By Labor Day weekend my move from 326 to 309 was locked-in.  We were told that breaking us up, moving me out of the room, would be best given our tendency to stupidity.  I knew my new roommates but introductions will wait.  When Labor Day weekend hit our restriction was over, Connor was back to working on promotion, Flip was gone and Reston believe again in the sanctity of service.  The kid, Reston, bored me often with his ain’t it great way of seeing the world; his way of seeing the positive.  He bounced into the latrine as I dried off.

“Burke, you ready man?  This is awesome.  They back off our asses just as Labor Day starts! Fuck-n-A-Awesome!” His eyes dancing again.

“Where’s Connor?”

“Back at home.  I mean our room.  I guess it’s not home for you now eh?”

“Could be worse.  At least I don’t have to hear about the gaiety of PT.”

“That’s funny.  I don’t get it.  But man this is great.  Long weekend.  We were talking about hitting the pool party first then maybe the club.  They got a Mexican buffet set up over there.  Well, I guess it’s Mexican.  Might be Panamanian.”

“Might be.”  I walked toward my new room.  He followed.

“You don’t think we’ll get in trouble again do you?  I mean just having fun like July fourth without the coke…”

“And whores and beer and the spirited feeling that precedes such nefarious activities?” I interrupted.

“I ain’t got 5 dollars so you gotta speak English today.”

I laughed.

Connor bellowed from the hallway around the corner.

“Romeos Out!”

Two months had passed since I heard Connor’s battle cry.  Truth is, it made me smile inside and out.

“Romeos Out!”  We called back.  Reston continued with whatever his thought was…

“…so I told Tanner that no way I was doing it again and that I couldn’t afford an Article 15.”

“Wait, what are you saying?  What did you do?”

“I put half a quart of oil in Bravo 17 instead of an entire quart.  All I could find was half a quart and the tool guy said I’d have to pump more if I needed more and I don’t know how to use the pump so I told Tanner I didn’t do it but that I couldn’t get in trouble anymore on account of the Article 15 from July and all and that really.”

“Ok, ok, fuck. Stop talking.  Jeez.  What did he do?  Nothing.”

“That’s exactly what he did!  I’m telling you, he’s a good Man Sargent Tanner I mean.”

“Or Bravo 17 hasn’t moved in three weeks and won’t move for another three and you’re the first person to actually check the oil and give a damn.  Or, he might just like the way your lips move.”

“He’s a good man.  And you’re an asshole.”

“Agreed.”

Connor took the corner.

“Let’s go, let’s go, and let’s go!  We’re burning daylight and somebody, somewhere is drinking up all the beer.”  His crooked grin beamed.

“I’ve got beer in the fridge.” I said.  “We’ll grab them, I’ll get dressed and voila!”

“Colsen going out?  How about Warren?”

“Colsen is otre lada seeing some girl.  Warren doesn’t go out much.  I don’t think he drinks all that much.  I saw him once at Wegotcha drinking up a storm to Prince songs but other than that, not much.  Did you know he draws?  I mean like superheroes and stuff.”

“He traces Batman comics?”  Reston said.

“Not really.  He creates Superheroes, then draws them.  Helluva a drawer or artist or whatever they’re called.” I said. “Dude’s got talent.”

“We’ll hit the pool party first, see what’s up, then go to the club.  It’s a beautiful day Man.  Just beautiful. Not too hot, not too much humidity.  Perfect.”

“It’s Panama.”  Reston said.  “To me it’s always perfect.”

“How do you manage to kiss up to an entire country?” I asked.

“Talent, I guess.”  He said.  Kid made me laugh again.

+++

 

Funeral tents led up to and surrounded the Davis pool.  Families in lawn chairs huddled together as their children ran and played or waited for balloon animals.  It looked like a state fair from any state back home complete with hay bales of unknown origin.  Blue trashcans filled with melting ice held beer and soda.  We grabbed our pieces of eight from the beer barrels and headed toward the smoky, food tents. Someone was grilling hot dogs, burgers and underneath those scents floated a hint of barbecue.  The US and Panamanian flags flitted in the breeze while a DJ Van blasted AFR’s Labor Day special.  Songs about the working man from Johnny Cash to the Boss.

“We’re gonna hear ‘She’s works hard for the money’ about a thousand times today.” I said.

“Donna Summer is some kinda’ hot.” Connor said.  “She could work hard on my money any day.”

“And we’re all going to hell.” Reston said finishing his first beer.

I saw Alma talking with the other linguists.  I rode over from Clayton with her but with the drug bust and all I hadn’t seen her much in social settings since.  Someone told me under the Bohio that she had been sent otre lada right after getting here.

Maybe she didn’t know?  Maybe I won’t tell her?

Maybe I’ll have another beer and work on the romance later.

“Stick with what you know.  And right now, you don’t know much” I heard my Grandfather say.

Roseman was walking around in gym shorts, tube socks and bulky white shoes.  His tank top was an image of a bald eagle with the words “Vote Weird” written in magic marker across it.  He approached us.

“Do you know where I can find a good cabinet maker?” He said.

“What?” Connor replied.  “What the hell are you talking about?”

“Sign, Countersign.  You people know nothing of the gospel.”

He walked away.  Rumors were rampant that he hit too much acid one night downtown and since then conspiracies abound.  He once took a cab to Coco Solo and asked the ER doctor about his mother’s hernia operation.  He told us, “They might know something the American docs don’t about such surgeries.  American doctors are junior college dropouts with heads for greed and golf.  We send the best people overseas to keep the CIA healthy. Panama has more CIA agents per capita than any other country in Central America. It’s all too cozy, you know.  Too fucking cozy.”

The Davis Pool was the center of many activities on base.  In a country where swimming is available year round it’s easy to understand why people from the land of 4 Seasons would find it appealing.  It was a standard joint with concrete, latticed fencing around it, showers, lockers and limited lifeguard hours.  Unlike most days, today they allowed beer inside the pool fence.  We walked in to see some Romeos we knew.  A guy from Wisconsin I went to Basic with was there.  We parted ways at Dix and ran into one another later in Panama.  He was a dental assistant and an asshole.  All he talked about was hockey, Brewer’s baseball and how the blacks and Mexicans were taking over the jobs from decent people.  I never asked what he meant by ‘decent’ but figured none of them would’ve hung around him long.

“Hey Burke, what’s up Brother?” He called out from the pool. “Happy Labor Day!”  He was drunk and obviously alone.

“Hey man.” Reston said.

“Hey Bensky.  How’s it going?”  I didn’t listen to his answer.  We kept walking until the distance was enough to make conversing weird.  Connor introduced me to a friend.

“Burke, this is Shane Wilson.  This is the guy who hooked us up back in July.”  I shook his hand.   This is the guy who sold Connor the coke that we are just now escaping and Connor seeks him out?  I finished my beer.  Reston looked nervous.  I’m sure I did as well.

“Just wanted to apologize for getting you boys in trouble.”  He said.  He was older than us, probably in his mid-20s.  A navy guy now in his final two weeks in country.  “Don’t let this place get to you.  I did.  I’ve been here five years and fuck-n-A I’m gonna miss it.”  Someone called his name from the other side of the fence.

“I gotta go.  Again, sorry about all that.  Better luck next time.”

I didn’t know what to say or think about Shane Wilson.  I never asked Connor where he got it from or how.  He just had it.  We just did it.  And we got caught.  The details didn’t interest me until just then.  What did he mean, it got to him?  How?  Why would he apologize so casually for something that could’ve been so bad?  Was so bad.

Connor spoke up.

“I didn’t know he was going to say that, you know.  I think we need to just put that behind us.  We’ve talked about it.  I mean.  It’s bad enough that’s everyone else thinks of us.  But what we think of us…that’s what should matter, right?”

“Right.” I said.

“Right.” Reston said.

“And I think we need another beer.”  I said.  I turned and for the first time in my life saw the tanned face, the gentle, equine features, the tussled, highlighted hair and the perfect teeth surrounded by the thin irresistible lips of Patricia Elizabeth Barnes.

“Wait.” I said as Reston and Connor kept walking.  Connor looked at me and then in the direction to which I stared.

“Oh, Barnes.  Yeah, she’s hot.”

“Dude.  The sun is hot.  A desert is hot.  That girl is not hot.” I said.

“What is she then?” Reston said.

“She is damn, damn, damn. With a good long wow at the end.”

She was wearing cut off shorts and a black Cure tee shirt.  She was wiping her hair and talking to some guys in the pool when suddenly she dove in the water.  They laughed.  Connor told me it we needed to move.  I walked slowly keeping my eye towards her.  She came up out of the water and then dove back down to swim more.  Reston was behind me.  He pushed me in the water.  I heard people laugh when I came back up.  Five feet in front of me, Barnes smiled.

“Hey.  I’m Burke.  What unit are you in?”  I felt like a dumbass instantly.

She smiled.

“My unit?  Wow so GI Joe.  I’m Barnes.”

“Nice to meet you Barnes.  Sorry about the unit thing.  Just you know.”

“My friends back home call me Odessa.”

“What does that mean?”

“That means maybe we can be friends?”  Her eyes were green and reflected the light from pool’s surface.  They were reddened by the chlorine but still struck me as beautiful.

“I like The Cure” I said.

She laughed and dove underwater.  I could tell by her fractured image underwater she was swimming away.  I swam towards the edge.  Connor pulled me up laughing and talking about we aren’t going back home to change.

I turned around and saw her talking with the other soldiers again.

“Talk to you later” I yelled.

She ignored me.

 

There is surrealism to listening to American pop music while marinating in government sponsored alcohol.  It makes patriotism of drunkenness.  To properly represent the country of Reagan, one must sway to plastic British bands, suck down warmed Buds and gawk from behind mirrored sunglasses at Panamanian thighs and the occasional hometown hotness gone soldier.  It was a gentle mood that came across me along with the sweat and squinting and ungentle realization that I, and Reston and Connor, would never this way come again.  A brief moment in the sun when, if I could just find the word or song or painting or sculpture apropos, it would be the first Art I’ve touched.  The most beautiful girl known, the best Men known, the best scenery and unlimited chemical inducements to accept it all as a birthright of volunteerism. I picture myself bent over a blank page with a giant pencil like I used in Kindergarten, trying to write it all down.  Maybe sipping bourbon, smoking cigars as a palm frond fan turns slow in the air.  I laughed out loud.

“What’s so funny?” Connor said

“Just one of those thoughts, ya know.  Nothing I guess.”

“You thinking about Barnes?”  Connor took a long drag of his cigarette as we topped the hill towards the barracks.

“How can you not be thinking about Barnes?  I mean Jesus H. dude how can you not be thinking about fucking Barnes.  And I mean it both ways it sounds.”

Connor laughed with that easy Carolina laugh.

“Man, she’s hot, I give you that.  But I think she’s married or engaged or something.  Bad story there brother.  Ugly ending, crazy birds, some guy with a chainsaw.  Just a bad ending. Ya’ know/”

“Well aren’t we poetic today.  How much have you been drinking?”  We entered the barracks and began to take the steps two at a pop.

Connor stopped.

“Too much to take the steps.  Go change, I’m gonna smoke.  Might go back and find Reston.  Either way.  We’ll be at the club in an hour.  Meet us there.”

I showered again, hit the cologne bottle and went back out thirty minutes later.

+++

Coming out of the building I looked across the scene down by the pool.  A tsunami of people rolled in, wave upon wave of brown, black and white flesh moving about like ants.  Music bumping from three locations.  The club entrance swallowed and spit out people in short order as the parking lot seemed a disco.  I saw a beer truck and a big rig with “Class Six” written across it.  Somewhere in that gyrating mass of sweat, alcohol and optimism moved Odessa Barnes.  Her vision rising as both dream and nightmare.  Her green eyes shot through my closed eyes begging me to indulge the fantasy of complete honesty, unabashed weakness and the iron-clad dreamscape of optimism.  Her beauty, strength and intelligence deserved the most and least a Man can offer. Himself.  Not the Me or I everyone sees, but what the mirror shows.  What the nightmares mock.  The Man who cries in confession, crawls to the altar call and begs mercy in  barroom brawls. I knew she was the one.  The one for what, didn’t matter. Her pleasure would be worth all pain.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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