Ron Argo

AUTHOR of Historical and Thriller novels

Year of the Monkey

"...a painful reminder that for the survivors, if not those who sent them there, the war may end but it is never really finished until everything is accounted for--everything." -- Jerry Bumpus"Dark, disturbing. . . and very readable" -- the late Vance Bourjaily

More praise for Year of the Monkey

"...the FROM HERE TO ETERNITY of the Vietnam generation, a moving, human novel about Vietnamese and Americans alike whose lives were forever changed." -- Robert Houston

"A welcome departure from the norm in Vietnam war fiction... Payne gradually uncovers a trail of murder and betrayal that forces him to confront the terrible ambiguities underlying America's involvement in Vietnam. A superb novel, highly recommended." -- Steve Weingartner, Booklist

"Compelling reading that delivers an important piece of the Vietnam puzzle." -- Kirkus Review

"Argo's hook and the climactic twist delivered are both surprising and credible. Argo's Vietnam is very much the one readers and film-goers have come to know--a pestilent netherworld of inhuman living conditions and impossibly murky moral choices. This unsparing story is an effective confirmation of those portrayals." -- Publishers Weekly

"Argo has an eye for details and a good ear for the rhythms of human speech. His supporting characters are drawn with as much attention and skill as his protagonist." -- West Coast Review of Books

An excerpt from the novel

CHAPTER 1


The window in his cell looked out on a closed-in yard of pines and ivy. The view reminded him of the courtyard in the New Orleans hotel where he and Ann had stayed on their honeymoon, its slender airy trees stretching for sunlight beyond two tiers of balconies, and water softly gurgling, like a love song, in the mossy fountains. The honeymoon courtyard had ornate wrought-iron tables with glass tops where they brunched, chilled in the late-morning shadows. Here, behind a high, entombing brick wall, there was a single redwood picnic table sequestered in a cluster of dark timber. And the falling water was rain, the showers of spring. That he thought of the New Orleans courtyard was odd, for this yard had neither flowers nor open verandas nor lovers.


The smoke falling from his nostrils climbed along the windowpane, blurring the view in a translucent blue softness.


Payne turned from the window and called down the hallway. Keys rattled and a voice replied, "Right there," followed by the click of boots sounding along the polished corridor. It surprised him how quickly Hansen responded. His was a civility out of character for an MP.

 

"Going out in the rain again?" Hansen asked good-naturedly, unlocking the door. His cheerfulness too was inappropriate; it contradicted his job. "Won't help your cold none, you know."

 

The guard walked Payne down the corridor and unlocked the outer door, complaining that he looked sick and ought to go to the infirmary. "You don't need to go out in no rain, man," he said again, as though they were buddies.

 

Payne turned up his collar and held it as if he were stepping into a blizzard. "I know," he said.

 

The rains had come early, cold droplets hurled to earth with fierce, impatient anger, as though Payne were being reminded and assured his ordeal was not yet over.

 

The downpour pelted his lips and eyelids, cooling the flame on his skin. The cold had gone deep in his chest.

 

He walked straight-legged under the soiled sky without the crutches. The hip was getting better, for he was able now to maneuver longer at a normal gait before the wire-pulls bent him in a knot. Prolonged or fast walking heated the metal, often wrenching so sharply he would cry out. The doctors said the discomfort might last a year or more, he'd have to adjust, use a crutch. But Payne couldn't get used to the crutches, and only at his lawyer's insistence did he use them in the courtroom.

 

He knew that being outside with a fever was foolish; yet the rain had a way of soothing and clarifying things, like therapy, reminding him who and where he was and that he was still alive when he too should have been dead. The rain reminded him of Willingham. So he walked in it, hating it and thankful for it.

 

When the pain became unbearable, he went in and took a hot shower and later met with his lawyer, who showed up unannounced. The court had appointed Captain Lowe, and Payne had accepted him after their initial talk; the lawyer had been responsive and seemed sincere. The case was not a career builder, but Lowe worked diligently, putting out an effort beyond Payne's expectations. He was matter-of-fact and did not try to delude his client with false hope.

 

Lowe had a long neck with a high, egglike Adam's apple that bobbed when he concentrated or talked, an adolescent quirk he seemed unaware of; and he constantly blinked his eyes. The eye blinking was an unquieting habit that made him look nervous and unsure of himself in the courtroom.

 

The lawyer had come to clear up some details.

 

"You got an Article 15 you didn't tell me about," he said accusingly. "It cites habitual tardiness to company formations when you were at Polk. What about it?"

 

"I'd forgotten about that," Payne said wearily. "My top sergeant wanted my ass."

 

"Why?"

 

"Because I kept putting in paperwork to delay my orders. He didn't like paperwork."

 

"What was the reason for a delay?"

 

Payne sneered at him. "What the fuck reason do you think? I didn't particularly want to go. Did you?" He knew the lawyer hadn't done a tour.

 

Lowe was used to tolerating outbursts from the accused. His Adam's apple and eyelashes fluttered as he waited for an answer.

 

"All right," Payne relented. "My brother was in the navy, in the Gulf of Tonkin at that particular time. I thought I might have a shot under the clause that eliminates brothers from serving at the same time. But that didn't work since it wasn't a declared war. Then my mother had to have an operation and I tried on those grounds. I was the only one to look after her. But Top thought I was just fucking off."

 

"The Article 15 says habitual tardiness."

 

Payne sneezed into a handkerchief and yelped from the resultant pain in his gut. "I was late for one fucking formation. I had to pull extra duty for a weekend, no big deal. He was a hard-nosed bastard."

 

The lawyer blinked disappointedly. "Look Russell, I'm trying to build a character case. How do you think it would look if they were to bring this thing up now without my knowing about it? Is there anything else on your record I should know about?"

 

Payne moaned from the burning in his sinuses. He grinned ironically. "Yeah, sure. Two Purple Hearts and a shitload of commendations."

 

"I meant negative. I know about those." The lawyer sighed easily. "Now listen to me. I'm going to put you on the stand and a lot of what the court decides will depend on the way you present yourself. If you come off flip, they're going to take a hard line. I can guarantee that."

 

Payne looked sourly at him. He got up and walked around the chair. "I'd say they've already taken a hard line, wouldn't you?" he said through his teeth. "You think it matters how I conduct myself? They're going to burn me and we both know it." He spoke levelly, knowing his anger was misplaced with the lawyer.

 

Lowe scowled. "Don't presume judgment. It's not a clear-cut case and they're human, capable of being influenced by an honest display of remorse...."

 

"Remorse means I'm guilty."

 

The lawyer shook his head hopelessly. "Let's face it, there's a ton of evidence that say you are. We have to concentrate on the reason you did it; that's all we've got to go on."

 

Lowe snapped his briefcase shut. "You look like hell, Russell. I want you to get some rest over the weekend. Monday's it."

 

Payne was escorted back to the detention barracks. The cell had a soft bunk and an overstuffed easy chair with padded armrests that smelled of the sweat of men before him. Overhead was a light he could switch on or off at will.

 

There was a desk with a screw-down lamp similar to the crane-necked lamp he'd had in the hootch. The cell had the same general dimensions as his hootch.

 

He peered through the rain-forked window glass into the growing darkness outside where the city's glow haloed the high wall. It was the sudden burst of buzzing yard lights that started the reel--the burning hut and Willingham under the tree, sprawled there as if sleeping peacefully amid the shouting, the screams, indifferent to the paroxysm of close-quartered combat. The reel had played in his mind so many times now it had become as familiar as looking into a mirror.

 

He sank into the armchair and began concentrating on numbers, counting like an ethered patient, until the reel finally ended.

 

Before he drifted into sleep Pruett called out across the hallway. "Hey, Payne. You busy, man?"

 

Payne lifted himself tiredly out of the chair and went to the door. Pruett was across and up a cell from him, peering through the peephole window with a fist white-knuckling the bar. His eyes were opened wide and angled sideways so that he had the look of insanity. Pruett was supposed to have left for Leavenworth days ago, to do twenty years for killing an ARNV officer. He was nineteen.

 

"I got some angel food in the mail I'll trade you for your desert," Pruett said. "Where you been anyways, man? You there, Payne?"

 

Payne spoke in a deadpan so Pruett would not get excited and start kicking the door. "Strolling. Talking with Lowe."

 

"What'd he have to say?"

 

"Told me to lay off the booze and women and grass."

 

Pruett laughed and kicked the door. "Hey, yeah. Maybe I ought to do the same. But, no shit, what does he think your chances are for dismissal, he talk about that?"

 

Payne had a hand inside his fatigues, unconsciously tracing the ridges of scars. Because the area was still sensitive to the touch and aggravated easily in starched greens, he wore silk underwear. "He doesn't know."

 

"He's fucking with you, man."

 

"He's Okay."

 

"Oh yeah? Then how come he won't bring up the business about that colonel selling them gook bodies? Huh? Fucking racket, man."

 

"It's not relevant."

 

"The fuck you say it ain't relevant." Pruett violently kicked the door and Payne told him to knock it off. He was sorry he'd ever told Pruett about it. Pruett had a hot temper and seemed to enjoy getting worked up.

 

"You got the royal shaft, Payne. You ought to of been ribboned for what you done. I mean nobody in the bush would've got sent up for wasting his buddy. Nobody ever wasted a buddy, and I don't give a good goddamn if he was a grunt or a fucking REMF; it just never happened, man. Just goes to show you how fucked--"

 

"All right, Pruett."

 

Pruett was quiet for a moment, then said, "You want to play some backgammon?"

 

He and Pruett were the only prisoners on the floor. The day he arrived Pruett told him what he'd done, and he in turn had wanted to know Payne's story. Pruett's had been a clear case of premeditation and it bothered Payne that he enjoyed killing the man.

 

"The fucking ARVNs were supposed to guard part of the perimeter," he had said, animated and livid. "That's all they had to do. We was out doing seek and delete, doing their fucking job, and all they had to do was pull guard. Then one evening this motherfucking gook lieutenant pulled his men in because it was raining and he didn't want them to get their fucking uniforms wet. That's when we was attacked--just then, just like Charlie fucking knew there was going to be an opening in the line. We lost eight on accounta what that ARVN done. I had a close buddy that was one of 'em. The gook cried to the old man that he was sorry, but he done it again three days later, the same goddamn thing. They just gave him a hand slap and said it was Okay, could happen to anybody. So I decided to waste him. I got him in the night, just like a fucking slope woulda done. Side of his own command post. He knew it was me, I made sure that he knew. You shoulda seen the surprise on his face when he saw my intent. I stuck him under the ribs, then I stuck him in the carotid. If I'd a done the job right and cut off his head, I'd a got by with it cause he coulda never identified me. But fuck the consequences, man, I'd do it again."

 

Payne envied the transparent simplicity of Pruett's action and the fact that even now, months later, he had no moral compunction about it. But he wondered how Pruett would feel years from now, when the agony of his hatred tempered, or whether he would ever get over it. Payne didn't hold Pruett in contempt for what he had done; Pruett wasn't to blame. It was the Nam, the way it had of sucking you in so deep that you lost track of right and wrong, to where you didn't care what happened. It was the Nam that made you say, "Fuck the consequences, man."

 

"I've got to sleep for a while, Pruett. Maybe tomorrow."

 

"You can have the angel food anyways, man, cause I hate the shit."

 

Payne drew the curtain over the door slot and again reclined in the soft chair with his case folder on his lap. He lit a cigarette and lightly rubbed his thumb along the smooth surface of the Zippo. The smoke burned his nostrils and he breathed through his mouth. He skimmed over the pages of documents. There were the reports of the army investigators, several dossiers, sworn interrogation statements and affidavits and depositions taken from witnesses and other officials, and the charges. The English language could be cruel and the wording of the charges made him out a monster:

 

Specification: On 6 January 1968, at about 2000 hours in an unmapped hamlet used as a North Vietnamese Army encampment in the province of Tay Ninh approximately two kilometers from the Cambodian border, Specialist 4 Russell Henry Payne of Headquarters and Headquarters Company, Saigon Support Command, Long Binh, Vietnam, did commit assault upon Corporal Daryll Willingham by shooting him in or about the head with a pistol of unknown caliber and did thereby intentionally inflict fatal bodily harm to him.... Specification:....that Specialist Payne, by not attempting to defend a senior officer in grave danger of his life, did willfully neglect and therefore contribute to murder in the brutal death of Lt. Colonel Rupert Shellhammer.... Specification:....that Specialist Payne demonstrated blatant negligence amounting to acquiescence in the deaths of four enlisted personnel of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam and furthermore of the systematic murdering of thirteen Asiatic refugees....To the specifications, charges of one count of murder, and two counts of willful neglect resulting in murder.

 

There had been no deal to reduce any of the charges as there might have been if, as Lowe reluctantly admitted, the death of an American colonel had not been involved. Consequently, the charges had not been altered since the preliminary hearing at Long Binh. The lawyer was hopeful he could get the murder charge reduced to willful manslaughter. He was unsure what he could do with the other charges. He would not even speculate on the possibility of dismissal or acquittal without any supporting evidence. As to how much real time Payne might do, the lawyer mutely threw up his hands, as if it were anyone's guess.

 

At the change of guard Hansen stopped by his cell with an amber-colored bottle. "It's codeine," he said, pushing wide the door and assuming a stance that under the naked light made him the metallic, menacing figure he was supposed to be. "I got it for myself but you need it worse. Here, have some."

 

Payne swallowed a slug and lay back down on the bunk.

 

This was Hansen's first assignment out of MP school and getting it had been a stroke of luck, which Hansen resented.

 

He didn't complain about the job, but he was disappointed his request for Nam duty had not yet come through. His interest in the war zone seemed undaunted by his contact with men who had cracked over there and gone off the deep end, committing some kind of violent criminal act, men who did not want to be bothered by a shiny-faced guard asking naive questions. But Payne didn't belittle him and Hansen threw questions at him whenever he had the chance.

 

"Hey, these of you in the Nam?" he asked, stepping to the desk.

 

Payne lifted himself on an elbow.

 

"Mind if I take a look?"

 

Payne shrugged. "Nothing interesting, but go ahead."

 

Hansen picked up a handful of the pictures. Most of them were extra six-by-eights Payne had printed up for his personal use, photos of peasants and villages and a few of the sights in Saigon he'd wanted to remember. Some of his belongings had been sent home and Ann had brought him the photos.

 

"Shit, you must have had some wild times getting to go anywhere you wanted to. Who's this one of, man? Fucking beautiful."

 

Payne leaned over to look. "Girl I knew, a Montagnard."

 

"Shit," Hansen said, stretching the word out. "Your babysan? Looks about twelve. I guess the women are all pretty tight, huh, being so little. Is it true that you can tie their nipples in knots?"

 

The guard had no idea who the girl was or what she meant to Payne, and Payne might have reproached him for it, assumed that condescending attitude you would assume with a new man arriving in-country, just because he was a cherry. But Payne was ingratiated with Hansen's childlike spontaneity; he didn't pretend to know any more about the Nam than the rumors he'd heard, and he didn't mind asking. It was his being himself that Payne liked; it was a quality that reminded him of Willingham.

 

Payne grinned off the side of his face. "It's true. But don't try it with the Chinese. They'll want to tie your pecker in a knot."

 

The guard's big arms shook when he laughed. He stopped flipping pictures and said, "Hey, fuck. Look at you, man. This one of them Russian AK-47s you've got, ain't it? Way I hear it, 47's about the best souvenir you could ask for. How'd you get it?"

 

Payne shrugged and pillowed his head with his arm. His eyelids were already growing heavy from the drug; he hadn't eaten since breakfast.

 

Hansen persisted. "You get it in a firefight? Was that it?"

 

"Naw. Traded some potatoes for it, with another Indian. Friend I used to smoke opium with," Payne said tiredly.

 

"Called himself Tieng-of-the-Two-Faces."

 

"What the fuck kind of name is that?"

 

"Crazy, huh," Payne drawled. He didn't elaborate.

 

"I wish my orders would hurry up and come through," the guard said. "I'm ready to get on over there."
Payne regarded him kindly. "Yeah, I guess you have to go, find out for yourself....Listen, Hansen, I need to get some shut-eye. Thanks for the medicine."

 

Hansen stiffened into an MP again and jangled keys. "Sure. I'll crank the heat up before I take off."

 

"Don't. I sleep better when it's cold."

 

The guard shrugged his broad shoulders and said goodnight. Payne was out before the clicking of his boots faded.
By breakfast the fever had gone, and despite the increased rumbling in his chest he felt better. When notified of Ann's arrival, he took a double swallow of codeine and met her in the visiting room. She was dressed in a summer cotton print of brown and beige, colors that heightened the glow on her skin. Her presence gave warmth and color to the drafty gray room.

 

Her hair was damp with rainwater and she stood by the window brushing it out. Turning as he entered, she went through the motions of smiling and moving forward to hug him, slightly parting her lips, waiting for his kiss.

 

"I've got a cold," he said, kissing her under the ear. His hands slid along the full length of her bare arms. Her skin was warm and inviting to the touch, and she didn't wince at the coldness of his hands.

 

Ann assumed a maternal frown and put the back of her hand to his forehead. "Is it the malaria? Have they given you anything?"

 

"I'm Okay. How was Mother when she left?"

 

Ann sat down in a straight-back chair and crossed her legs. The sleeveless dress looked good on her. With her strong shoulders and slender hips, almost anything she wore flattered here. Payne had never heard her fuss about the way she looked or what she wore; she seemed never to give it a thought. She was especially desirable in cotton print.

 

"It wasn't easy being with her," she said, averting her eyes. "I think she just won't let herself accept what's happened. And you really can't blame her."

 

She lifted her eyes as far up as his chin. "I don't want to hurt you, Russ, or make things worse for you right now. I know it must be terrible what you're going through. But I'm having trouble understanding it too. Whatever happened to you that could have caused you to shoot somebody you say was your friend is...it just doesn't make any sense. It's hard to accept."

 

Payne sat down in front of her and leaned forward, touching her hands. His skin was pallid but still darkly tanned, and her hands in his were the mere ghosts of hands.

 

Losing Ann was not the hardest part; that had seemed inevitable for some time, and Payne had already accepted that she would leave him. It came almost as a relief, for now he would not have the burden of trying to make her see that it wasn't he who was to blame for killing a friend but rather the circumstances. Circumstances that were impossible to make sense of.

 

"Do you remember me writing you a long time ago how I was going to make a lot of money, and then had to write you later that the scheme backfired?"

 

The tenseness on her face eased slightly and Ann grinned reflectively, saying she remembered.

 

"And that I was always telling you how easy I had it, that I couldn't be in less danger anywhere else?"

 

He waited till she nodded. "Remember before I left how solid we were? Nothing was going to come between us. It's hard to imaging back then, isn't it? So much has happened since. Back then we were so...so young. I don't know. I guess what I'm saying, Ann, is that we're not the same two people we were before."

 

"I know," she said distantly, as though to confirm that their differences had become too vast to work out. "You're not the same man I married, I know that. But neither am I. We--" She hesitated. He thought she was about to get on her antiwar platform again.

 

He stood behind her and squeezed her shoulders. He couldn't keep his hands off her. He kept thinking of her in bed with Rand and the thought made him want her more. He stroked her hair and she didn't resist.

 

"But how could it happen, Russ? I have to understand. Don't you see? If you can't make me understand, I don't know what's going to happen with us."

 

"I know it's hard, Annie. I don't understand myself. The only thing I can tell you is I don't believe I did the wrong thing. I want you to know that."

 

Her head dropped and he thought she was crying. "I want to think so, Russ. Believe me, I do. But how can I? How can anyone?"