After a long, hot walk, John arrived at the hospital. The shadow of its northern entrace was his first bit of shade since the embassy, so he sat on a bench to enjoy it. The shadow wasn't exactly cool but it was a change. John wanted to breathe easy a bit before going into the hospital. John hated the place, and besides, Ralph could wait another five minutes.
A few moments later he spotted a Coke logo by the entrance, so he got up and plugged his money into the machine. While he sipped the cold beverage, he watched a taxi as it grew from a tiny yellow dot in the distance. The dot grew quickly into a full- sized cab as the thing approached at its usual incredible speed.
John was not too surprised when the human cargo that spilled out almost before the cab stopped was Jane Heap - Ralph's beautiful wife and John Calvin's lover. However, he was surprised at her emotional state. Her hair sprang uncombed; her face was marred by tears; her movements were quick and erratic. She cried, "Oh, John, thank God you're here!" and fell into his arms. She clung to him, sobbing in desperate fear, as he struggled through his pockets to find fare for the laconic cabman.
At last, when they were alone, she spoke. "Have you heard about Ralph?"
"Only that he was here," he replied.
She shook a crumpled telegram at him, which he took, and she fell upon him again. The telegram read: REGERT TO INFORM HUSBAND DECEASED RESULT ACCIDENT STOP BODY HERE DOCTOR HOLLAND CHIEF STURGEON.
"Sturgeon," Calvin said aloud. "It says 'Sturgeon.'"
"I don't care what it says," she cried, "It says that Ralph is dead!" and falling into fresh tears, she clapsed him close and shook with sobs.
"I didn't know she really cared for him," he thought. In spite of the situation, John felt himself becoming aroused by her closeness and vulnerability. His soothing caresses took on a more tender and amorous aspect, and though he hated himself as he thought it, he wondered how soon they could live together and whether Jane would insist on a marriage.
Jane's sobbing slowed until she became quiet. The two stood in silence, clinging closely.
The romantic mood snapped when a figure emerged from the hospital building. "Damn!" John muttered, "he's coming this way!"
"Who's coming this way?" Jane murmured into his chest.
"The economic attache - Dick whatsisname."
She glanced at the man approaching, and he bore such an embarrassed, self-conscious air that the two lovers separated. John stood behind Jane to hide a conspicuous bulge.
"Er, ah, sorry to intrude, but the taxi phone is over here - there isn't one back there." Dick flushed red and adjusted his glasses.
"Right," Calvin said.
"Here to see Heap, ah - Ralph, I mean, I suppose."
"Yes, or - identify him, at least."
"Identify? You talk as if he's dead!"
"He is. Look." And Calvin thrust the telegram at Dick.
"Oh, my," Dick said. "This is some sort of sick joke. Oh. This really isn't funny. Ralph's inside; he's upstairs - he's fine."
"Are you sure?" Jane demanded.
"I just came from his room."
"Is he all right?" John asked. "I heard about the beating."
"Beating?" Dick looked nervous. "Dear me, someone's been spreading nasty rumors. He looks, uh, great. Well, look - you go inside and see -" he said, running forward to catch a cab as it discharged a passenger. "I'm going to grab this car while it's here." In a moment he was gone. John and Jane looked at each other in astonishment.
"I've never seen so many soldiers," Ralph was saying, to no one in particular, as his friends entered the hospital room. Ralph's window looked out over the airfield, where soldiers were drilling. The hospital and the airport, both American projects, were far from the city.
John hated the hospital for two reasons: the first was that he hated hospitals as a general principle, and the second was that it was a cloister. John was virtually the only member of the American community in Sarkhan who really liked it there. The others tolerated it, with more or less success, or hated it pure and simple.
None of the Sarkhan nationals ever used the hospital, even in emergencies. Only "whites" were allowed. All the signs, all the printed matter, all the recorded music in the building, was American. Members of the American community used to check in now and then for a rest. "The next best thing to going home," they'd say. Still it was an expensive indulgence. "But it's CLEAN," its devotees would counter.
John hated it for its pretending: pretending to make a little bit of America in a place about as far from American as you could get. At the same time, it woke his nostalgia, and a bit of homesickness, and John hated it, too, for awakening those feelings. Every time he visited the hospital, John got blind drunk the following night.
But here now, in the hospital, dressed in a hospital gown, standing on his own two feet, without a scratch on him, was Ralph Heap!
John felt very angry. Ray really went too far with this little gag. Sending the message to the embassy and the telegram to Jane, cutting the phone wires between the town and the hospital, and adding the touch about Ralph's clothes being filled with powdered milk...
For a moment John felt a very queer feeling, and wondered how much, if any, of the message to the embassy was true.
"Look at those soldiers," Ralph repeated. "They've been marching up and down all day. Oh, hello, John. Hi, dear-" he pecked Jane on the cheek. "Look at those soldiers. They're Russians, aren't they? They've been drilling all day long."
John looked out the window. "They're Americans."
"Hmph." Ralph replied.
"Ralph, how are you?" Jane asked.
"Oh, I'm fine," he said. "I feel a little mixed-up, but otherwise fine."
"You weren't beaten up last night?" Calvin demanded.
"I don't think so."
Jane sobbed, "I heard you were dead!"
Ralph laughed. "Well I'm sure THAT's wrong!" Then he frowned. "But they gave me some funny pill an hour ago, and everything seems a little unreal. So who knows?"
Jane began to cry quietly, and John cursed silently. This is what drove your wife to me, you ninny, he thought, but aloud he said, "Then why are you here? - and don't say you're not sure."
Ralph smiled. "Well I'm not. Apparently somebody picked me up late last night - I was wandering alone in a dangerous neighborhood. They said I was in a daze."
I believe that, Calvin thought. "What were you wearing?"
"One of those pajama-suits. But, John - this'll make you laugh - the suit was quilted, and guess what was sewn into all the hems?"
"That's right! How'd you know?"
"What did the guy look like that picked you up?"
"I'm not sure - he was a local."
"Look like a movie star - small, handsome?"
"Driving a jeep?"
"Did he say anything?"
"Not that I remember - well, just stuff like, 'Hey, it's not safe for you here' and 'What're you doing out so late?' and 'I better take you to the hospital.'"
"What were you doing out?"
"Well, my dog was gone. I called and called, but she wouldn't come."
"Why didn't you drive?"
"There wasn't any gas in the car."
John asked a few more questions and received vague and indefinite replies to each. But suddenly Ralph blurted out, "You know, I saw one of your machines last night, John!"
"What do you mean, 'one of my machines'?"
"One of those Altas Automatic Milk Mixers- I saw it in this little shop, and a weird, tall guy with a painted face was running it."
"Where was it?"
"It's impossible. Those machines are hell to move, and nobody has one but me." Ralph shrugged. "What do you mean, the guy had a painted face - like a woman's?"
"No - like he was white guy trying to look like a native, but it didn't come off."
Ralph lapsed back into talking about the hospital. Whatever drug he'd been given exaggerated his usual vagueness and confusion. At one point he exlaimed, "It's really nice here. Jane, do you think you'd like to live here? I think we could move here." Jane burst into tears again, so John asked, "Don't you want to go home, Ralph?"
"Oh, I guess so. Sure. But I don't have any clothes. They took the powdered milk ones."
"Where did you get them?"
"Them - those clothes."
"These?" Ralph asked, plucking at the hospital gown.
"No! The powdered milk pajama suit!"
"I don't know. Some girl gave it to me. In a shop someplace."
John's hands twitched with frsutration.
"You know," Ralph mused, "there's one thing I don't like about this place - they try to give you ipecac."
"Yes. A nurse was in here just before you came. But I hate that stuff - it always makes me throw up."
"That's what it's supposed to do!"
"Huh. Well that's stupid."
Ralph was quiet for a long time, and seemed to forget he wasn't alone. John whispered to Jane, "The drug they gave him is making him disoriented."
She frowned. "The ipecac?"
"No - the pill he took before we came in."
She looked at him dubiously, so he dropped it. Then Ralph began speaking.
"I thought I was doing harm. They gave me special duties, but I thought I was doing harm. I came here as a friend. I am a friend. And now they want to send me back to the United States. But I won't go. I am a friend. I had a vision of me and the people of Sarkhan and of our friendship. Now, I'd like to move to this hospital, but it would mean I'd lose that vision."
The three were silent for a moment, then Ralph spoke again. "It was the big bang, you know. Bingo knows. After that it all flew apart."
"What the hell is he talking about?" Jane hissed.
John whispered back, "Let's getout of here." To Ralph he said, "Look, Ralph, we're going to go get some clothes, and then we're get you out of this dump. Okay? We'll be back later."
"Okay," Ralph replied in a distant voice.