. There was a reason he loved flying. Almost everything looked more beautiful from a distance, the earth becoming ever more perfect as one ascended and came closer to seeing the world from God’s eyes, man’s hovels and palaces disappearing, the peaks and valleys of geography fading to become strokes of a paintbrush on a divine sphere. But seen up close, from this height, the Cambodian countryside was so poor the poverty was neither picturesque nor pastoral, naked brown toddlers splashing in puddles, a man pulling up the leg of his shorts to urinate on a wall, and Carver’s few minutes of rolling down the window a mistake, an invitation to inhale the reek of the land and the people – blasts of soot from passing trucks, the rot of dung from the oxen and ponies hauling carts, the fermentation of the local cuisine that Carver found briny and nauseating. All of the sights, sounds and smells depressed Carver, along with Claire and Michiko’s silent treatment of him, unrelenting since yesterday.
Only Vanneth was solicitous, playing “Giant Steps” on the stereo, undoubtedly informed by Claire of her father’s love for bebop, the way the music flowed directly from his ear canal into his bloodstream. Of all the lands Carver had encountered, he liked France and Japan the most because of the natives’ enthusiastic appreciation of jazz, an admiration they extended to him. He regarded it as fate that he had met Michiko at a jazz bar in Roppongi, she a teenage waitress and he a decade older, on R&R from Okinawa, wowed by the sight of Japanese musicians sporting porkpie hats and soul patches.
“How did you sleep, Mr. Carver?”
“Not so well.” Carver was pleased someone cared enough to inquire. “I kept waking up.”
Carver hesitated. “Just restless. Confusing.”
No one asked him what he had dreamt, so he said no more. They reached the demining site ten minutes later, half a kilometer off the main blacktopped road, down an earthen track to a stilt house and a trio of shacks on the edge of a barren acre fenced with barbed wire. As the Landcruiser pulled up, two teenage boys leapt from hammocks strung under the house from the stilts. Carver immediately forgot their names after the introductions. They wore oversized shorts and anomalous t-shirts, one emblazoned with the Edmonton Oilers logo, the other commemorating a 1987 Bryan Adams concert tour. The taller one’s prosthetic arm was joined with the human part at the elbow, while the other’s prosthetic leg extended to mid-thigh. Carver nicknamed the tall one Tom and the shorter one Jerry, the same names he and his roommate in U-Tapao, a Swede from Minnesota, had bestowed on their houseboys.
“They lost them playing with cluster bomblets when they were kids,” Vanneth explained. Tom and Jerry smiled shyly, their prostheses appearing to be borrowed from mannequins, the cafe au lait color of the plastic not an exact match for their milk chocolate skin. What spooked Carver about the detachable limbs were not just their mismatched color, but their hairlessness. “They guard the site and look after the mongooses.”
“Not mongeese?” Michiko said.
“Definitely mongooses, Mrs. Carver.”
The mongoose Tom fetched from one of the shacks was named Ricky, feline in size but with a more luxuriant coat of fur and the angular, wedge-shaped head of a mouse. “We use a mongoose because it is too light to trip a mine,” Vanneth said. “Meanwhile, its sense of smell is acute enough to detect explosives.”
Jerry carried out a pair of robots from another shack. Instead of being the sleek, stainless steel machines Carver expected, the robots were cobbled together from what looked like two tin milkshakes, joined mouth-to-mouth, each milkshake sporting a pair of legs made from rubber hose. Like a draft of horses, the two robots were harnessed side-by-side, braced front and back by iron rods. The forward rod was attached to a round blue disc the size of a Frisbee, with Ricky yoked to the blue disc via a rubber vest, the entire robot-and-mongoose affair no more than a meter long and half that in width.
“I steer the robots with this remote control.” Vanneth held up a palm-sized black box of the type William had used to fly his model planes. “Ricky sniffs for the mines. The blue disc is the impediment sensor, and when it tells the robots something is blocking the way, the robots steer Ricky away from the obstacle. And, when Ricky smells a mine, which he can from three meters, he sits up.”
“That’s ingenious,” Michiko exclaimed.
“My advisor developed it to demine in Sri Lanka. But we are experimenting with the robot and mongoose here, too.”
“So what are you still testing?” said Carver.
“The legs. It is very difficult to mimic the locomotion of human or animal legs, especially over rough terrain. Having a robot vacuum your living room floor or climb some steps is completely different than having it deal with sand, or grass, or rocks, or any unexpected thing even a five-year old knows how to get around.”
The field was planted with defused landmines. Vanneth piloted the robot and mongoose team from under a tent at the perimeter of the field, under which Claire, Michiko, and Carver also stood. Tom and Jerry followed the mongoose as it scuttled over the terrain, Tom with a metal detector strapped to his back, Jerry with a quiver full of red flags. Whenever Ricky stopped and stood up on his hind legs, Tom stepped in with the metal detector to confirm the landmine’s existence, Jerry marking it with a red flag.
“A human team would take months to clear out this area,” said Vanneth. The back of his linen shirt was stained with sweat, the air humid even though the sky was gray and overcast. “You could bulldoze, but that tears up the topsoil and ruins it for farming. We can clear this in a couple of weeks for a fraction of the cost.”
Carver watched Vanneth and Claire as the humanitarian jargon of cost efficiency, improvement of the land, moral obligation, employment of local technicians, and so on spooled forth. The light and focus in Claire’s eyes as she watched Vanneth was the same in Michiko’s when Carver told her on their first date about driving from State College to New York City to catch Thelonious Monk at the Five Spot Café on St. Mark’s Place, where he stood close enough to see the yellow half-moons of Monk’s cuticles against white ivory. The great man’s genius had rubbed off on him enough to shine and catch hold of Michiko’s gaze. It was the same with Vanneth, borrowing someone else’s ideas, and this was enough for Claire.
“You ever thought about what the DOD could do with these robots?” Carver said. The look in Vanneth’s eyes was hesitant, afraid, weak, someone not ready to face bare-knuckled reality, the clenched iron fist of power. Vanneth’s naivete annoyed Carver profoundly. “Some brilliant guy at a university working on a defense contract will figure out a way to put a landmine on this robot. Then the Pentagon will send it into a tunnel where a terrorist is hiding.”
“That’s the kind of work you would do, Dad. Don’t think everyone’s like you.”
“It is okay,” Vanneth said. “I have heard this before.”
“It’s not okay. He’s old and angry and bitter and he’s taking it out on everyone he meets.”
“I’m not angry and bitter. What am I angry about? What am I bitter about? That I have a daughter who thinks she’s Cambodian?”
“I said I have a Cambodian soul. It’s a figure of speech. It’s an expression. It means I think I’ve found some place where I can do some good and make up for some of the things you’ve done.”
“I’ve done? What have I done?”
“You bombed this place. Have you ever thought about how many people you killed? The thousands? The tens of thousands?”
“I don’t have to listen to this.”
“It’s not like you’ve ever listened to anyone before.”
“You don’t understand anything. We coddled you so you wouldn’t have to worry about the things we worried about. Isn’t that right?”
Carver turned to Michiko for support, but she was studying the ragged copse of palm trees at the far end of the model minefield. Vanneth had returned to steering Ricky, while Claire had her arms folded across her chest, daring him to walk away, exactly as he dared her when she was six, clamoring for a blond Barbie doll in a toy store. You can sit here and cry your eyes out, young lady. She had promptly sat down in the aisle and howled with all the grief and fury only a child or someone on the brink of death could muster. He walked out of the store then, leaving her there, and he had no choice but to walk away now.
The monsoon struck fifteen minutes later, when Carver was a few hundred meters away from the demining site, the best he could manage on the rutted road and his bad hip. Outrage and self-pity propelled his every step. He had never explained to Claire the difficulty of precision bombing, aiming from forty thousand feet at targets the size of football fields, like dropping golf balls into a coffee cup from the roof of a house. The tonnage fell far behind his B-52 after its release, and so he had never seen his own payload explode or even drop, although he watched other planes of his squadron scattering their black seed into the wind, leaving him to imagine what he would later see on film, the bombs exploding, footfalls of an invisible giant stomping the earth.
Claire’s mind wasn’t complex enough to deal with the need to strike the enemy from on high in order to save fellow Americans below, much less his belief that God was his co-pilot. She was his complete opposite, joining Amnesty International in high school and marching against the invasion of Iraq at Vassar, as if protesting made any difference at all. If it did, the help it offered was to the enemy, the terrorists. Although she empathized with vast masses of people she had never met, total strangers who regarded her as a stranger and who would kill her without hesitation given the chance, she did not extend such feeling to him.
The unfairness of this absorbed Carver so much he did not notice the rapid marshaling of storm clouds until the sky grumbled. For a few seconds scattered drops of rain pinged off his forehead. Then came the deluge. Rain glued his clothing to his body, water sluicing down the back of his collar and soaking into his hiking boots. He stopped walking, unsure of whether to keep heading for the blacktop road or turn back to the demining site. The ribbon of earthen road was now the texture of peanut butter, and he sank millimeter by millimeter into its stickiness as the monsoon’s onslaught continued. This was why he hadn’t wanted to visit this country, a land of bad omens and misfortune so severe he had been content just to fly over it. But Claire had brought him back to this red earth, and he wasn’t about to run to her for help, even if he could. He slogged towards the blacktop, not a human being or animal in sight, the dull green fields flanking him on either side. It was the middle of the afternoon, but twilight had descended with the storm clouds.
In the distance, behind him, a car honked. He lowered his head and kept walking, the downpour so intense he feared drowning if he looked up to the sky. He heard the car’s old engine as it got closer, choking like a cat coughing up a hairball. With light from the high beams scattered on the raindrops falling before him, he decided that instead of ignoring them, he should raise his head in defiance. He stopped and turned, but somehow he misjudged this simple step, his right foot trapped by mud clutching at his ankle. With the high beams in his eyes, blinding him, he made another misstep, this time with his left foot, the toe coming down straight into the mud, the leg locking at the knee and his body pitching forward into the path of the car. The mud was wet and cold against his belly and face, its odor and taste evoking the soil in the distant yard of his childhood, the one where he had so often lain prone on the earth and played soldier.
It was Vanneth who helped him to his feet and into the idling Landcruiser, Claire hovering over them with an umbrella. They put him in the backseat, shivering, Michiko using the silk scarf she had bought yesterday to wipe the mud from his eyes and face.
“We all thought you just went to sit in the car, Jimmy,” she said. Vanneth started driving towards the blacktop. “What got into you?”
“I’m sixty-eight, damn it.” Carver sneezed. “I’m old but I’m not dead.”
He was going to argue as she scrubbed at the mud around his ears, but then he realized Michiko was right. Even his own years were elusive, time ruthlessly thinning out the once-dense herd of his memories. In the rearview mirror, he saw Vanneth looking at him, and when Vanneth spoke, his voice was not unkind.
“Where did you think you were going, Mr. Carver?” When Vanneth turned on the stereo, the strains of “Giant Steps” played once more. “You don’t even know where you are.”
By that evening, fever had seized Carver. The dream he hadn’t recounted to Vanneth came back to Carver in his hospital room, where he floated on his back in a black stream, his face emerging every now and again to catch glimpses of his fellow patients in the three other beds, silver-haired, aging Cambodian men, tended by crowds of relatives who chattered loudly and carried bowls and things wrapped in towels. He smelled rice porridge, a medicine whose scent was bitter, the wet dog odor of very old people. When he was submerged in the black water, images flitted by like strange illuminated fish from the canyons of the ocean, the only set he could recall being those from the dream. He had woken to find himself a passenger in a darkened airliner, everyone else asleep, the portholes closed. For some reason he knew that no one was piloting the plane, and he rose and made his way forward, his skills in need. All the dozens of passengers were Asian, their eyes closed, among them the street kids and Claire’s students and Tom and Jerry. Strapped to the flight attendant’s jump seat by the cockpit was their tour guide from Angkor Wat, the one who had pointed to a bridge flanked by the headless statues of deities and said in a vaguely accusatory tone, “Foreigners took the heads.” Fear clutched at Carver, but when he opened the cockpit door, all he saw were the cockpit windows peering out onto the starless river of night, the empty pilot’s seat waiting for him.
Claire was kneeling by his bedside in the dark room.
“Dad, did you say something?”
She unsealed a bottle of water and poured him a cup, holding it to his lips with one hand while propping his head with the other. He drank too eagerly and water dribbled over his lip and onto his gown. Claire lowered his head to the pillow and then wiped his chin with a napkin.
“She’s at the hotel,” Claire said softly. “She’s been here every day, but she can’t stay here at night. The floor’s too hard for her to sleep on.”
“Three days. You’ve had a bad fever. You have pneumonia. You have to rest, okay?” Claire sighed. “You are so stubborn. Why did you go walking by yourself?”
He shifted his weight on the mattress, where a lump of foam had worked its way under the small of his back. “I’m a fool?”
“I need to use the bathroom.”
He put his arms around her neck and held on tight as she leveraged him up from the bed. She smelled of strong soap and a citrus shampoo, with no hint of perfume to mask the tang of sweat. Once he was sitting on the bed with his feet on the ground, he hung an arm around her neck and let her pull him to his feet. Claire was the right size for him to lean on, her head rising a bit over his shoulder, his arm draping comfortably over her back. She kicked aside a bamboo mat on the floor and maneuvered him down the narrow passage between his bed and his neighbor’s. “Careful, Dad,” Claire said, steering him past a body stretched out on the floor and curled up under a sheet, head turned away from him. “You’ll be okay. You just need some rest.”
What she wanted to say, but wouldn’t, was that he should not be frightened. He was not going to die here. But he was frightened, more so than he had ever expected. Before Michiko and the children, he believed he would die in an airplane or behind the wheel of a very fast car, anything involving high velocity and a sudden, arresting stop. Now he knew he would probably die with panic pooling in his lungs, in a place where he was not supposed to be, on the wrong side of the world. He hung onto Claire even more tightly as she clutched him around his waist, navigating him past the first body and around another at the foot of a bed by the door. When he tripped on the body’s outstretched foot, a woman with short-cropped hair raised her head and snapped:
“Dad, are you crying?”
“I’m not crying,” he said, but he was. “It’s the pneumonia.”
In the hallway, the bathroom door was a pale green rectangle in the blue moonlight, a fly skimming and skipping against the door’s surface. “I can go in with you,” Claire said. Carver had said the same thing as she stood outside the bathroom, but she insisted on doing her business by herself. All she wanted from him was to stand guard outside the closed door, a fact she confirmed by calling out every few seconds, Daddy, are you there? He squatted in the hallway with chin on hand and elbow on knee, still sleepy, not aware that this memory, of all memories, would survive past the history of hurt they would write for themselves.
“I’ll be fine.”
Claire let go of his arm and he lifted it over her head, dropped it by his side, took a deep breath, and opened the door. He stumbled across the dark bathroom’s threshold, closed the door behind him, and rested his forehead against the wall, the toilet’s ammoniac scent nearly causing him to retch. His groping fingers found the light switch, and even though the white glare blinded him for a moment, he knew exactly where he was.
“Dad?” Claire knocked on the door. Her voice was strong and clear, and he was reassured. “Dad, are you okay?”
When his vision returned, Carver saw the tiled floor as if from a very high altitude. He had come so very far from his boyhood days, the long afternoons playing in his father’s yard with the dust bitter in his mouth, the hours on hours passed in a one-room library reading of heroic aces dogfighting in biplanes over Europe’s muddy, bloody trenches, his entire life leading to this moment where he only now saw how much further he had to go, on a trip he could do only by himself, step by careful step.
“I’m here,” said Carver, weeping. “I’m here, baby.”