Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Leave (Blogophilia 39.8)

It all started when I met Charlie Balczak at Mess. Who’s he? An E4 grunt I’d bunked with. A short, wiry guy from Ohio, he could drink guys twice his size under the table and then hold his own in the fights that followed. Oh, he was alright for a Marine. Not quite as crazy as most of them, but he did have his moments. And this was one of those moments.

We were assigned to a demolition unit at Ft. Bliss and had just gotten our deployment orders. Yippee. We get to do our jobs for real and get out of this Godforsaken desert. Still a desert, just not this one. This was my first deployment and Charlie’s third. He had warned me that fun was not allowed over there, so we drew overnight passes to get our kicks out before we left. 

A good thing was there were no girl friends or wives to answer to. And for what we were planning, that was a very good thing. Butterbar told us Juarez was off limits again, but we’d been 86’d out of every bar in El Paso and Las Cruces was a dump. We had to go somewhere and there was Puta we wanted to see.

Charlie had an old yellow Bronco he called The Wayfarer he bought after Boot. The truck was a combination dog and family, it traveled with him to every stateside duty station and had waited patiently in a storage yard at LeJeune the last time he deployed. One night at a bar, he had told me there had been no one waiting for him when he deplaned, but when he went over to the truck, it started up right away. And he’d been gone fourteen months. A lot better than the girl he’d left. She’d fucked some flyboy and followed him to Alaska. 

The truck had been across the border a couple of times already.  It was almost entirely rust, but the engine was strong. There were the four bullet holes from a prior adventure, but I didn’t care. It was ugly enough not to attract the attention of Banditos and roomy enough to use for sleeping if need be. Packing it with clothes, condoms and a couple of gallons of water, we hopped in and left Bliss in a cloud of dust, radio blasting.

Traffic across town to the bridge was almost nonexistent. The freeway green sign: Bienvenidos De Mexico!, beckoning fun and danger for all gave me a little thrill.  A lone Federale stood at the check point and after a quick check of licenses, he waved us through. I should have thought something was up when nothing was said about the Base sticker. I didn’t care, though. There was going to be no reality for a while. 

We turned off the main road, past broken houses and trash. A statue of Guadelupe looked lovingly over an open air drug market. We weren’t interested. Beer and munchies came from a little bodega on the outskirts of the city. Paying for it wasn’t a problem. U.S. money was welcomed with a slight mark up and it was still cheaper than in El Paso. You just had to be careful not to show too much. Loading back up, we headed to Doña Maria’s farm. 

It wasn’t much, a four room adobe shack in so-so repair on a plot of chaparral scrub. The roof was faded clay, which contrasted sharply with the rest of the house and the hill behind. A mangy dog sounded our introduction as we turned into the pitted driveway. A boy of about 13 was tending to a small vegetable garden. He turned toward us, smiled and shouted back at the shack. A petite, dark skinned woman appeared at the door, smiling at the arrival of the truck. Returning customers were always welcomed, even if we kind of tore the place up last time.

Eh Bien, Amigoes.” She gave us both big hugs. The smell of sweat overlaid in cheap perfume was exciting. The boy had already taken the hint and was heading down the road toward town. Charlie got the cooler and I got the munchies and like good soldiers waited for orders. 

“Don’t just stand there, come in.” She stepped away from the door and we escaped the sun. 

The main room was dimly lit and over furnished. A large couch sat on the wall opposite the door. A hand hewn piñon coffee table and several chairs competed for space. An American football game flickered silently on the screen hung up in the corner. Lifting the lid of the cooler in Charlie’s hands and opened a Modelo, taking it down in one chug. Motioning toward the sofa, Charlie set the beer down and had a seat. I put the bag of food on the dining table next to the kitchen. 

“So good to see you again. You promise to behave this time?

“Si, Doña Maria.” Our voices sounded in unison. “We promise.”

“Good. If you don’t, I’ll have to use the Nun’s lessons.” A twinkle of fire lit in her eyes as she said it. The old steel ruler glinted in the sun next to the door, begging to be used. She would enjoy every bit of that and, really, so would we. 

Maria became the hostess with the moistest, handing us open beers and kissing our foreheads and rubbing our legs like we were her lost children. Flipping a switch on an old stereo, music began to pour out.

Dear Lover, It’s been a long, long time…

She was not really a whore, but more like the mothers we had left behind, always concerned that we would be killed in action. She listened as we talked about the Sergeant and our chain of command.  We asked about Paco, the boy outside. He’d managed to stay out of the local gangs and was trying to get enough money to go to his Aunt’s in San Antonio. 

Soon the chit chat was over. The soft voice became our mother’s. 

“Señor Charlie, move the table over there.” It was done without delay.

“George, rub my shoulders.” I knew not to hesitate. Grasping at the seam of her collar, I rubbed the cured skin and watched her relax. 

“Hmm… so strong…ayi” 

Charlie in the front and me in the back, we began our dance…

And that’s the last thing I remember until the Federales found me. Sir? Yes, Sir! I was insubordinate going to Juarez. No, Sir! I do not know what happened to Cpl. Balczak or his truck. Sir? Yes, Sir! Those red marks are from where Maria hit me with the ruler. I’m willing to take my punishment. Sir? Yes, Sir! 15 days in the Stockade and six hours extra duty for six months after I get off the plane? Sir? Yes, Sir! I’ll show myself out, Sir!