Odessa Rising (Romeos)

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sturgis Unmasked. from the novel, ROMEOS.

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Sturgis, this Oklahoman with a broad battleship like back, kept to himself. Barrel chested and endowed with a disarming, constant scowl, Sturgis reeked of anti-social tendencies. At first glance, he seemed a demigod of physical and military prowess sent to show the weakness of mortal soldiers everywhere. All brawn, little brain, no laughs. Robot Soldier perfection. During the day, he’d sit alone either reading a Clancy novel or writing a letter. At night, he’d haunt the barracks, often while consuming Sangria in a ‘I Love Portobello’ coffee mug, and lumbering through the halls bellowing, “Panama Baby!” or “Who wants to arm wrestle?”. Often his solo parade was born late on a Tuesday. We all heard him through our doors, his hands slapping the walls.  No one went outside during his walks.  Sturgis was looking for something during his Sangria lined haunting. A thing not issued by the Army.

It was  September and the mornings were cool and damp. Morning formation was at oh-six-thirty. Forty some odd soldiers milling around talking about whatever there was for them to talk about. Plans for the weekend, memories of last night, who won the game on AFR. Reston and I were standing by the tree as Tarboro smoked a few feet away. Sturgis walked by, the air-filled with Sangria and aftershave.

Hey Sturgis, Reston said, you should come with us to the club Friday.

Clubs are like gyms; only amateurs need ’em. Besides, they don’t sell Sangria.

Dude, every bar sells Sangria down here.

Sturgis squared up and looked at us. I couldn’t tell if he was looking at Reston, Me, or the jungle in the distance.
He groaned and moved away.

The topic was never revisited.

We were sitting under the bohio one day in October when Smith brought Sturgis up.

You know what I heard about Sturgis? He’s been paying to play with some local girl up in his room. You know he’s got the big corner room all to himself right?

He’s got a roommate. Some guy in Alpha Company who is always in the interior somewhere.

Yeah, whatever. He’s alone all the fucking time right? So, I hear he’s been paying some girl to come to his room late at night. Ruiz came back to the room Sunday morning at around four. He had CQ and was coming back to get…well, anyway. I don’t know why he coming back. But he told me he was coming up the stairs and some girl was walking out of Sturgis’ room counting some cash.

Bullshit. Sturgis? No way. Tarboro said.

Why not? I asked. Even a barracks rat needs lovin’!

Was she good-looking? Reston asked.

Shit I don’t know. Ruiz said he was sure it was even a girl. Said she walked like a dude.

Oh shit.

Oh shit is right. That would explain a lot you know? Why he doesn’t go out. Why he drinks wine.

Man, I drink wine. Wine is like 18 percent alcohol versus three and half for beer. Wine gets you buzzed quicker.

Reston, you seriously drink wine? I asked.

I have, on occasion. It’s pretty good and girls think you’re cultured if you drink wine.

Yogurt’s got culture, you’re just a ho! Tarboro said. Everyone laughed.

Seriously! Smith said, we’re talking about Sturgis and his she-hims. Who’s gonna ask him?

What? Ask him? You’re outta your fucking mind. I ain’t asking that big, evil-looking bastard anything. Whadda you say to him? Hey Sturgis, you like boys dressed up like girls?

Transvestite. Tarboro said. They’re called transvestites.

Sorry about that. We don’t have many of those in Mahalia and they don’t exactly throw that on a vocabulary tests.

Shelton walked up and took a seat near Reston.

What’s up?

Tarboro is confessing his fascination with Transvestites. I said.

Dumbass, I was just saying.

Oh, Shelton said. I thought for a minute you said Transylvania. You know like that movie with all the weird vampires and Meatloaf sings that song.

Everyone looked confused.

Anyway. No, Smith hears Sturgis likes some Panamanian Transvestite and the he, she, it shows up late night for a little arm wrestling.

That’s just gross. Shelton said.

Yeah it is, you should tell him next time you see him. Reston said.

Which one is Sturgis? Shelton said.

Big bastard. Muscles on top of muscles with rebar running through them.

Shelton laughed. Yeah, I’ll keep my opinion to myself.

There is no Fall season in Panama. The seasons are Rainy and Dry, that’s it. The child in me kept waiting for the Mango tree in front of our barracks to turn Orange, then Brown. I would look through the screen and wonder if the Panamanian cutting grass had ever seen a rake or smelled wet leaves. What would my life be like, I thought, had I never played backyard football with freezing hands? What would it feel like to not have the memory of raking leaves, jumping in them, and getting yelled at to rake them all back up? My mind rolled over the what ifs and whys found in the quiet. What would be different if Dad had stayed? If I’d studied in school more. Each chance I got, I looked at that tree and waited for it to show Fall to me, to let me see a moment of my home. The sun would set behind the barracks, bringing the shadows to creep across Fort Davis. First the landing field in the front, then the pool and club. The rooftops of the quad buildings would fade then suddenly only the twinkling of the distant Canal’s lights. When able, I would watch the darkening and listen to the questions in my mind as the nocturnal jungle echoed over the quiet fort. A few times I found myself mumbling words under breath as Sturgis topped the stairs, Sangria in hand. I’d smile, he’d ignore me and my night would end.

Halloween approached and the rumors about Sturgis became established, unspoken, facts. From other Romeos, we learned that Sturgis’ behavior could land him a dishonorable discharge and potentially Leavenworth time for bringing ‘unsecure’ personnel into the barracks. We joked about the idea of secure and unsecure personnel in barracks that housed Army-issued beer machines. The rumors must have touched Sturgis’s ears for he was more withdrawn in time. He was seen running and pushing-up around the barracks and that was it. When we gathered under the bohio, or in the office during heavy rains, Sturgis behaved as if no one were there. Sightings of Sturgis and his partner increased, leading us to joke about them less and less.

Sturgis was on guard duty at the Tank Farm as guys talked about it under the Bohio.
Crude jokes and judgement abound, and right here I’d say I didn’t go along but I did. Everyone joked about some. Everyone except Shelton. After a while, he lost it.

We’re here because we enlisted, Shelton yelled. You enlisted for college, I enlisted for patriotism. It shouldn’t matter what Sturgis does, you know? He enlisted. He’s wearing the uniform and that’s all that should matter. You think he wants to hit on you Ruiz, or that he might try and screw you in a foxhole? That’s just dumb. That guy is bigger and tougher and meaner than all of us and when bullets start flying are you gonna check and see who the guy screwed last night before you protect him, or expect him to protect you? No, buncha assholes. Just let him go.

Shelton got up and walked away.

Ole’ Shelton’s a queer too, someone said.

Shelton came rushing back to the table and got up in the soldier’s face.
No, I’m not. I’m a soldier in the United States Army and so is he. More than that he’s a Romeo and you’re acting like a bunch of jack asses who can’t see past your own asses.

Tarboro laughed quietly. Asses can’t see past your asses…

Shut up Neil, Shelton said.  Seriously? You too. You should know better than all this shit man. We’re in this together, all of this. Nobody goes it alone, remember?

Sturgis became more withdrawn but on Halloween night no one gave much thought to him. The NCO club was holding a costume party and everyone was jived about the idea of Sexy Panamanian Vampires or half-dressed Columbian Nurses. They were letting locals on post for the event and our restricted duty was up on October 30.

The night of the costume party came and we four dressed up in the same outfit: Young Soldier Trying to Get Laid. It was the most popular male costume of the evening, all the Romeos wore it. The latrine reeked of various cologne while beer cans sat in pools of their own sweat on the shelves above the sinks. Music was blaring from J.P.’s boombox as guys laughed and joked about their prospects for the night. I was leaving the latrine, decked out in my best faded jeans, button-up shirt and flip-flops when Reston ran up.

Dude, you gotta come. No shit. M.P.s came up the steps and I said, “Hey nice costume.” and they didn’t laugh. So I watched them and they were headed towards Sturgis’s room.

No shit.

No shit. This is gonna get ugly they try to arrest that big bastard.

We knocked on the door and retrieve Tarboro as we headed over. By the time we got there, two M.P.s were standing outside his room and we could see through the open door, two more inside. One, a jet black guy, was reading something to Sturgis. The big man sat still, looking forward. He nodded and looked down at the floor.

Ruiz came up the stairs and yelled, Holy Shit man. They’re some M.P.s out front and I think they got Sturgis’s girl, guy…whatever with them. She’s crying all over the place, screaming about Sturgis hitting her or they broke up. I couldn’t tell too much. But she kept screaming, el es un maricon, maricon.

What’s that mean? Reston said.

She called him a fag, Ruiz said.

I saw Sturgis through the door as he began to pack his duffel bag. It all seemed surreal. The M.P.s there, the faint sound of the spanish transvestite screaming outside. I found myself wondering what to do when I heard Reston ask the question aloud.

I don’t know, Tarboro said. Sure as hell don’t seem right, you know.

Other Romeos gathered, mostly to gawk, as Sturgis finished packing his bags. No one spoke. We heard the distant thump of the NCO club waking up and muffled words coming from the M.P.to Sturgis and back.

Ruiz spoke up. This is fucked up man. This guy was up for dying for his country but they don’t want him because of what he does behind a locked door.

The irony of Ruiz’s defense brought a smile to my face.

Sturgis exited the room with his duffel bag over his shoulder. His eyes never left the floor.

Take care Sturgis, one guy said.

Sturgis groaned and kept moving.

You soldiers disperse now, the M.P said. Go on about your business.

We stood there and watched Sturgis walk away.

Go on about your business Soldiers. This is over.

As a flock of birds, we moved as one away from the scene and crossed the barracks to another stairwell.
Words of protest and disbelief grew as our feet hustled down the back steps. We exited and ran around the barracks to the front.

Sturgis was just leaving the building. Even in the light, it was obvious Sturgis’s girl was a Transvestite. She had big brown eyes framed in red from tears, full red lips and an Adam’s apple as big as a melon.

The big man caught her eye.

Por que Hernando? He said.

You say you no love me. I no love you maricon, if you no love me.

But goddamn, you ruined my entire life, you fucking bitch.

She responded in Spanish, swinging her muscular arms in the air as an M.P. tried to stop her.

The M.P.s pushed Sturgis towards the other HUMVEE to no avail. He moved when he wanted to, if he wanted to.

I said I just needed time. I told you I can’t just take you home with me. Hernando, I do love you.

She stopped yelling. Si?

Si? the big man said.

Holy shit, Reston said standing next to me. What the fuck?

Shut up man.

Honey, I can’t now. I just can’t anymore. It’s illegal in the Army. Another M.P. came over to assist the struggling duo in moving Sturgis.

Oh, I’m sorry then, Hernando said. I do love you maricon. Goodbye. She got back in the Humvee.

Sturgis began to move with the M.P.s requests. His eyes died as Hernando sat in the HUMVEE.
We began to go our ways when I noticed Shelton standing in his shorts with shaving cream still on his face.

He was saluting.

We didn’t go out that night.

Later, in our room, Tarboro was smoking as I tried to write in my journal.

You know man, I don’t know.  Tarboro said.  I couldn’t tell if Sturgis was crying because of his career or because of his broken heart.

Yeah.  I said.

It just don’t seem right, you know?  He said, crushing his cigarette.

I know.