Janice Egry, a former special education teacher, is married to a jazz pianist and two cats. Her works include an unpublished novel, Burnout, and poems in Little Red Tree 2010 International Poetry Prize Anthology, Renderings, and Slant of Light—Women’s Poetry. Her poem, “Silence of the Song,” won grand prize in the 2008 Dancing Poetry Contest. Her short story, The Thing About Being Alone, won first prize in a FanStory horror contest. Her two critique groups keep her humble.

 

The White Envelope

by Janice Egry

 

Luanne Martin-Browne glanced again at the pink Post-It note: “If you truly want to know. Main Street Diner, twelve o’clock. Third booth.” The note clung to an airmail letter, postmarked May 30, 1968, addressed to her father, and in her mother’s handwriting.

The diner. At noon. In her booth. Who? Why? It will be okay. It’s public, after all.

The cheery doorbell jingled when she entered. A young server stood behind the counter polishing glasses. Luanne slid into the red leather booth, the same lumpy seat she had been sitting in every Saturday for as long as she could remember. It was the same booth where, every Saturday, her mother had ordered two hot dogs with mustard—but hold the sauerkraut—and tall strawberry milkshakes.

Now, on this cool October day in 2009, Luanne would order one hot dog with mustard, no sauerkraut, and a strawberry shake, but she also looked at the menu and read the specials. Today the special was a bowl of chili with a slice of homemade white bread.

The young server stood at her table, tapping his pencil on the small order pad in front of him. He smiled. “And what would you like, miss?”

“Oh, hi. Umm… well… where is Blanche? She usually waits on me.”

“Blanche is ill, quite bad, I guess. They said she went to the hospital. I’m Ravi.” He waited.

“I’m Luanne. I have lunch here every Saturday. They save this booth for me. Sorry, I’m keeping you waiting. I’ll have a hot dog with mustard and a strawberry milkshake, thick please. Oh, wait. No sauerkraut. But, you know what? I think I’ll have a little chili on the hot dog, so no mustard either.”

“Very well. The chili is excellent today.” Ravi bowed as he spoke, and then he hurried into the kitchen.

Ravi returned with a hot dog piled high with steaming chili and a strawberry shake so thick it mounded above the rim of the glass. His broad smile displayed a gold tooth gleaming from the side of his mouth.

“Here you are, Miss—I mean Luanne. Enjoy your lunch.”

Luanne bit hard into the chili dog. The chili flew up, spattering her nose and cheek with hot sauce. She grabbed at the container of napkins and pulled one to wipe her face. As she did so, she glanced out the window. The sun glinted off something shiny across the street. It looked like some kind of metal container in the hands of a homeless person. She had seen him sitting on that step between the newsstand and the deli a few times before, begging for money. She licked her fingers and stared at him. His scruffy red beard hung low over his dirty ragged clothes.His eyes were hidden underneath a wide-brimmed cap so large that it covered his ears. Her interest turned to annoyance, then to anger.

“Ravi, why do wonderful, brave men have to die in battle, and nothing happens to the drugged-out drunkards that beg on the streets?”

Ravi stepped back and stammered. “I… I don’t know. I haven’t thought…”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to spout off. I just get so annoyed when people don’t carry their own weight.”

“Their own weight?”

“Yes. Do what they’re supposed to do—take responsibility for themselves and not cause others to shoulder the burden for everyone.”

The waiter blinked. “I hope my service was okay.”

“Oh, I don’t mean you, Ravi. You’re doing a fine job.”

Ravi glanced up and then directed a man with gray curls to her booth. Luanne considered heading toward the door. She didn’t need trouble. Yet… he had found her mother’s letter. Maybe he knew something about her father. She tensed her lips and sat firmly on the lumpy cushion.

“Well?” She demanded. “What do you want?” Only then did she look toward him. He wore a green windbreaker over a well-worn plaid shirt. His salt-and-pepper beard was trimmed to perfection. He looked at her with the bluest eyes she had ever seen, yet the sadness within them made her shiver.

Luanne knew she had seen those eyes before. But the weathered face was not familiar.

“Luanne,” the stranger said quietly. “You came.”

“Yes, I came. You had my mother’s letter. Who are you? Did you know my father?”

“I knew your father well,” he said. “I was with him in Vietnam. I’m known as Ken MacDonald now, but then my name was Keith Martin.”

*

Every Saturday at the diner her mother would tell her stories about her father—how his dark, curly hair fell over his left eyebrow, how he would brush it back with the long fingers of his left hand, and how his strong arm muscles flexed when he did so. Then she would say, “Before you were born, Luanne, your father and I sat together in this booth every Saturday at lunch—until that last Saturday when he left for Vietnam.”

Luanne would take a bite of hot dog then sip her shake.Her mother would say, “Luanne, kneel up on the bench so you can reach the straw.” And Luanne would kneel so high and suck so fast on the straw the cold would give her a headache.

Her mother told her the same stories and showed her the same photo of her father in dress blues, his black curls cut short, his hat resting between his arm and his uniform’s shiny buttons. Her mother would turn the photo to the back and read, “My Dear Helene, you are the love of my life. I am yours forever, no matter where I may be. Your soldier, Pvt. Keith A. Martin, US Army, November 27, 1967.”Keith Martin was twenty-one on the day he autographed that photo. The very next day he was deployed with his unit to Saigon, leaving Helene four months pregnant.

“Sergeant Keith A. Martin. A for Ahearn, after his grandfather,” her mother would say. “Your father was a brave man, a good soldier. Then that morning just before Christmas in 1968 we received the hand-delivered letter telling us he was missing in action. That’s around the time President Nixon began bringing troops home from Vietnam. Your dad didn’t come home with the other seventy-five-thousand men in 1969, and they never found him later.”

*

“Keith Martin? Keith Martin? That was my father’s name! And what is your middle name, Mr. Keith Martin?”

“Ahearn, after my grandfather.” He chuckled. “It means ‘lord of the horses.’”

It can’t be. Luanne felt a scream deep inside. But the eyes! She fumbled for her wallet and flung it open to the old photo of her father in his uniform. The eyes were there. She couldn’t speak. She just sat staring at him. Finally she managed a husky, “Why, why didn’t…”

“It’s a long, terrible story, Luanne, but I’ll tell you the short of it. Then you may wish to leave, and I’ll understand.”

Luanne didn’t speak.

“In Country, that is, Vietnam, I tried to do the job I was sent to do, but I couldn’t stand being there. We heard about demonstrations at home and about people deserting to Canada. We heard that soldiers who were sent home were heckled and unemployed. Then, on an early reconnaissance mission to Cambodia, our helicopter was shot down. I was the only survivor. Wounded, I hid in a rice field for days watching the enemy search for me. One day a rice farmer found me half-dead and pulled me out of the mud. His family treated my wounds, gave me heroin for the pain, and cared for me until I healed. I was presumed dead, missing in action, so I never went back. I moved among the natives—sheltered by the underground movement—and acquired all the opiates I could find to maintain my habit.”

Luanne leaned forward. “But Mom never heard from you.”

*

It was 1989. Luanne and her mother were sitting at the red leather booth chatting, and Helene handed Luanne the autographed photo of her father.

“Here, Luanne. I want you to have this. Please take it—and these, too.”

Helene held out a stack of letters tied securely with a yellow ribbon. “Your father wrote often the first year he was away. Love letters, mostly, but he would begin every letter by asking about you. ‘How’s my little one,’ he would say. ‘How big is she? Is she as beautiful as you?’ He didn’t write much about where he was or what he was doing. He didn’t want us to worry. Toward the end of 1968, the letters stopped coming.”

“But, Mom, they’re your letters—your personal property.” Luanne pushed them back toward her mother. “You should keep them.”

Helene closed her eyes and cupped her nose and mouth in both hands. Luanne noticed a tear pushing from the corner of her mother’s right eye.

“Mom… Mom?”

Helene pulled a linen handkerchief with blue crocheted edging from her small flowered handbag. She dabbed her eyes and nose. “Darling, I need you to take the letters and the photo. They belong to you now. They’re all I have of your father to give you. Treasure them. Keep him alive in your heart.”

Luanne took the packet from Helene’s shaking hands. She looked at the long, red fingernails, perfectly shaped, and took her mother’s hands in her own. A bubble of dread swelled in her throat. Her tongue refused to ask another question.

After a long silence, Helene whispered, “Luanne, I’m dying. Late stage ovarian cancer. Three specialists have told me there’s no use having chemotherapy or radiation. I have only a few weeks left. And I’m so very tired.”

*

Her mother died two weeks after they had exchanged the letters. Luanne eventually married in 1993. Robert was her dream prince, with a smile that would melt an anvil. His shock of blond hair and deep dimples accented his disarming charm. By 1995, they were divorced. He tired of her silly insistence on lunching at the diner every Saturday. She tired of his late-night escapades with every new bimbo he met. And in his line of work, managing a night club, he met many.

*

“I was too ashamed, and there was no way out. I couldn’t risk contacting anyone in authority or even your mother. I would have been shot by one side or the other.”

“You were a deserter. So how did you get home?”

“I found people who made me fake papers—a new identity. In 1975 when Cambodia seized the US Merchant ship ‘Mayaguez,’ I slipped on board and posed as a crewman. I was one of several men held on Rong Sam Len, a Cambodian island. We were finally allowed to return with our captain to the ship. When the ship was released, all crew were transferred to the ‘USS Wilson’ and eventually sailed back to America.”

“And no one discovered you?”

“Fortunately for me, there was so much confusion and battle activity that I managed to remain undetected.”

“And you still didn’t look for us?”

“I was a drug addict who became Kenneth MacDonald. I had all the right papers, but I could never get hired. So for fifteen years I worked the streets for drugs until a golden-haired angel from the shelter took me for rehabilitation. That was in 1990. I’ve been clean for nineteen years. I think I have it licked, but it’s always creeping over your shoulder, you know.”

“Mom died in ‘89.”

Her father handed her a white envelope. Luanne looked to both sides before picking it up and lifting the flap. With thumb and forefinger, she grasped a single photo and pulled it out. She stared at an image of herself in her mother’s arms. A small bungalow was in the background. Luanne turned the photo over. On the back in Helene’s faded handwriting was, “October 29, 1968, Luanne at six months, in front of our rented house.”

“I knew that. I’ve kept track of you two as best I could, but I never got to live in that house. We moved in the day before I left.”

Ravi approached tentatively. I don’t mean to interrupt.“Would you like anything, sir?”

“Thank you. A cup of coffee would be fine,” Keith said.

His nonchalant demeanor annoyed Luanne. “Mom worked to keep that house—first as a waitress, then as a secretary for a law firm. She was going to school to study law when she got sick.”

Her father lowered his head, fidgeted with his napkin, and rubbed his eyebrows. “I’m so sorry she had to do that. I loved her so. I ate my heart out wishing I could get back to her.”

Luanne’s face heated as she became more agitated. “Apparently you didn’t try hard enough. From hearing Mom’s stories about you, I adored you—imagined you were some kind of prince that would come to save us.”

She flung her hair back over her ear. “But you didn’t.”

“I was too young, Luanne. Really messed up. Vietnam did that to a lot of us. And, as I said before, I was too ashamed to face your mother and to burden her with a drug-addicted shell of myself.”

“Well, we managed just fine without you, after all. Mom managed to save enough to buy the house.”

“I knew she’d kept it.”

“Yes. She always had dreams that someday you’d return and the house would be waiting for you.”

“And you—”

Ravi set the coffee in front of Keith and left to check on a customer in the far corner.

“And I inherited the house when she died. After I put myself through school—no thanks to you—and got married, I planned to sell it. However, when I rid myself of my rotten husband, I decided to move back into the bungalow. And there I remain.” She sat back and folded her arms across her chest.

That’s what I was going to say. I know you are still there.”

“So, now what? You expect me to take you in?”

“Oh, no, Luanne. Of course not. But here’s the thing. I’m sixty-two years old. I want my identity back, and for that I’ll have to turn myself in as a deserter, maybe go to jail, and lose everything I’ve gained.” He shifted in his seat. “I hope you’ll find it in your heart to forgive me. That’s all.”

“Well, you’re not like that beggar who sits across the street doing nothing for anyone.”

Keith placed his left hand on his daughter’s wrist. With his right, he reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a scruffy red beard and a wide-brimmed cap.

Luanne gasped and leaned forward in her seat. “You? It was you—that beggar?”

Keith shook his head. “I wasn’t begging. I’ve been working to earn money for the shelter that took me in ever since I finished rehab. Donations. It’s a little like the Salvation Army does. But I can’t risk being recognized yet, therefore the disguise.”

“I see.” Luanne searched her father’s face. “So you’re drug-free and penniless.”

Keith smiled faintly. “Not totally penniless. The rehab center hired me as custodian, so I’ve saved a little money these past nineteen years. But now I need to make things right—to take back what’s left of my real life.”

“Well, That’s something. Perhaps there’s hope for you, but it doesn’t make up for the fact you deserted us—deserted me.” She could not swallow away the lump in her throat, and tears dripped down the front of her blouse. She finally had a father, but not the father she’d imagined and loved. It had all been an illusion.

Keith sipped his coffee. His face registered years of sadness and he looked so very tired. Luanne wiped her eyes with her napkin. Neither spoke for several minutes.

At last, when she could speak again, Luanne said, “Mom would have supported you. So I will, but it will take me time to adjust to all of this.”

“That’s more than I deserve.” Keith lifted a metallic gold box from the seat beside him. “Whether I succeed or not, this is yours. Take good care of it.”

She raised the lid. A few white envelopes were scattered over a pile of Helene’s letters. Further down was a stack of one hundred dollar bills.

Keith Martin slid to the side of the bench as if to stand and then settled back down again.

Ravi came with the check. “See you next Saturday.” He hurried on to a booth of customers at the back of the diner.

The lunch check fluttered when she dropped a hundred dollar bill on top of it. “Keep the change,” she called to Ravi, as she stood and pulled her jacket around her shoulders.

 

Copyright 2014 by Janice Egry